Campaign In The Ass: “Get Out the Vote”

With apologies to supervisors of elections and civics teachers everywhere, it is blasphemously suggested here that not everybody vote. I know; I know. That’s un-American, probably subversive and certainly elitist. And Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio is already launching a heat-seeking epistle my way.

But hear out this heresy.

America’s love affair with democracy has always had its incongruous side. Our Declaration of Independence accommodated both the essence of equality and the nature of slavery. The franchise to vote had quirky exceptions regarding land ownership, race and gender. And elections, as it turns out, aren’t necessarily won by the candidate with the most votes.

Relatively speaking, this is not nearly so iconoclastic.

In the idealistic interest of a more meaningful, participatory democracy, let’s encourage — because we can’t actually mandate — the truly clueless to either find out what’s going on or just pass on the polls come election day. Let’s stop wringing our societal hands about all those who don’t bother to vote. Not voting is as American as not taking the stand in your own criminal defense. Let’s just recognize it for what it is; such non-voters have, in effect, disenfranchised themselves out of ignorance, born of laziness and apathy.

The only viable choices should be these: a reasonably informed vote or no vote. Wooing, cajoling, pleading, humiliating, browbeating and bribing need no longer be part of our pre-election ritual.

Simply showing up because some “Get Out The Vote” campaign exhorted and shamed you is not a good enough reason to vote. How about because you care? Because it’s important. Because a viable democracy requires an informed citizenry. And because there are those still risking their lives to defend rights that include this one.

And simply showing up because of some political party’s “knock-and-drag” vote trolling shouldn’t even pass muster with a Jimmy Carter election monitor. Such scenarios, of course, always come with party line marching orders — lock step democracy at its finest.

Why do you think there were some 10,000 “overvotes” in Duval County in 2000? Because the Democratic Party’s “Get Out The Vote” campaign targeted a lot of first-time minority voters and sent them to the polls with nothing more than directions and directives to vote Democratic and punch every page. The presidential ballot, alas, had two pages. Those literally following orders literally “overvoted.” If you believe this ballot parody was better than not voting, then you might also believe that courageous civil rights activists sacrificed and died for the right of future generations to overvote.

Put it this way: If it takes a shame campaign, a personal entreaty by Barbra Streisand or Charlton Heston or a special interest’s dragnet to get you to the polls, try sitting it out. Exercise, if nothing else, some restraint and consider it a duty not to make a sham out of the sacrosanct right to vote. Not casting that manipulated or ill-informed vote is arguably a patriotic act.

One man, one vote sounds unassailably good, especially to the Supreme Court that decreed it in the 1960s. One man, one informed vote, however, still sounds infinitely better.

Tampa Hits New Heights

This city has realized a major redevelopment milestone with the announcements that Tampa Heights will be home to Bank of America-developed condos and town homes and a Stetson University College of Law campus.

But here’s a scenario no one could have foreseen not long ago: competition. Three developers have submitted bids for the same city-owned property not far from the BOA and Stetson parcels. Plans range from office space to office-and-retail to more condos.

Obviously the Stetson deal has been catalytic. Florida’s oldest law school bought the old police station property from the city and paid for site preparation. Anyone regret not being able to give that land away to FAMU last year?

Panhandle With Care

In an action well noted by Tampa officials and residents of Ybor City, Lakeland has passed an ordinance making it legal to tell pushy panhandlers to take a hike or face arrest. Seemingly, downtown merchants are as pleased as the resident homeless who are also unnerved by some newly arrived, aggressive panhandlers.

Such ordinances, however ultimately necessary, are always dicey legal gambits — protected speech under the First Amendment-type stuff. Moreover, they sometimes can have unintended, ironic results.

In a Tampa Tribune story last week, a homeless Lakeland man underscored the dilemma. “If they stop us from panhandling,” noted Johnnie May, “people are just going to refrain back to stealing.”

Should Lakeland officials hear more such refrains, they may also want to have extortion statutes at the ready.

