|Photo of a red tide by John Moran.|
Nationally, the Republican Party's agenda is to create a new Gilded Age where the rich live the lives of old word aristocrats and the rest of us are peasants and serfs. Environmentally, they want to eliminate environmental regulations that block corporate interests from polluting the air and the water. Donald Trump, a/k/a Der Trumpenführer, has rolled back Obama era regulations that would have lowered air and water pollution. Here in Virginia, for the last eight years Democrat governors have sought to mitigate the efforts of Republicans who in some cases have banned even the utterance of the words "climate change." Red states under Republican control have not fared as well. Florida under GOP governor Rick Scott is a case in point. Scott has worked to roll back environmental protections and now Florida finds itself in a crisis separate and apart for the aftermath of Hurricane Michael. Thankfully, as laid out in a long Politico Magazine piece, Scott's anti-environment efforts are coming back to haunt him as he runs for the U.S. Senate. Here are article highlights:
John Moran is a Florida nature photographer, but lately he sees himself as a Florida crime photographer. The crime, he likes to say, is the slime.
But one of Moran’s most popular images, a grinning man relaxing on a pink inner tube with his feet slathered in algae, is considerably less artsy. The man’s face is a crudely Photoshopped Rick Scott, the Republican governor of Florida, with a speech bubble that reads: “Come on in. The water’s fine!” Scott is running for U.S. Senate, and Moran wants to make sure voters associate him with the nasty mess that is sickening puppies and beachgoers, forcing lifeguards to wear gas masks, and imperiling the coastal tourist economy that makes Florida go.“Scott has been so terrible on these issues, he’s really promoted the cause of environmental awareness in Florida,” says Moran, whose more serious work on the devastation is on display at a “Summer of Slime” exhibit at Gainesville’s Florida Museum. “It takes a moment like this and a person like that to wake people up.”
The ecological meltdown of Florida’s waters — a toxic rainbow coalition of red tide, blue-green algae and a touch of brown algae — has been very bad news for Scott, or, as he’s been dubbed on social media, #RedTideRick. Before scenic beaches in snowbird meccas like Sanibel and Sarasota were inundated with dead manatees, dolphins and turtles, most polls had Scott ahead of Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, even as other Republican candidates struggled in more safely Republican states. The prediction model at FiveThirtyEight now gives Nelson a slight lead, a shift that seems to owe more to biological red tide than any political blue wave.
Scott would prefer to focus the race on Florida’s low unemployment rate, Nelson’s low profile in Washington, and his own leadership handling storms like Hurricane Michael. But the putrid slime befouling his state has been difficult to avoid — Hurricane Michael actually blew the red tide back into Tampa Bay, where it littered the area's beaches with dead mullet — and Scott has found it difficult to change the subject.
He recently cut short a statewide bus tour after eco-protesters chanting about Red Tide Rick chased him out of an event in heavily Republican Venice on Florida’s west coast. In August, he dodged a much larger crowd of disgruntled homeowners after taking a private boat tour of the algae-choked St. Lucie River in heavily Republican Stuart on the east coast.
[W]ater quality is a state responsibility, and while Scott has made occasional eco-friendly moves during his eight years in office, he has consistently weakened regulation and enforcement of the nutrients that fuel algae blooms. And even though warmer water can supercharge those blooms, as well as hurricanes like Michael that can spread those blooms, Scott has done nothing to deal with climate change. State employees in his administration were even cautioned not to say those two words.
Florida’s politicians have a long and sordid history of promoting the exploitation rather than the conservation of the state’s unique natural resources. But it’s become a real political problem for Scott now that Florida’s waters, its economic golden goose, are in such a conspicuous state of crisis. National publications keep running bad-for-the-brand headlines like “Toxic Slime Is Ruining Florida’s Gulf Coast” (in Bloomberg BusinessWeek) and “A Toxic Tide Is Killing Florida Wildlife” (in the New York Times).
