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Florida specializes in larger-than-life, paradigmatic spectacles centered on tiny figures: the Child (Elian) and the Chad. Human and humanoid.

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Former U.S. Attorney General and Florida gubernatorial hopeful Janet Reno chats with tv host Jay Leno. March 26, 2002, Burbank, Calif. Ric Francis

Florida Creeps Back

by DuWayne Charles

APRIL 5, 2002. A mysterious 100-mile long black oceanic excrescence appears off Florida's Gulf Coast. The mayor of Inglis, on Florida's west coast, bans Lucifer from the city limits. The Jacobs family of south Florida — Mom, Dad and precocious Son — announce that they will be the first humans to get ID chip implants. Crocodiles, not long ago thought on the verge of extinction, are now so numerous that they're sunning themselves on beaches. Could all these portents signal that Florida, that most peculiar of states, may be about to reenter the national psyche with a bang, or at least a pop?

The state that gave us, and the ever rapacious networks, the 12-month Elian saga (1998-1999) and the two-month Grand Guignol that ended in the rape of the Constitution (2000-2001), has been lately upstaged by Lower Manhattan and, fleetingly, Afghanistan (remember all those blue burkaed ladies?). The latter now replaced by the horrific, yet lame (George Clooney's not in it) "Sharon Kicks Arafat's Butt," a sure flop that paves the way for something in the Florida genre.

Obscurity is not something the Sunshine State now suffers gladly. Anyone who has tasted the intoxicating honey of 24/7 world notoriety will tell you how Luciferianly addictive it is. Serendipity accelerates all around you. Life, which always imitates not art, but artifice, does so even more. Both becomes indistinguishable from the news cycle.

Florida specializes in larger-than-life, paradigmatic spectacles centered on tiny figures: the Child (Elian) and the Chad. Human and humanoid. We're far here from the death of the city sci-fi saga played out in Manhattan. Maybe because there are no great cities in Florida.

Right now there's no sure-fire subject matter on the Florida horizon for a human-interest extravaganza that could sweep the country off its war-weary feet. But, then, who could have predicted Elian and the pesky chad, clinging, respectively, to raft and Palm Beach ballot?

There are, however, two promising scripts now in development. One centers on the expected November gubernatorial duel between former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and incumbent Governor Jeb Bush. The other features TV talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell's gay adoption crusade.

The Baggage Kids
Fresh from a high-profile appearance on the Jay Leno show and a two-week populist journey through the state in her red pick-up truck, Reno has gained 11 percentage points, but still lags behind Bush, 37 to 54. It is, of course, too early to go by the polls, as Bush himself acknowledged.

While Reno was successfully working the grassroots from Pensacola to Miami, a wealthy Tampa lawyer named Bill McBride has surged as her main Democratic primary opponent. McBride, little known to the public but with deep ties to the state Democratic machine, has been endorsed by the state AFL-CIO and is supported by local party leaders who fear that Reno carries too much Elian baggage to topple Jeb.

The latter is no stranger to baggage. His is called chad. What happens when two opposing candidates are thus saddled? Baggage goes subliminal, sneaky. It never gets mentioned overtly by the opposition, but it's constantly alluded to, covertly rubbed and massaged into the voters' brains. That's very likely how it'll play out here.

Some of the covert massaging will no doubt be done by Jeb's brother, the Commander-in-Chief, who has visited the state eight times since he was appointed by Rehnquist and cohorts, and who has been paying a lot of attention lately to saving the Everglades, a hot button political issue among Florida's environmentally-savvy swing voters.

His administration has even promised to exempt a corner of the Everglades from swamp buggy onslaught and to try to stop oil exploration there, while opening Yellowstone National Park to snowmobiles and pursuing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere on national park lands.

Wild Card Rosie
Talk show host Rosie O'Donnell came out swinging recently against a Florida law that prohibits gay people from adopting. Her prime time, double coming out (she also acknowledged, at last, that she was a lesbian) generated more than 80,000 e-mail messages to Governor Bush, asking him to abolish the law.

So far, Bush has refused to say where he stands on the issue. However, his spokeswoman Katie Bauer said, "We are complying with the law," an answer which the A.C.L.U. considers a tacit endorsement of discrimination. Reno, who has been avidly pursuing gay voters, wants the ban repealed and adoptions to be decided by judges case-by-case, with the best interest of the child in mind. Her primary opponent, McBride, has evaded the question.

O'Donnell, who has a Miami Beach home and is raising with her partner three children adopted elsewhere, published a full-page open letter to the Florida Legislature on February 28 in the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel and other state newspapers, asking them to let gay people adopt children.

According to the Herald, O'Donnell's appeal fell on deaf ears. Republicans and Democrats alike in the conservative state Legislature, it said, "agreed that lawmakers are unlike to take up the issue any time in the near future." However, the newspaper also quoted an angry Central Florida Republican senator complaining about calls flooding the Capitol and "blasting" everyone's office. Slightly more than half of the callers supported O'Donnell.

The A.C.L.U. and Equality Florida, a gay group, are pulling all stops on their campaign to abolish the gay adoption ban. A big lobbying push is planned for 2003, with O'Donnell's help. The issue is not only not going away, but it could even prove a major irritant for Bush in November.

So, it'll be Janet and Jeb and Rosie and the phantoms of child and chad. Maybe not in the same league as the last two Florida political blockbusters, but it's only April and it's, after all, that most peculiar state.

DuWayne Charles has also written under the byline Chuck 45.

Related links:

For The Washington Post's "Mysterious 'Blob' Off Florida Coast Baffles Scientists."

For working to end the Florida ban on gay adoptions.

For Janet Reno for Governor.

For Jeb Bush for Governor.

For Save Dade fighting to defend the county's gay rights ordinance in a September referendum.

For Complete Coverage of U.S. Politics

For Complete Coverage Election 2000

For Complete Coverage Elian

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

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