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Mack Bernard Touts Port to Nowhere in State Senate Dist. 27 Primary

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite --covers Palm Beach County. His column appears twice a week on The Pulp. Got feedback or a tip? Contact [email protected].

If the Post Office goes belly up anytime soon, it won't be the fault of Mack Bernard and Jeff Clemens, local heroes facing off in the Democratic Primary for State Senate District 27, which includes most of Palm Beach County. Every afternoon, like clockwork, Fire Ant's mailbox is stuffed with oversize postcards from the two, both of whom gave up State House seats to run this race. They're spending a fortune on postage.

The winner's assured of election in November -- the only opposition then will be write-in candidate Travis Genard Harris, whose Facebook page has him self-described as a "radical," "Christian," "author and chef" (good luck, we say) -- so it's gotten nasty in the primary.

Both Bernard's and Clemens's literature tries to tie the Big Biz/Rick Scott can to the other's tail. Bernard: "Clemens voted for Rick Scott's $200 million tax breaks scheme." Clemens: "Pink slip Rick, Mack has his back."

Knee-jerk liberals will be torn. Bernard stands out for his Haitian-American roots, and though it's not something he plays up, the siren song of diversity calls out. Clemens caught our eye last year when he proposed a medical marijuana amendment to the Florida Constitution.

By their campaign finance reports ye shall know them, though, and the differences leap out. Business loves Bernard: his coffers are infused with cash from the likes of Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. [Update: And, as of Monday, Aug. 13, that of Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, "The Voice of Commercial Construction."] Clemens, meanwhile, is labor's man, with backing from the Florida AFL-CIO and public service unions (and some high-profile plaintiffs' attorneys, who may be miffed that Bernard drove legislation that "ensures that companies remain immune from civil actions for work injuries.")

Fire Ant is especially struck by Bernard's biggest hobby horse -- the proposed "inland port" on Lake Okeechobee, a massive warehouse/transportation complex that's supposed to service the Port of Palm Beach, Port Everglades and the Port of Miami when trade will (so it is said) skyrocket in the aftermath of Panama Canal expansion in 2014. Bernard says the inland port will bring thousands of jobs to Belle Glade and the other impoverished cities around Lake O. What could be wrong with that?

Plenty, said environmentalists when the project was first floated in 2008. And their concern about the impact on Everglades restoration caused sugar giant Florida Crystals (sweetheart deal alert) to alter its suggested site location, sending everyone back to the drawing boards in 2010.

Now, however, the sugar barons and the Port of Palm Beach (who originated the plan) are geared up for another run. The feds have given it a shot in the arm too, with a $1.9 million grant last December for a Glades Region Master Plan that HUD says "will begin to set the groundwork" for the port.

Fire Ant is unsure. G-d knows Palm Beach County's outback needs all the help it can get, and maybe South Florida's existing port facilities aren't prepared for future growth (assuming there is any). But there's a pie-in-the-sky, wing-and-a-prayer air to the inland port proposal (veteran maritime industry journalist/consultant Rick Eyerdam has called it "a useless transshipment hub on at-risk land") and Florida history is littered with the wreckage of large-scale development schemes gone awry. Anyone remember the Cross-Florida Barge Canal?

Unless and until Mack Bernard can produce an unbiased, thoroughly researched, economically and environmentally sound plan for the inland port, it's a weak plank to run on.

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