Longform

I-4 Corridor Predicts Florida for Romney

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"He doesn't know anything about them!" says Paulina Hernandez. She's in her early 20s, a first-generation Mexican-American who, together with her sister, helps her father sell tacos each weekend at the flea market in DeLand. "If [Romney] were in our shoes, he'd understand why some women need help and why he shouldn't take [rights] away from us."

She's referring to the GOP platform, which prides itself on stuff like banning abortions and all but promises to stamp the word whore on birth-control pills that may or may not be covered under Romney's assumed overhaul of "Obamacare."

Although Hernandez applauds the president's commitment to women's rights, as demonstrated by his pushing through the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, she doesn't buy the idea that either candidate is a magical solution to the country's problems.

With a devilish grin, she says, "I just feel like everyone needs to change for something to change. It doesn't matter [who the] president is."

Cynicism aside, Hernandez says she'll vote for Obama next week. Well, "maybe..."

About 100 yards behind the flea market is a heavily wooded area that some locals call "ground zero." A small group of people gathers here. A few days ago, they tuned into the first presidential debate. "[Obama] screwed up," says Mark, a lifelong Democrat who wouldn't share his last name. "It was pretty bad."

For a 51-year-old, Mark's in great physical shape. He's a tall five-foot-nine, weighs probably close to 175 pounds, and has the brawny grip of a homeless mechanic, a profession he loved and lost.

"I'm not in the woods because I choose," he says.

That's been Mark's story for about eight years now. He lives "on a little hill that doesn't flood when it rains" and spends most of his days drinking warm beer and dreaming about the past.

In 2004, Mark was living in Orlando and making upward of $70,000, he contends, when someone swiped his tools. Shortly thereafter, he moved what few belongings he had left to Volusia County in an effort to resurrect his career.

"I sold my fucking Harley for $15,000, bought more tools, and got them stolen too in DeLand," he says. "That's why I'm in the woods."

Mark says the outcome of the November 6 election could affect his next meal. Romney has said that he wants to "get people off food stamps" by finding them "good jobs."

It's a noble campaign promise, Mark admits, but a difficult one to keep. "Who the hell's going to hire a 51-year-old mechanic who knows everything but has no tools? Nobody."

He's an Obama man.

Score: Obama — 2, Romney — 1


It's a sunny but uncomfortably humid early October afternoon in Apopka, a smallish city a little less than 15 miles from Orlando. The town is five times smaller than Orlando, but nearly 42,000 residents make it Orange County's second-largest municipality.

Mitt Romney is on his way here to deliver a stump speech from the stage of the Apopka Amphitheatre in a 180-acre multipurpose park off Ponkan Road.

Next to the parking lot, a young man dressed as Big Bird dolefully waves his right arm as a seemingly never-ending caravan of Romney supporters files through the entrance gate. With his free arm, the feathered demonstrator cradles a simple message printed on cardboard: "Cut Big Oil, Not Big Bird."

Just two days ago, Romney laid out his vision for America, focusing on a $445 million budget cut that would eliminate the government subsidy for Sesame Street's distributor, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — roughly .012 percent of the annual budget.

"It seems like people are generally supportive of Big Bird even if they love Romney," says the Apopka feathered freak.

Clearly he hasn't met Tom Baker, a larger-than-life anti-Obamaist standing 150 yards away near an unofficial campaign merchandise tent that peddles pro-Romney tchotchkes — stickers of the president and Joe Biden as Harry and Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber, "Nobama" pins, Paul Ryan's mug on a mug. Baker dismisses Sesame Street as just a cheap alternative to daycare. "If you want to educate your children, educate your children," Baker barks. "I have a lovely 3-year-old, incredibly intelligent, and I haven't turned PBS on once."

Instead, Baker educates his daughter by implanting bogus conspiracy theories into her pliant brain, like the one about President Obama not really existing.

"In a physical form, I can [prove that he does], but there're no school records," Baker inaccurately contends. "There's no birth certificate, there're no business records from when he worked in Chicago... All of his records have been paid for and hidden. Even Michelle's college records have been sequestered."

I point out that very little of this is true, but Baker's not buying it.

"My records are accessible," he says, "as well as yours."

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Victor Gonzalez