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Things Always Strange in Florida

November 15, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ In Florida, weird applies to many things. There are weird murders, weird celebrity stories and weird drug stories. And then there’s political weird.

The Sunshine State’s newest and biggest strangeness is most definitely the still undecided White House race between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.

``The people of Florida are good people,″ said Melanie Barnum, a West Palm Beach fabric saleswoman who’s lived here most of her life. On Tuesday, she chose her words carefully when asked about Florida’s reputation. ``The political system needs some help,″ she replied slowly.

The presidential brouhaha _ where vote counting stops and starts, in concert with the tide of lawsuits _ is nothing new in the state’s unorthodox political history.

Leading Gore’s legal team is former Southern Florida U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey, who quit his post in 1996 after his office lost a big drug trafficking case.

Coffey was accused of drowning his sorrows at the Lipstik Adult Entertainment Club, where he allegedly bought a $900 magnum of Champagne and bit the arm of a topless dancer during a private performance.

Coffey recovered. Earlier this year, he was back in the national spotlight, trying to keep 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez with his Miami relatives.

Other odd stories include Volusia County Councilwoman Lynne Plaskett, who appeared on a nationally syndicated talk show not long before seeking re-election four years ago. She told the audience that space aliens cured her terminal cancer.

It happened while she was living in Southern California, which has its own brands of weird. She said a small disc hovered in her bedroom levitated her body, scanned it and disappeared.

Plaskett lost the election.

In Miami, the 1997 mayoral election dragged into 1998. The courts agreed that widespread ballot fraud invalidated the November election in which convicted felons, people outside the city and a dead person voted.

Not unlike the current presidential mess, the mayoral election was sometimes impossible to understand.

The Miami Herald’s Carl Hiaasen, who also uses real-life Florida oddities in his best-selling mystery novels, gave this advice to arriving tourists and journalists in a March 1998 column:

``The current mayor and former ex-mayor, Joe Carollo, is fondly known as Crazy Joe. He occupies City Hall. The former mayor and current ex-mayor, Xavier Suarez, is fondly known as Mayor Loco. He occupies a mystic parallel universe.″

In smaller races, too, candidates have been known to embarrass themselves. Like Karen Knapp, who, while running for a St. Lucie County School Board seat in 1992, made four spelling errors in a 23-word handwritten questionnaire response.

In West Palm Beach, state senate candidate Anthony Martin didn’t like reporters’ questions as he left a local television station. Asked about being wanted by New York authorities, he knocked a TV camera off the shoulder of a journalist, and snapped the microphone off another camera.

He spent Election Day in jail, where he refused to eat and lost at the polls. He was later sentenced to a year in prison.

None of this strikes Felix Omo as particularly weird. He came from Nigeria five years ago. He drove more than an hour from Miami to watch Palm Beach County officials struggle with democracy.

``If this had happened in my country, there would be fighting already. People would be dead,″ said Omo, a computer technician. ``Here, it is still OK. This is not that unusual for Florida.″


On the Net:

Florida Department of State: http://election.dos.state.fl.us

History of Florida: http://www.floridahistory.org

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