Well, we're halfway through 2005, and Florida has done nothing to shake its reputation as a repository of dim-witted hayseeds, a reputation we rightfully earned during the Bush-Gore recount cycle. If anything, we're doing our best to make sure everybody knows we are the dumbest state in the union.
We could take this opportunity to defend ourselves. But the sad fact is and it hurts to admit it we are dumb. We're the capital of dumb. We don't have any hard numbers on this, but anecdotal evidence tells us that when something so idiotic as to be almost inconceivable happens, chances are it happened here.
And for whatever reason, 2005 is turning out to be one of the dumbest years on the books. Peruse the following 13 examples and see if you don't agree. This isn't by any means a comprehensive list to do that would require more pages than we could ever hope to offer. So think of it as a sampler of stupidity, weighted to the Orlando area since we live here.
Will we Floridians learn from the first half of 2005, and maybe stop making the same mistakes? Of course not, because we're dumb.
SCHIAVO AND THE FUNDIES
If there was one event that portrayed Florida as the nation's pre-K of intellectualism, it was the hysteria surrounding the passing of Terri Schiavo. Only here would a husband's desire to let his severely brain-damaged wife pass into the great beyond peacefully turn into World War III.
As we all know because the wound is still fresh, Florida became ground zero for Christian fundies and the conservative pols who pander to them. Former nurses and at least one doctor (who lied about being a Nobel Prize nominee) sprouted forth to suggest that Terri was, with just a touch of therapy, capable of a remarkable recovery. Her husband, Michael, was accused by Terri's family and various talk-show types of strangling his wife all those years ago and starving her to death so she didn't wake up and rat him out.
Then Congress got involved. First they wanted to subpoena a woman without a functioning cerebral cortex, then they wanted to pass a law ordering federal courts to review her case. The state courts laughed off the subpoena, and the federal courts declined to intervene. Jeb Bush considered sending the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in to kidnap Terri, but realized that while that would make him a hero here, it would earn him nothing but scorn in less dumb parts of the country. So he backed off. Jeb doesn't want to be remembered just for being the governor of the dumbest state; he's got other aspirations.
The Department of Children and Families tried to "save" Schiavo after receiving an anonymous fax detailing completely unsubstantiated allegations of abuse at her husband's hands. The Florida House of Representatives tried to pass a law to save Schiavo until the courts struck it down but the Senate wouldn't go along.
On March 31, Schiavo passed away, and the madness abated a little.
Judge George Greer a conservative Republican, let's not forget consistently ruled that Schiavo should be allowed to die, and for that he got death threats and was kicked out of his church. Rep. Tom DeLay, himself a pillar of unimpeachable ethics, sought to have Greer arrested for violating the House of Representatives' subpoena.
This insanity undoubtedly would have been worse had polls not shown that the American people wholeheartedly felt the federal government meddling in the death of a private citizen to be abominable.
DYER'S GONE, DYER'S BACK
In March, Buddy Dyer was a scumbag extraordinaire. Indicted for election fraud and suspended from office, he faced a political future that was murky at best. Then, just as the city geared up to crown Bill Frederick er, hold a special election prosecutor Brad King suddenly announced he was dropping the charges. Just like that Dyer's the shit again.
Now, you'd assume that for King to go to the trouble of impaneling a grand jury and trying to indict Dyer, his campaign manager and absentee ballot collector Ezzie Thomas, there would have to be some substance to the charges. Not so, Dyer said afterward. His supporters took it as proof that this was all a Republican conspiracy to screw him and deny poor black people an opportunity to vote. It wasn't, but that made a good sound bite.
A better explanation is that King's case probably wouldn't have survived Dyer's motion to dismiss, and that he hadn't done anything that many other local politicians including Republicans Glenda Hood and Mel Martinez hadn't done too. So King backed down, and made Dyer agree not to pay Thomas or anyone else to collect absentee ballots until the law was clarified.
WELFARE FOR BILLIONAIRES
Poor Rich DeVos. Yeah, he's a billionaire. Yeah, he's a diehard Republican who gives millions of dollars to radical fruitcakes and is running for governor in Michigan. But his basketball team isn't making any money. And that's just heartbreaking.
It couldn't be because the Orlando Magic are terrible and no one wants to see them; of course not. The problem lies in an outdated, 16-year-old arena that doesn't have the luxury boxes DeVos needs to make even more money. So the Magic have threatened to bolt if we don't build them a new arena, or at least renovate the one we've got.
