by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
June 4, 2006
DAY OF THE PARACLETE
BRADENTON, Fla., June 4, 2006 -- This Sunday is celebrated by the Catholic faith as a day to recall the Biblical episode in which Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, abruptly appears amid His frightened disciples in a locked room, and then breathes upon them to impart the Holy Spirit. As they receive it, burning tongues of fire appear above their heads - these are the Paraclete - and each is suddenly gifted with the power to be understood in any language, and with the motive force to go forth and spread His Gospel of love, peace and redemption.
I went forth on Sunday morning to spread a gospel of political redemption to the people of Manatee County, Fla. The venue was not a locked room but the locked minds at a huge flea market beside Highway 301, where 400 vendors of everything from little tiny beads to giant homegrown Manatee County tomatoes go up for sale to thousands of people who flock there from all over Middle America.
The Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee, on which I serve as representative of Precinct 80, has rented Booth 136 in a long concrete corridor where hundreds of vendors sell their wares. I was ostensibly there to gather the 340 candidate petition signatures from voters in District 4, an area that stretches from the stately parade of beautiful homes along Sarasota Bay to rutted cow paths nonetheless named avenues in the far eastern part of the district.
To the south of Cortez Blvd. the main drag in Bradenton, is University Parkway and the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport - which I hope to reinvigorate - and a long stretch of new and attractive commercial centers, restaurants and condominiums, most of them struggling with a real estate glut that despite its great extent has not notably decreased prices.
Manatee County was caught up in a historic surge of growth that saw more than 100,000 people move here since the 2000 census, and homebuilding forward of that which is now threatened by the Federal Reserve's higher interest rates and the most potent wild card of all time - fierce and deadly hurricanes that have ripped across this state left, right and center since 2004.
At the center of all this commotion is the county's "Establishment," formally called "The Good Ol' Boys Club," that knits Republican politicians, right-wing churches, developers, other commercial interests and a select few media people into a cabal that has dominated both Sarasota and Manatee County politics since the 1980's.
When President Bush came to our county on the night of Sept. 10, 2001, to engage in some spin on his "No Child Left Behind" legislation the next day at Booker Elementary School, a number of Good Ol' Boys Club members were part of the welcoming party and attended a small 9/11 breakfast at the ritzy Colony Club on Longboat Key.
During the intense coverage of those hours, the local New York Times-owned Herald-Tribune published a substantial story on the group, revealing them to most of the general public - and all those new voters here - for the first time. Many residents remember his speeding motorcade as the President left the kids behind at Booker Elementary behind as disappeared in Air Force One.
Power is precious to these local folks, especially now, after the county's growth made it possible to turn over properties at a fantastic rate, vastly increasing the prices with each flip, because power makes it possible to get huge developments approved long before schools and roads can handle the impact. The fact that there are virtually no elected Democrats in the county - just two hold offices of any real influence - has made paving the way for developers all the easier.
Now, with all those homes looking for scarce buyers, the fact that there is insufficient funds for the roads they need has placed new strains on the big developers who provide, through their attorneys, architects, plumbers, electricians, engineers and landscaping contractors, much of the campaign money that elects the six Republicans on the seven-member Board of Manatee County Commissioners.
In April, as gas price soared to their highest level in years, commissioners realized that if they were to build those roads while they were still politically viable, they would have to increase the gasoline tax. My opponent, the only one actually seeking re-election, whose campaign collection plate was stuffed full of developer dollars, had never had a Democrat run against him and probably hoped that a strong one would not appear when he carried water for the Republican team and cast the deciding vote for a 5-cent hike in the gas tax. Only one commissioner opposed it.
Republicans here are so rigidly controlled by their party that there is virtually no move the county commissioners can make that would wake them from complacency about overcrowded schools, long construction delays, higher gas taxes, rampant favoritism and - in the case of the politicians who own properties - increasing the value of properties elected officials own.
Enter the Paraclete. I went to the vigil Mass on Saturday at the small beautiful Church of the Sacred Heart on the poor side of 14th St., not far from downtown. As I sat there with my wife, listening to that magnificent Gospel of the Paraclete, the sun suddenly played through the stained-glass windows and fell warm upon us. I looked up at the window, and the word MERCY blazed in orange and red at the bottom of the window, part of the phrase from the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."
When I saw the front-page headline and part of the story in the Herald-Tribune this morning about which local politicians were passing which laws to improve the value of their properties, I felt that breath upon me, and I was moved. When I picked up the Bradenton Herald's editorial page on my way down to the Red Barn and read that 40,000 people are at risk from the "Swiss cheese" fractures in the Lake Okeechobee levee, and that even Manatee County's Emergency Management Center would be forced to evacuate if Category 2 hurricane winds are expected (they don't even to arrive), I decided to speak - if not in tongues, at least with a little force.
I got down to our booth, calmly ate my breakfast of McDonald's fare and drank my coffee, and then started to read the HeraldSoon there was a parade of people making their way to our booth. While some of them were interested voters, a lot were angry Republicans. From all the booths around me came a litany of complaints about my criticism. One Red Barn official came up to me, started yelling at me to stop, grabbed the papers from my hand and threatened to call a deputy. I let him know that he'd be in the way of a lawsuit if my speech rights were squelched in this place, which is open to the public and rented to us for political purposes.
The man in the booth next me, who said he was an Army Ranger back in the day, started alternately running a loud vacuum and banged the end of a broomstick against the wallboard of his booth, and claps like gunshots rang up and down the corridor. The woman across the way turned up her television, and another booth turned up a radio. Another turned on an even louder vacuum as others shouted in rage.
"Democracy does not live in a vacuum," I continued. "It is a contentious arena. It's time to sweep out these Republican County Commissioners! Why did my opponent vote a 5-cent gas tax hike when the prices were the highest ever? His vote could have stopped it. Only someone who's out of touch with voters - or owes more to road-hungry developers than to Manatee taxpayers - could vote to raise the gas tax at a time like this. They've got 10,000 homes already approved on the drawing board, and he wants you to pay for their roads! Meanwhile they aren't ready for a Cat 2 hurricane - one strong wind and they're gone!"
There was an absolute fury of broom-banging, vacuuming and shouts of "a-hole" up and down the corridor, but most of the regular folks passing by looked askance at the strange Republicans and listened respectfully to me. I had the Army Ranger and a much bigger ex-Marine come up and shout in my face, and the Ranger loudly told folks "I'd kill him if I could get away with it."
But I went on, and on, and on, for four solid hours. Lots of people got the message. I got a few signatures. When it was all over and time to go home, I had the satisfaction that at least one disciple of fairness for the American people had his say.
[In the Herald the next day, June 5, an Op-ed from a local builder argued for boosting the property tax, sales tax and documentary stamp tax to get $1.3 billion for more roads.]
To those who hoped that the climate for political speech has improved since the bitter days of 2004, however, my experience was not for the meek and mild Jesus loved. It was for the folks who followed him when he blew up at merchants working in the temple and threw the moneychangers' tables into the street. Day of the Paraclete or not, don't expect a pleasant welcome for the truth.
Learn more about Joe Shea's campaign at http://www.electjoeshea.com.