After red tide unexpectedly showed up Thursday in Miami, shutting down beaches and threatening a multibillion-dollar hospitality industry, local filmmaker Billy Corben tweeted a parody of the state tourism bureau’s Visit Florida ads, featuring footage of poisoned marine life interspersed with footage of Scott assuring the public Florida is open for business, over the pounding beat of Pitbull’s “Sexy Beaches.”
“Nothing ever stuck to Teflon Rick, but pardon the pun, the algae is sticking,” Corben says. “It’s such a rich irony that he’s going to be done in by Mother Nature.”
The problem for Scott is that his victories were 1-point squeakers during the Republican landslides of 2010 and 2014, while 2018 looks like a much more Democratic year. And even loyal Republicans don’t seem to enjoy slime in their backyards. People come to Florida to enjoy the outdoors, and the recurring water crises of recent years—in the Everglades, Florida Bay, Lake Okeechobee, the springs of north Florida, and the near-shore estuaries along the east and west coast—have inspired a new movement of digitally savvy activists determined to punish politicians who neglect the state’s natural jewels. Bullsugar.org, a local group formed a few years ago to counter the sugar industry’s influence on water decisions, now has 330,000 followers on Facebook, and it’s using its own influence to support Nelson.
“His [incumbent Senator Nelson] greatest asset,” says Bullsugar co-founder Chris Maroney, a retired internet entrepreneur, “is that he’s not Rick Scott.”
Since becoming in governor in 2011, Scott has pushed to evade even that limited scrutiny. One of his early moves was to petition the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency to drop its push for specific numerical limits on nutrient pollution in Florida; he argued that the feds should leave nutrient control entirely to the state. At the same time, Scott was gutting the budgets and staffs of state environmental agencies and water management districts, shifting their focus from enforcement of pollution violations to reduction of regulatory burdens, and eliminating the state’s growth management agency entirely. He would later repeal a law requiring routine inspections of septic tanks to make sure they weren’t leaking untreated waste into state waters.
In a recent debate, Nelson described the mess as a direct result of Scott “systematically disassembling the environmental agencies of this state … You put pollution in the water, it will grow the algae in the heat of summer.” His ads are just as blunt: “The water is murky, but the fact is clear: Rick Scott caused this problem.”
Kimberly Mitchell, executive director of the Everglades Trust, is also a Republican who served as a city commissioner in West Palm Beach. She thinks the toxic nightmare seeping around the state will hurt her party in November — and after two decades of using its control of Tallahassee to help agricultural interests and other polluters, she thinks that hurt will be well-deserved. “People see the death and destruction on their social media, and they realize they’ve got to do something,” she says. “They’re awake now, and I think a lot of Republicans don’t want that.”
In surveys, Americans rarely cite the environment as a top priority, even though most voters support strict environmental regulations. But nature is so intimately connected to Florida’s economy and culture that green issues can tilt elections here.
Now, nature is having another political moment in the Sunshine State. The activist Erin Brockovich was in Fort Myers last week to raise awareness about the crisis. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic nominee for governor, attracted an astonishing crowd of more than 1,200 to an environmental rally in Stuart over the weekend, promising to “put the word ‘protection’ back into the Department of Environmental Protection.” His opponent, Congressman Ron DeSantis, has been a reliable vote for the House Republican war on environmental regulation, but he’s running as a Teddy Roosevelt conservationist; his first general-election ad touted his determination to take on Big Sugar and save the Everglades.
In some ways, though, the situation is simple. Scott has spent eight years portraying himself as the jobs-jobs-jobs governor, rolling back environmental rules and enforcement that job creators didn’t like, and now he’s having trouble convincing Floridians he’s also been a nature-nature-nature governor. Whether Mother Nature helps knock him off, or whether he manages to win despite the slime spreading on his watch, the race could send a national message about the environment’s power or lack thereof to take revenge on politicians who mistreat it.
If you care about the quality of the air you breathe and the water you drink - or, in my own case, have in your backyard - there's really no choice but to vote Democrat. To do otherwise is environmental suicide.The situation has also provided a timely reminder that in Florida, nature-nature-nature creates jobs. . . . And if they [algae blooms and red tides] become an annual phenomenon, they could scare away out-of-state visitors who spend more than $100 billion in Florida every year.