Of course, the idea that tax dollars should subsidize this bit of socialism is hugely unpopular, but DeVos has a cheerleader in Dyer, who is willing to do just about anything to make Rich richer. The state House of Representatives was equally generous during the session of the Florida Legislature, pledging $60 million over 30 years to renovate the arena. When it became obvious that the Senate wouldn't go for it, Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, attached the tax break to a completely unrelated telecommunications bill. But the funding didn't come through and neither did proposed subsidies for the Florida Marlins and NASCAR. It was a bad year for sports teams wanting a place at the public trough, a slightly better year for taxpayers.
Still, the quest continues, and DeVos will likely find new and more devious ways to get you to pay for a new stadium so he can make more money. The one thing we've yet to see, however, is how much the Magic are willing to contribute.
$307 FOR MILLIONAIRES
This economy needs boosting, and that means tax cuts. So the Florida Legislature cut the intangibles tax, which is a tax on the stocks and bonds of the richest taxpayers and corporations. The average Florida millionaire will now save an extra … $307 a year! It's the equivalent of giving back an average wage earner about 8 cents.
In the state's hands, that money would mean more than $100 million a year, which is enough to, say, fix some of these super-congested roads or even, if we wanted to go there, renovate the TD Waterhouse Centre we're not saying we should, just that we could. Or that money could go to defray the 5 percent tuition hike for college students, or to help those affected by drastic cuts to Medicaid. We could build more schools and alleviate overcrowding.
But those options would mean not cutting taxes, which is never on the table in the dumbest state. So our richest 237,000 residents and corporations will get an extra $307 a year, and the rest of the country will just shake their heads.
DCF VERSUS PREGNANT GIRL
Abortion is the single most divisive subject in American politics. Certainly the Republicans who rule Tallahassee would love nothing more than to do away with it altogether, were they not barred from doing so by the United States Constitution. So if you can't get in through the front door, the back door is always open, especially in Florida.
The back door this spring was the predicament of a 13-year-old ward of the state known in media reports as "L.G." This young girl, who lived in a state facility, became pregnant and decided she wanted an abortion. (As she succinctly put it, "I don't think I should have the baby because I'm 13, I'm in a shelter and I can't get a job.") Under current state law, that was her right. Minors in Florida aren't required to get their guardian's consent to have an abortion, so that meant the Department of Children and Families didn't have to agree to allow L.G. to terminate her pregnancy.
But that right doesn't really apply in Florida. So the state sought and initially received an injunction barring the girl from getting an abortion until she was psychologically evaluated. DCF officials argued that, by state law, they had to fight the girl's right to an abortion because they weren't allowed to consent to her having an abortion. In their opinion, L.G. was "not of sufficient maturity to make the choice at all."
A few days after the injunction was granted to the DCF, the same Palm Beach County judge revoked it, noting that it wasn't a tough decision for him to make. He pointed out that the longer the girl waited to have an abortion, the riskier the procedure would be, and that at her age actually having the baby would put her in significantly more danger than an adult woman.
At that point it was time for the womb Gestapo to compare the rapidly subdividing clump of cells to whom else? Terri Schiavo. "Are we going to do the same thing to it that we did to Terri Schiavo without a full investigation?" asked Larry Klayman, the rabid right-winger who had an aborted run for Senate last year. "Are we going to kill a baby just like we killed Terri Schiavo?"
He wasn't the only would-be theocrat to make the comparison. There is, in fact, one parallel: In both cases, judges upheld the law despite the objections of those who, like Klayman, ache to replace law with religious dogma.
Not willing to follow the law, DCF officials refused to transport L.G. to a medical facility to get her abortion. So the judge gave her lawyers temporary custody so they could drive her to the clinic. But while they were on their way to get her, DCF appealed again and being a state agency, that meant another automatic stay, and L.G. went another day without an abortion.
Soon thereafter, however, the state gave up. Gov. Bush insisted DCF had handled the case correctly. Though it's confidential, we can only assume L.G. got the abortion she was entitled to under state law.
