October 09, 2012 at 9:28 am
FORT PIERCE — In many ways, the city of Fort Pierce is a microcosm of America.
Located on Florida’s central Atlantic Coast, the city is racially diverse, roughly 40 percent black, 35 percent white and 20 percent Hispanic.
There’s income inequality, with wealth east along the Indian River, poverty in the blighted north and pockets of middle-class scattered throughout the south. And like America, Fort Pierce swung Democratic in the 2008 election, with 57 percent of votes cast going to President Barack Obama.
“Fort Pierce is a direct reflection of the national attitude,” longtime city advocate and former mayoral candidate Harold “Buzz” Smyth said.
But while some cities across the country have weathered the recession, Fort Pierce has not. Its unemployment rate sits at a staggering 18.8 percent, the highest in the state. An estimated 28 percent of people are below the poverty line, double the state average. Businesses have fled its beautifully developed downtown, leaving many storefronts vacant.
An argument can be made that no city in Florida will provide a better litmus test for Obama in November, presenting the incumbent Democrat with a challenge — keeping Fort Pierce voters faithful and energized in the face of record unemployment.
Obama supporters in Fort Pierce say there’s complacency among the electorate, which could cause voter turnout to lag. They will try to convince voters that Obama couldn’t fix all of the city’s economic problems in four years, and that other politicians, including city leaders, are responsible for its job scarcity.
“The energy is nowhere near what it was in 2008,” said Val Sirmons, an Obama neighborhood team leader in Fort Pierce. “But I think on Election Day, people will still vote for President Barack Obama.”
Local Republicans are banking that they won’t, helping swing St. Lucie County closer to even in the Democrat-dominated region for GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
To do that, all they need to ask Obama supporters to do is look out their window and see a city in desperate need of change.
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If Smyth wants to buy a professional button-down shirt, he needs to leave Fort Pierce. Not a single quality department store or high-end haberdashery exists in city limits.
To Smyth, this illustrates the economic problems of Fort Pierce, home to about 42,000 people. Few companies want to relocate or open businesses in Fort Pierce, leaving residents without jobs.
”Fort Pierce has been stagnant for so long, and the socioeconomic situation has been declining for 18 to 20 years,” Smyth said. “That 20 years is a long enough time. It’s almost a generation.”
It hasn’t always been this way in Fort Pierce. Located on Florida’s central Atlantic Coast, the St. Lucie County seat long survived on agriculture, centering its economy around citrus. Then northerners started making homes along the scenic Indian River, adding to its economic base.
But in the past 20-plus years, free trade agreements and crop disease ravaged the region. Developers started building in nearby Port St. Lucie, causing wealthier residents to leave Fort Pierce for newer homes. Tensions soon mounted between snowbirds wanting to keep the city a sleepy bedroom community and the area’s poorer residents needing jobs from big industry. Often, the snowbirds won.
“Fort Pierce is like an outdated computer, and we need to upgrade it,” said Cleaver Hayling, 57, campaign manager for Fort Pierce mayoral candidate Vince Gaskin.
Some blame city leaders more than national politicians for Fort Pierce’s lack of business. The city has a port on the pristine Indian River, an international airport close to the Bahamas, a revamped downtown, a $56-million federal courthouse — and yet residents like Mark Thomas can’t find adequate jobs.
Thomas, 50, an Atlanta transplant, moved to Fort Pierce about three months ago after losing his job as a mortgage loan officer in 2010. Unable to find work fitting his background, Thomas has taken part-time jobs as a car wash attendant and landscaper.
“I think everybody here is under the impression that Fort Pierce is a town of low-income jobs,” Thomas said. “These aren’t jobs you can support a family on.”
Obama supporters must persuade voters that the city’s issues and their economic situations aren’t directly tied to the current administration. That work starts in the town’s most poverty-stricken streets.
From a Jackson Hewitt Tax Service office along Avenue D, which runs through the heart of blighted northern Fort Pierce, Obama supporter Marjorie Harrell is working in perhaps the most important part of St. Lucie County for Obama — four precincts serving the poor, mostly black section of northern Fort Pierce.
Voters in this roughly 4.5-square-mile area helped carry Obama in 2008. Only 32 percent of registered voters at those four precincts cast votes in 2004; with Obama on the ticket in 2008, 70 percent voted.
But one month from Election Day, Harrell readily admits there’s an enthusiasm gap compared to 2008, in part due to disenfranchisement.
“They are assuming that because we voted and he won in ’08 that they’re automatically going to put him back in,” said Harrell, talking over the din of a noisy air conditioner. “What we’re having to say is, ‘Not if you don’t vote anymore.’”
When Phyllis Camp, a plucky 75-year-old volunteer at Obama’s Fort Pierce office, speaks with residents concerned about the local economy, she delivers a consistent message: Obama needs more than four years to fix it.
“I think that it’s really important to get people to believe that we’ve gone too far to turn back,” Camp said.
For Greg Eichert, a retired 64-year-old Romney donor, some failures in Fort Pierce and neighboring cities illustrate the failures of economic policies Obama has endorsed.
Big government hasn’t worked in Fort Pierce, where most of the largest employers are government agencies, Eichert said. And bureaucratic economic incentives backfired in one local case — Digital Domain, an animation company with a Port St. Lucie studio, declared bankruptcy this month despite $135 million in incentives from state and local governments.
Eichert said Fort Pierce would benefit more from Romney’s policies — lower taxes, less regulation, less interference in business — than another four years of Obama’s path to prosperity.
“I don’t know if Romney can help, but he can stop hurting,” Eichert said. “That’s as much as I expect from him.”
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Citywide in 2008, Obama received about 20,600 votes to Republican candidate John McCain’s roughly 15,300.
To cut into Obama’s 15-percentage point victory from 2008, Republicans must swing middle-class voters, particularly in the southern and western part of the city, and hope northern voters stay home on Election Day.
”I would love to see the county turn red, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” St. Lucie County GOP chairman Bill Paterson said. “Obama obviously was left with a bad situation, but he’s made it worse by the decisions his administration has made.”
Paterson is counting on a new ally in the area: U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Plantation, who has seen his district reshaped this election cycle to include St. Lucie County. West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and popular black GOP congressman, could resonate with Fort Pierce’s minority population. He’s already spent time in local black churches, speaking to traditionally Democratic voters, Paterson said.
“I think step-by-step, he has reached out to more groups than I’ve ever seen in the history of my political career,” Paterson said. “The people accept him as one of theirs. I think it will help them see it’s not a party just of old white men.”
Smyth, the city advocate, noted that Democrats might have their own version of West in state House candidate Larry Lee Jr., who could boost black voter turnout in Fort Pierce.
“He will get people to come out of the woodwork,” said Smyth, who describes himself as a disenchanted Republican. “If Mr. Obama takes those districts, it will be directly reflected by Mr. Larry Lee’s work and championing.”
Democrats in Fort Pierce will keep their fingers crossed that Obama supporters like Thomas, still seeking full-time employment, will stick with the president. Thomas said Obama hasn’t earned another four years, but believes the incumbent offers a better path to economic prosperity if given a second term.
“As a president who (then) doesn’t have to win re-election, he could push some harder policies,” Thomas said. “It’s going to be tough to swallow, and some of his supporters even might not like what he has to do. But so far, there’s been a whole lot of talk about fixing problems and not a lot of talk about solutions.”
– Jacob Carpenter, Naples Daily News