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The Politics of Hurricanes

Like today, writing this blog while Hurricane Michael passes just to our west, when you live in Florida, hurricanes are just part of life.  

For me, growing up in a family in the marina business in St. Augustine, dealing with these things became part of my DNA.  I remember as a kid, we’d track these storms on hurricane charts, with the full knowledge that the family business was in the hands of Mother Nature – as it remains today. In 2016, in the middle of the presidential campaign, I was back in St. Augustine, working the docks at the family marina during Hurricane Matthew with my stepfather.

That is a small example of how politics intersects with hurricanes.   From late summer through October, tropical weather is hardly ever not threatening Florida, and every two years, that reality for Florida families runs head first into the electoral calendar.    Traditionally here, candidates err on the side of caution, choosing to stand down while Floridians deal with these storms.  Occasionally, candidates try to thread the needle and get away with a little politics in the eye of the storm, and the way candidates manage these moments often becomes the center of debates. That’s what’s happened this week in the Governor’s race, with Ron DeSantis’s decision to run negative ads against Andrew Gillum – on the issue of storm recovery – in the markets being hit by the storm.

My first experience of managing the politics of a natural disaster happened in 1998, a year that northeast Florida was impacted by some of the most serious wildfires in state history, and the legislative district I worked in was largely ground zero.   Today, if you drive down I-95 through Flagler County, it is still noticeable how the trees through the City of Palm Coast are different than the trees further north, and the trees further south.   Summer wildfires that year burned hundreds of homes, tens of thousands of acres, and cost lives.  It was all hands-on deck for anyone elected, or working for an elected – but my situation was different for two reasons:   my boss represented the most Republican seat held by a Democrat in the Legislature – and we were target #1 of the GOP – and my boss was a member of the Florida National Guard – and got called to active duty for several weeks – in the midst of our re-election.

Being a bull-headed and opportunistic 24-year-old hack, and with a boss literally wearing the uniform of his nation to help manage the fires, my instincts said “this is an opportunity and we must take advantage of it” – but it was my boss, Doug Wiles, older and much wiser, who reminded me that if we just kept our heads down and did our jobs, voters would remember.  He was right.  In a district Jeb Bush won by like 15 points, we won re-election by a point – less than 1,000 votes – thanks entirely to the large margin we won in Palm Coast.

In 2008, I faced it at a different level.   Tropical Storm Fay was off the coast of Florida and looking like it could become a hurricane.  We were smack in the middle of ramping up our field operations and we had only been on TV a few weeks – and were still trailing McCain.  Suddenly we were faced with decisions:  Do we stay on TV?  What do we do with our field staff?  After thinking about it a bit, the decision became clear:  shutting it down for 36 hours wasn’t going to cost us the race, plus at a time when people were worried about their families and property, the last thing they wanted to do is see our ads or hear from our volunteers.  The same day, John McCain cancelled a major fundraiser in Miami.  Both sides decided we could punt our fight a few days down the road, and let people get through the storm.

I get these decisions aren’t always black and white.  Incumbents have legitimate jobs to do -- for example, both Rick Scott and Andrew Gillum have spent a lot of time on TV this week, and sure, while they benefit from the exposure, it is also their job.

Challengers want to be seen ready to lead, or if nothing else, willing to be helpful.    Take the question John Kerry faced in 2004 after Hurricane Charley rocked pretty much everything from Port Charlotte across the state to Daytona Beach – do you travel to the damaged areas to lend support, even if it is just moral support, at the risk of just getting in the way?  Or do you wait, and face criticism of not caring enough to show up?  That same year, politics and elections literally stranded me in South Florida, where when the airports closed, I ended up with a 15 hour ride up the Reagan to get home after a 04 campaign meeting.  Trust me, that will give you a new perspective on what people go through to get out of harm's way.

Most campaigns make the same decision that most real people make in these storms:  shut it down and ride it out, choosing caution over politics.   As my Republican friend, former Bush and Romney Florida advisor Brett Doster, said about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 as the state was facing the aforementioned Hurricane Matthew: “The two candidates are going to have to be very careful because there’s a tremendous risk if it looks like they are politicizing it (the storm) in the least.”   Or as Jeb Bush said today: “Candidates should shut down ads in impacted areas – the exclusive focus needs to be be on preparing, rescuing, and recovering.”

While Rick Scott is pushing that edge, running an ad touting his hurricane recovery leadership – Ron DeSantis' decision to run negative going after Mayor Gillum on the issue of hurricanes during a hurricane…in a town being battered by a hurricane is a new standard -- and not one we should hope to repeat.

In a campaign, you can only control the things you can control.  Challenges control that their opponents are incumbents thrust into high profile moments, in this case 27 days out, but they can control what their own campaigns do.  I suspect that DeSantis’ decision to break convention and run negative ads in the markets impacted by the storm during the hurricane is mostly a function of the fact he’s trailed in every single poll taken since the primary, and the clock is starting to run out.  

The reality is there's no easy way to measure what all of this means.  In a state like Florida where elections are decided in the margins, everything matters, and nothing matters.  Rick Scott rebuilt his image through hurricane response, yet still trails Bill Nelson in many recent polls out there.  Republicans have attacked Andrew Gillum on hurricanes, yet the Mayor has led every single public poll since the primary.

In the end, as Doug Wiles said to me during those fires, the only thing that matters in a hurricane is doing the right thing and taking care of people --- and that is why most campaigns make the decision to stand down.  As my grandmother would say, “this too will pass” and the time for politics will return, quickly.

 Will DeSantis pay a political price for breaking this tradition?  Does anyone think if he loses it will be because he chose to run negative ads during a natural disaster?   Or on the flip side, will his decision to run negative ads during the storm thrust him to victory?  The answer three is surely no.  I don’t think any candidate will win or lose their race solely because of this event.  But that is a different question than should he have pulled his ads earlier in the week?  The answer to that, at least from this guy, at least in the markets where storm was coming, is yes.

I pray everyone who was near the storm has made it through safely.  The pictures from the coast are really terrifying, but if there is one thing I know about this part of the state:  it is resilient, and it is a community.  Our neighbors who were most directly impacted by the fury of Michael will recover, and may God Bless them -- and may we all support them -- as they work in the coming weeks and months to put their lives back together.



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