"BOTCHED" ABORTION WASN'T
In April the womb Gestapo went apoplectic after a woman who received an abortion in Orlando claimed the procedure was botched and her baby was born alive, then left to die despite her loud pleas to an uncaring clinic staff. Pro-lifers rallied outside the downtown clinic. The Liberty Counsel suddenly discovered compassion for this woman and filed complaints with the state, seeking to get the clinic's license revoked and its doctors punished. Gov. Bush said the case was yet another reason abortion clinics or "abortuaries," as they're called here in the Bible Belt need even stricter regulation. Of course the goal here wasn't to restrict women's access to abortion; just to look after their health. This is about people, not a political agenda. Right?
The ruckus died down after an autopsy determined that the fetus was indeed stillborn, meaning the abortion went off as planned and the malpractice complaints were, at best, unprovable.
HAVE SEX, GO TO JAIL
Here in our dumb state, an illegal Mexican immigrant who entered the country to pick fruit in 2003 has been in jail for almost a year for having sex with his girlfriend. Noe Perez is a 16-year-old who had consensual sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend he was actually living with her and her family and Highlands County charged him with committing lewd acts, because in Florida having sex with someone under 16 is against the law.
Perez didn't spend a year in jail serving his sentence, because he hadn't been convicted. No, his year of detention happened thanks to the snail's pace of our state judicial system the Highlands County public defender accepted the blame for that, saying his office didn't give the case the special attention it warranted. In May, Perez pled guilty to one count of lewd battery under a plea that would sentence him to time served, rather than the 45 years he faced otherwise.
After the deal is done, Perez will be promptly deported upon leaving jail, and will have to register as a sex offender in case he ever returns. Welcome to Florida!
THE JESSICA LUNSFORD MURDER
Brad King just can't catch a break. When the 5th Circuit state attorney isn't being scolded for the on-again, off-again Dyer prosecution, he's being castigated by the likes of Fox News' bloviator-in-chief Bill O'Reilly, and the equally hyperventilating Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Fla., for his handling of the Jessica Lunsford murder.
Lunsford, of course, was the 9-year-old whose abduction and subsequent killing in March brought the national media to her Homosassa home. Later, registered sex offender John Couey was arrested and reportedly confessed to the crime.
What got O'Reilly and Brown-Waite's panties in a bunch was the fact that King didn't prosecute Couey's three housemates, who apparently hid information about the pervert from authorities while the search for Lunsford was going on, possibly hindering the investigation while she was still alive. King's problem, as he has pointed out repeatedly, is that making a case for anything other than obstruction of justice would be impossible.
O'Reilly made an ass out of himself per usual by sending his crew to hound King and his family, neighbors and co-workers in a supposed quest to discover the "real" reason King wouldn't go on his show. It's kind of a testament to King that the prosecutor stood his ground and refused to bite on the Fox host's poison apple.
For Floridians, Brown-Waite's involvement was an embarrassment, but pretty much what we've come to expect from the woman who suggested exhuming the bodies of World War II vets in France and shipping them back to friendlier soil as a diss to the Iraq-loving Frenchies. She told everyone who would listen that King was a bad prosecutor for not going after Couey's housemates.
But let's not forget a nod to those three housemates, who, though they may not be criminals, did nothing to refute the idea that Florida is chockablock with idiots.
BEARY GETS HIS WOMAN
Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary has embarrassed Central Florida more times than we care to remember during his 12-year tenure, but perhaps nothing made us hang our heads in shame more than the letter he fired off to Alice Gawronski, a woman who had the audacity to criticize the sheriff's department's Taser policy and, perhaps more importantly, Beary's girth in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel. Beary, never one to take criticism in stride, responded by having his underlings go through restricted records and track down the woman's address so he could shoot her an angry letter accusing her of slander.
The FDLE investigated and ruled that Beary hadn't broken any laws. Beary took that as vindication, and blamed the media for blowing the whole thing out of proportion.
In reality, this was another case of Beary giving himself and the 54 percent of Orange County voters who were dumb enough to support him last year a black eye. We can only hope that someday, somehow, Beary will own up to the fact that those who think he's not above criticism may have a point.
Sheriff Beary, please send your scathing rebuke to: Orlando Weekly, c/o Jeffrey C. Billman, 100 W. Livingston St., Orlando, 32801. There, I've saved taxpayers the cost of having your staffers track me down.
And you're fat.
THE MARTINEZ MEMO
It took Martinez only three months after taking his Senate seat to prove he was no longer the thoughtful centrist who headed Orange County government five years ago, and has instead morphed into just another partisan hack shamelessly acting out the will of DeLay and Karl Rove. We're talking, of course, about The Memo.