Religiously Targeting “Infidels” in a Moscow Theatre

As horrible and harrowing as the hostage-taking in that Moscow theater was, the most chilling aspects had nothing to do with deadly gas. They were the Chechen threats made in pre-assault videotapes. They were delivered — predictably and disturbingly enough — to the Moscow bureau of al-Jazeera, the Muslim-friendly, Qatar-based news channel that often serves as an al-Qaida conduit.

First, some background. Since it was conquered by czarist armies in 1859, Chechnya has smoldered under Russian rule. Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported many to their deaths during World War II. After a war in the mid 1990s, the breakaway republic in southern Russia gained de facto independence. Three years ago Russian troops re-entered in response, Russian leaders said, to rebel raids and bombings.

It’s your basic, intractable, sovereignty-and-freedom dilemma that has festered across the generations and cost countless lives. It is further fueled by religious affiliation. The population, approximately 1.2 million, is mostly Muslim.

For those who still harbor hopes that this increasingly polarized, terrorist-traipsing world is not a battle of civilizations and that it’s “not about Islam,” the Chechen videotape is required reviewing.

On one tape, a rebel acknowledged that the 50 or so Chechen hostage-takers, approximately half of whom were women, were on a “martyrdom operation.” To underscore their leverage, as well as a perverse sense of presumption, he said, “I swear by God we are more keen on dying than you are keen on living.”

On the other tape, five veiled women stood before a banner that proclaimed “God is Great” in Arabic. For the sake of argument, agreed. In fact, keen. But their point being? Could it be that nobody knows intractable sovereignty issues like Allah — especially after a century and a half to deliberate?

“We have chosen this path, the path of struggling for the freedom of the Chechen,” said one of the women. She then alarmingly added: “It makes no difference for us where we will die. We have chosen to die here, in Moscow, and we will take the lives of hundreds of the infidels with us.”

You knew it was coming.

This bloody conflict — borne of subjugation and thwarted self-determination since the middle of the 19th century — has been reduced to its 21st century, sectarian essence. This is no run-of-the-mill battle of dictatorial oppressors against the generically oppressed. It’s infidels vs. true believers.

Once you’ve assigned the “infidel” label, an assignation too easily accommodated by Islam, it’s no quantum leap to dehumanize the other side. Hitler, of course, was a foremost exponent, but pathologic power was his only religion.

Islam, we are told, is a religion of peace.

Islam, we are not told, is too easily perverted and too susceptible to dividing the world into “believers” and “infidels.”

Once someone — say, a theatergoer, an actress, an airplane passenger, a bus rider, a restaurant patron, an office worker, a wedding-reception guest, a child — has been designated an “infidel,” that person is unfair game for the religious fanatic. Especially a zealot who has seethed too long in a culture more intent on avenging the Crusades than competing with the West.

The historic, geographic and geopolitical trappings may be different — as different as New York, Jerusalem, Bali and Moscow — but make no mistake. This is about Islam.

You better believe it.

Especially if you’re an “infidel.”

Welcome home, Lou

There’s good reason for all the euphoria that surrounded the Devil Rays’ hiring of Lou Piniella. He’s arguably the best manager in baseball, not just the best candidate available.

Piniella’s track record of success prominently — and pertinently — features Seattle. Before his 10-year tenure there, the Mariners had been a hauntingly familiar, sad-sack, dome-homed loser. So bad, so poorly supported that the franchise seriously considered relocating — to St. Petersburg.

Piniella knows talent — and how to motivate it. He also can teach, a skill invaluable for the youth-dominated Rays.

He also brings uncommon passion to a franchise too accepting of laid-back losing.

Then there’s Lou the marketing coup and all the promotional promise inherent in the return of the native hero. The Malio’s crowd alone could be a major attendance spike. If there’s a St. Pete Times Forum in downtown Tampa, why not a Tampa Rays’ identity in downtown St. Pete?

But most of all, Piniella means credibility. The bedeviled Rays have become synonymous with losing and a go-to line for David Letterman. Piniella’s a winner. Big time.

