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Water Woes Become A Political Wildcard

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Throughout the summer, politicians heard from Floridians angered by the latest bouts of toxic blue-green algae in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, along with a festering red-tide outbreak on the Gulf Coast.

Protesters focused on the state’s handling of rising sea levels, a limited acknowledgement of climate change and past actions by Gov. Rick Scott such as reducing funding for water-management districts and easing regulations about water-quality testing.

But while Democrats continue to point to water quality and the environment as a driving force in Tuesday’s elections, other issues, including Hurricane Michael, claims of racist dog whistles, a ticket to the Broadway show “Hamilton” and, above all else, President Donald Trump, have been drawing away attention.

And when policy issues of importance to Floridians come up, the environment has to make space for health care, immigration, gun control and the economy.

That could help Republicans such as Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, and gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis, a former congressman.

“Before Hurricane Michael, I think the ‘Red Tide Rick’ moniker had some legs,” said Kathryn DePalo, who teaches in Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations. “But that seems to have dissipated with Gov. Scott off the campaign trail and focusing on the (hurricane) clean-up. I think it remains a big issue among voters, but Republican candidates, both Scott and DeSantis, have made it part of their platforms (along with the Democrats) and lessened some truly negative impacts against their party.”

Still, Democrats don’t see the Oct. 10 hurricane having much impact outside the Republican-dominated Panhandle and say the summer rage about toxic water is producing results. Some of the areas hit hard by water problems, such as Martin County and Lee County, are usually Republican strongholds.

“I think you’re seeing bad news for Scott in these affected counties, which have a ton of votes that the Republicans depend upon to run up the tables in order to win,” said Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.

Aliki Moncrief, executive director of the Florida Conservation Voters, said “voters are realizing how important their own role is in choosing candidates who will protect our water and conservation lands and promote affordable clean energy.”

Scott’s environmental critics decry as “whitewashing” events such as the governor’s announcement Tuesday of the completion of a second phase of project that is raising Tamiami Trail to ease the southern flow of water from the Everglades.

“Instead of using the media event to celebrate a shared federal-state success on the Tamiami Trail bridging, Scott used it to attack Congress for not spending more money on Everglades projects. Could he get more political?” Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone said in a statement.

But Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg issued a statement thanking Scott and other state and federal officials for the road project, which is part of broader Everglades restoration efforts.

“The sense of urgency FDOT (the Florida Department of Transportation), the contractor and the National Park Service have brought to this and the next phase of the Tamiami Trail project is a model for Everglades restoration,” Eikenberg said. “By following this model of partnership and persistence, this generation will see Everglades restoration completed.”

The Aug. 28 primary election appeared to offer a sign that the water issues could affect the political ambitions of Scott, who is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in Tuesday’s general election. Roque “Rocky” De La Fuente drew 11.4 percent of the vote against Scott in the GOP Senate primary and 25 percent in Martin County, where the water issues have long been a major topic.

Water conditions have drawn attention in other statewide contests this year. But even in the race for agriculture commissioner between Democrat Nikki Fried and Republican Matt Caldwell, more attention has gone to issues such as guns.

And with Scott spending much of October in the Panhandle after Hurricane Michael, a focal point for water-related protests was removed.

Voters along the Caloosahatchee, however, remain concerned about the river.

Sam Bell, who moved from Maryland to Cape Coral three years ago, said after voting Saturday at a Lee County library that politicians’ handling of the environment was a major factor in how he cast his ballot.

“Three years ago, you could see the bottom of the river by our home,” Bell said. Now the water is murky top to bottom, he said.

But not every Lee County resident, where the river runs between Fort Myers and Cape Coral, puts water quality and the environment atop their reasons to vote.

Campaign signs in public rights-of-way affirm the region’s Republican dominance. Of the few signs put up in yards, most are focused on a half-cent sales tax referendum for the school district.

Cape Coral resident Tom Schilling reflected the views of a number of his neighbors in saying he’s more concerned about actions Democrats may take against Trump and recently confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

“I think if they get the House and Senate they’re going to try ruin (Kavanaugh’s) life again and probably going to take a lot of things Trump has done away from him,” Schilling said after voting Saturday. “I think the borders are an issue. I don’t believe in an open border policy. What’s (U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy) Pelosi going to do if she gets the chair again? I think they’ll try to impeach Trump. It’s just going to be a disaster.”

Cape Coral resident Jeanne Richards said her motivating factor in voting early Saturday was some of the proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. The river’s condition wasn’t high on her list.

“Personally, not for me, this sounds horrible, but I don’t live on the water, I know it affects everybody, but I don’t see it every day, so I don’t think about it every day,” Richards said. “I know that sounds callus.”

Penalosa contends environmental issues are making three state Senate contests in Republican areas --- District 14 in northern Brevard and southern Volusia counties, District 23 covering Sarasota County and part of Charlotte County, and District 25 covering Martin and St. Lucie counties and part of Palm Beach County --- more competitive than initially expected.

Part of Penalosa’s calculation figures independents casting ballots for Democrats.

“Those are all areas or regions affected by red tide or toxic algae, all counties that went double digit to Trump,” Penalosa said.

DePalo said the water conditions should have a bigger impact on the U.S. Senate contest, particularly for Scott who for eight years has set the agenda for water quality.

She also expects state legislative contests in areas most affected by red tide and algae to be impacted “if voters feel the incumbent has not done enough or pledged to do enough to fix the problem.”

University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett said people who put water quality and the environment as the top issues likely will vote for Nelson and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. But the numbers may not be enough for any true wave.

“Many who feel strongly are probably more likely to be progressive anyway,” Jewett said.

Also, Jewett said that while DeSantis doesn’t carry a strong environmental record from his days in Congress, he has scored points for rejecting direct financial contributions from sugar companies that operate in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

Jewett, however, expects water quality to be a little more important in the U.S. Senate contest.

“Gov. Scott objectively does not have a very good record on this issue from his time as governor in terms of funding, priorities, water-management district board appointments and enforcement action,” Jewett said. “Still he has tried and succeeded somewhat on insulating himself on this issue with his actions more recently and with his ads shifting blame to the federal government and Bill Nelson.”

Jewett said Nelson isn’t blameless, but he is just one of 100 U.S. senators, which makes him less of a direct target for criticism.