Polk County, the home to so many of the state’s most prominent public figures of the past half century is arguably a county that best represents Florida outside the two extreme corners of the state. Florida, in many ways, is a state of mind. Those who live in southeast Florida or the western Panhandle are less Floridians on a whole than those living in between those two regions. “Florida,” which is defined by a population of those identifying themselves as Floridians and those who culturally fit in our state runs from Alligator Point to Marco Island on one coast and Fernandina Beach to Stuart on the other coast.
The county that best exemplifies “Florida” is Polk County. Agriculture, particularly citrus, has made Polk’s economy vibrant for years, and the counties geographic features are unique to Florida. The population of Polk, which is over half a million, embodies Florida traditions and the trends in the rest of the state better than any other place. The county has a representative mixture of aggies, low-income workers, lawyers, insurance salesman, college professors, middle class commuters (who drive to Tampa or Orlando for work), African-Americans and Hispanics. Polk features a legitimately large city in Lakeland, a medium sized one in Winter Haven and lots of smaller towns, such as Lake Wales and Haines City, that interact economically with their neighbors, rural areas and the closet major metropolitan area (be it Tampa or Orlando). The other county which exemplifies the real “Florida” is Volusia and we will get into the more Democratic bellwether next week.
It is no accident that more strong state level leaders have come from Polk County than any other place, including major population centers. Spessard Holland and Lawton Chiles both served in the US Senate and as Governor. Legislative leaders like Curtis Peterson, Bob Crawford and Rick Dantzler grasped the rest of Florida from their Polk base better than most of their contemporaries. Since the Republican takeover of the Legislature, Lakeland’s Paula Dockery and J.D. Alexander have been legislative leaders of remarkable stature. Dockery, has been arguably the best Senator over the past decade in either party, someone whose votes and public statements reflect a conscience and understanding of the entire state. Alexander, whose family is the most powerful in the state, emerged as responsible custodian of the state budget until his final term when local considerations took front and center. Alexander’s crusade to create a 12th state university out of USF’s Lakeland campus will certainly make his legacy murkier but should not take away completely from his prior service.
Polk’s Congressman Adam Putnam in 2006 became the highest ranking Floridian ever in US House partisan leadership when he became the House Republican Conference Chairman. In 2010 he was elected in a landslide as Commissioner of Agriculture against Democrat Scott Maddox. Putnam has the potential to be a dominant figure in the politics of the state for the next 25 years, much like several former Polk County natives. Charles Canaday, Putnam’s predecessor in Congress, is now the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
Sandwiched between Orlando and Tampa, the county is representative of what Florida has become: a combination of sleepy southern towns, agriculture, vibrant suburban communities and a growing Hispanic population. Democrats have largely ceded the county since the 1990s despite a number of young exciting Democrats at the time which included Lori Edwards, Tom Mims, Dean Saunders and Joe Tedder. If the Democrats are truly serious about becoming a competitive statewide party in Florida, they need to re-engage Polk County quickly. The county is not as conservative as many southeast Florida Democrats perceive it to be nor do the issues and ideas that work in Big Bend region where Democrats can still run strong work here either. Talking about local issues and why a strong economic platform which involves government can work in this county. Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s proved that without sacrificing and compromising their beliefs, and while still clearly delineating differences with the Republicans.
If the Democrats can understand the Polk County voter, they can begin to really understand the state of Florida. It is no coincidence that as Polk County has become more Republican, the Democrats have lost 15 of the past 16 statewide elections where Bill Nelson were not the Democratic nominee. While Polk alone will not reverse that trend, understanding what it takes to be competitive (not necessarily always winning) in Polk can change the fortunes for the party throughout the state.