In addition to the roots-and-family factor, something else clinched the deal for Piniella besides wads of money. He apparently likes what’s in the Rays’ talent pipeline. And he obviously got the right answers from Vince Naimoli and Chuck LaMar to no-nonsense questions about how this show will be run.

There is also this. Piniella, who is financially flush and hardly without prospects outside baseball, is a proud man. He doesn’t need to tack on a lot of losing at the end of one of the most successful managerial careers in major league annals.

But he also loves a challenge. Turning around the hometown Rays would be the ultimate, crowning achievement. He doubtless thinks it’s doable. He’s not the sort to pull a Casey Stengel and become a Met-like “Come See Lou Explode” promotional mascot for a bad baseball team.

Still, there’s no dearth of expert skeptics, not all of whom are in New York, who say he’s embarking on an ill-advised, legacy-skewing venture. Piniella, however, has never been known to make career decisions based on such consensus.

In fact, he’s already disproved Thomas Wolfe by going home again.

The Unkindest Critique Of Them All

Bill McBride is probably not going to be the next governor. What he definitely is not is ready for prime time.

Fair political game is what you don’t know or what you’ve done or not done or would or wouldn’t do. Modern campaigns, however, increasingly put a premium on media skills. How you look and how you say whatever it is you say is very important. It’s not fair, but it’s politics, which, if it were fair, wouldn’t be politics.

McBride’s affable personality and one-on-one people skills are a matter of record — as well as manifestly evident. They don’t, however, translate effectively onto the political stage. What you see of an intelligent, successful businessman who’s concerned about his state is less than the sum of the parts.

The debate forum, even for such a savvy attorney as McBride, just hasn’t been kind to him. And that’s unfortunate, because debates always hold out more potential for the challenger, especially one relatively unknown. Debates mean marquee sharing and instant, elevated status vis a vis the incumbent, who is now reduced to co-candidate.

Jeb Bush, however, is telegenic, smooth, rhetorically fast on his feet and wonkish in his command of statistics. Bill McBride isn’t.

Those saucery eyes and frisky digits. That Leesburg drawl and goofy grin. In contrast to the late Lawton Chiles, McBride comes across almost rube-like — not wizened and folksy.

Jeb Bush can look like an arrogant know-it-all — and he is — but it’s not at the expense of looking gubernatorial, a quality that helps when running for governor. McBride can look like a bumpkin in the big city — and he isn’t — but it’s at the expense of looking gubernatorial.

The Bush-McBride results could conceivably be the domino that begins the downfall of a president. As a result, it has been the most scrutinized race in the country — from C-SPAN to the networks to the weekly news magazines to the high priests at the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The unflattering critiques now abound. No criticism of McBride, however, skewered him more than that of Robert L. Pollock, the veteran Wall Street Journal editorial page writer. Pollock, who was in town recently, compared McBride to Adm. James Stockdale, Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate. Stockdale, an aging, American hero and former prisoner of war, looked ill at ease and befuddled in the vice presidential debate with Al Gore and Dan Quayle. Stockdale — of “Who am I? Why am I here?” fame — became the object of ridicule — mitigated only by pity.

McBride, a war hero himself, is no Jim Stockdale. But that one had to hurt.

Activated Reservist Faces Stateside Challenges

“This is Petty Officer Duncan. Can I help you, sir or ma’am?”

Some folks calling the Harbour Island Athletic Club late this summer had to be taken aback when the front-desk phone was answered in this fashion. Had they been patched through to CentCom?

Hardly. Their call actually had been taken by Roosevelt Duncan, HIAC’s affable front-desk man. Duncan, it turns out, had recently returned from three months of military service in Afghanistan. His by-the-numbers phone etiquette reflected the less-than-seamless transition he was making from battlefield corpsman to civilian employee.

Duncan, a 32-year-old Naval reservist, was making the quantum-leap adjustment from triage scenarios in eastern Afghanistan to the pedestrian, Harbour Island world of membership cards, lockers, keys, towels and guest registries.

