When I moved to Okeechobee in 1986, I registered as a Democrat so I could vote in the primaries. At the time, nearly all of the candidates for local office were registered Democrats and that is where the races were decided. For the first decade I lived in the county, most voters were registered Democrats. At the newspaper, we had a great relationship with the folks who ran the tiny Republican Party at the time and I remember how they took it in good humor when people teased them about holding their meetings in a phone booth.
Other rural areas were also Democratic strongholds. Glades County was once so connected to the Democratic Party that the newspaper was named the “Glades County Democrat.”
Over the years, things started to change. The first Republican elected to local office in Okeechobee County was in 1996. Today, registered Republicans outnumber the Democrats in Okeechobee, and all of the elected Okeechobee County officials are Republicans. Republicans now also outnumber Democrats in Glades and Hendry counties.
Some of the same people who once registered as Democrats so they could vote in the primary have switched to Republican so they could vote in the Republican primary. (Florida now has open primaries if all of the candidates are in the same party, but in some cases the stronger candidates are all in the same political party.)
In the rural counties around the Big Lake, people tell me they “vote for the person,” not the party. In the small communities, much of the time we actually know the local candidates. We can judge for ourselves who they are, what they stand for and whether or not we trust them to run our local government. Party affiliation never mattered as much as that knowledge of the character of the person running for office.
There’s a tradition in Okeechobee County that candidates and their supporters stand on the corners of the main intersection of U.S. 441 and State Road 70 and wave at the cars. I always smile and wave back at everyone who waves at me. Whether or not I support their candidate is not the point. I support the community tradition and their efforts to encourage people to vote.
The 2020 election season has been a stressful time, not only due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also due to the hotly contested national election. Even the close-knit rural communities where people have always trusted they could count on each other in times of need are sometimes finding themselves caught up in political ugliness.
Now, more than ever, we need to remember who we are. We can disagree on who to vote for and still be united as a community. We need to remember that the neighbor whose front yard sign promotes the opposition candidate is the same neighbor who was ready to help after a storm. We need to remember that the people feeding the hungry aren’t asking who you plan to vote for. We need to remember the pioneer spirit that has endured through hurricanes, fires, floods and epidemics (now, even a pandemic) as well as through many political campaigns and presidencies.
No matter what happens in the Nov. 3 election, kindness matters. Compassion for each other matters. Coming together after the election to help our communities matters.
Whatever happens, please be kind to each other.