War-zone work takes a toll, underscores Duncan.

“It was only three months, but it was scary,” recalls the 6-foot, 3-inch, 245-pounder who is cross-trained as a Seabee and a medic. “There were live bullets whizzing by. Something you really can’t simulate in training.”

A crucial part of his job, he explains, was to stay focused and calm while ministering to wounded marines and special-ops troops. “You have to tell ’em ‘You’re fine.’ You let them know they’re all right. Even if they aren’t. It’s like with the ER docs. They never say, ‘You’re not going to make it.’

“There are those you can’t save, but you still have to reassure them,” says Duncan. “You try to at least ease their mind. That’s what really stays with you. The guys you had to let go — although we always come back for our own. A friend from high school died in my arms. Sometimes I still wake up in a sweat.”

And there are the other times — such as the sight and sound of a helicopter — that would startle him. “I’ll duck from a backfiring car,” says Duncan. “I’ll grab my wife and pull her down.”

It’s why he took an extra week off before returning to his HIAC job.

“Roosevelt is a genuine guy,” says Tim Forrest, HIAC’s sales director, “and easy to work with. He cares about doing a good job. He’s very polite, very disciplined.”

Duncan, however, was very concerned that the good-humored, gregarious guy who didn’t abide “negativity in the world” had returned in an edgy state.

“I like things to run smoothly,” he points out. “Now coming back from (overseas) orders, some checks didn’t get into my account. They bounced. I took it personally. I’m like ‘Don’t threaten me.’

“I wasn’t myself at first,” he acknowledges. “I needed a little extra time to get it together for civilian life. You take a life or save a life and then come back to the civilized world. Some things are a little harder to readjust to — like when you hear people moan and complain about stuff. Really petty stuff. And you want to say, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are. You have no idea what some people are going through.’ I had to bite my tongue a lot at first.”

To avoid severing it, he would retreat to a reclusive spot by the bay or gulf to meditate. “You want your sacrifice to have meaning,” he says. “I just remind myself of that.”

As a reservist, Petty Officer 3rd Class Duncan has six years remaining on his eight-year commitment. He’s obligated to a weekend a month and two weeks a year. He’s also subject to 48-to-72-hour notice for active duty. He may not have seen the last of the Middle East cauldron.

Which means he may have to go through the hardest part — leaving his family — again. His wife, Ouida, is pregnant with their first child — due in late December. He also has two daughters, 7 and 10.

“If I were single, this wouldn’t be as tough,” says Duncan. “The hardest thing is reassuring others. ‘Daddy has to leave, but Daddy will be back.’ You say that, but you also think, ‘Is my family going to be taken care of? Is this my last day?”

He doesn’t dwell there, he says. Instead, he goes to the enlightened self-interest of the bigger picture.

“I have no regrets about enlisting,” he stresses. “I’m now in this to make it better for the kids. Mine and everybody else’s.”

One more thing.

Thank you, Roosevelt.

Trolley Tracks and Tacks

The much ballyhooed, well-received trolley debut is now history, but still ahead are ambitious scenarios for future phases tying in downtown and Hyde Park. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised when plans for the Franklin Street extension are accelerated if Tampa lands the GOP convention.

And this sobering note. Obviously the TECOline Streetcar System is a uniquely attractive, nostalgia-steeped, economic development tool and tourist-visitor attraction. But isn’t it also a starter-set for light rail? And doesn’t it remain quite the parochial commentary on this area that such a mass transit reality still can’t be uttered publicly for fear of political repercussions?

One Man, One (Informed) Vote

With apologies to supervisors of elections and civics teachers everywhere, it is blasphemously suggested here that not everybody vote. Not next week. Not, quite conceivably, ever.

But hear out this heresy.

America’s love affair with democracy has always had its incongruous side. Our Declaration of Independence accommodated both the essence of equality and the nature of slavery. The franchise to vote had quirky exceptions regarding land ownership, race and gender. Sometimes an election isn’t won by the candidate with the most votes.

Here, then, is but one more aberration