In case you don't remember, the memo was a list of Republican talking points that was leaked to the Washington Post during the Schiavo affair. They, in essence, detailed what a boon this tragedy could be to the GOP cause, and how Republicans could use it to rally the evangelicals and defeat Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., in 2006.
At first, everyone including Martinez denied authoring it, and the Republican sycophants on talk radio theorized that it was really a Democratic forgery designed to make them look bad. It wasn't.
The pinnacle of this debacle came after one of Martinez's staffers admitted to authoring the memo, and resigned. Then Martinez offered the lamest and most unbelievable explanation in recent memory: He'd never actually read the memo that he passed to a fellow senator, who later turned it over to the press. Instead, Martinez said, it was an innocent mistake. The memo magically appeared in a pile of paperwork he was carrying around and distributing to other senators.
Yeah, whatever, Mel.
This wasn't the first time Martinez passed the buck to underlings for shady political dealings. He did it twice during the campaign, including once when unbeknownst to him, of course his allies painted competitor Bill McCollum as a family-hating homo-lover.
Perhaps Martinez is the perfect senator to represent the country's dumbest state.
KID GETS CUFFED
By now, if you're any sort of consumer of cable TV, you've seen the video: 5-year-old Pinellas County brat Jai-isha Scott throws a temper tantrum at her elementary school, methodically ripping papers off the wall and throwing punches at a principal she dislikes. The cops were called, and they came and "arrested" the little hooligan, cuffing her hands behind her as she screamed "No!" It was fascinating TV.
Yes, the cops overreacted. A 5-year-old poses no threat to armed law enforcement warranting the use of jail bracelets. But that's not what elevates this to the level of Florida-style dumb; it's the reaction of her mother, who by all accounts seems a pretty worthless parent, and black leaders who cried racism that puts this one over the top.
Stupid? Sure. Racist? No.
Inga Akins' first reaction was to sell her story to A Current Affair and threaten a lawsuit. Not that she's in this for profit or anything, but let's look at the facts: A story in The St. Petersburg Times reported that when all this happened, in March, Akins was being evicted from her subsidized apartment. The girl's father had been in and out of jail on drug charges, and Akins herself was arrested in 2002 for driving a car with a stolen license plate, and twice more for failed court appearances, according to the Times. But everyone makes mistakes. A lawsuit can't be far behind.
What's unforgivable is Jai-isha's explanation to A Current Affair. "I didn't like Miss D. [the principal] and I wanted to get out of that school," the girl said. She tried to hit Miss D. because "she wouldn't leave me alone and stay away from me."
So somewhere along the way this 5-year-old learned that violence and vandalism are good tools to get what she wants. Great parenting, Mom.
MANNA FROM HEAVEN
Every so often another story rolls down the pike about a preacher who uses God's good name to bankroll a lavish lifestyle, and Pastor Clint Brown of FaithWorld church is just one more example of this fine breed. What makes this case stand out is the reaction of FaithWorld parishioners upon discovering that their slick-suited preacherman was living the life of Riley: They turned the other cheek and let him hit them again. See, a preacher like Brown can do no wrong.
Brown leads thousands of revelers weekly in worship and sermon before asking that they empty their pocketbooks and assuring them that upon doing so, they'll receive the good Lord's blessing. It's called "prosperity gospel" and Brown is prospering.
If holiness is judged by material possessions, Brown is a candidate for sainthood. News stories that followed his divorce filing and a lawsuit from a former parishioner who claims Brown ripped her off to the tune of $200,000 portrayed Brown's life as heavy on the mammon: Two homes in gated communities worth a combined $1.5 million, paid for by church money; seven cars, including a Porsche, a Hummer and three Mercedes two of the Mercedes came courtesy of the congregation's offerings; $450,000 on church credit cards (much of it spent on jewelry and designer women's clothing); a 2002 income in excess of $650,000, of which $242,000 came from his church salary and a nontaxable housing allowance. (The rest came from the sale of his musical recordings, which are recorded on church premises.)
After stories about his spending appeared on TV, Brown blamed Satan, of course. "If they crucified Jesus," he said in comments reported by the Sentinel, "they're going to talk about me."
Yeah, but Jesus didn't drive a Hummer.
And last we have the garage jumpers or, as we like to call this item, Darwinism in action. In February, reports surfaced of a spate of "young adults" who had taken to jumping from one 80-foot-tall downtown Orlando parking garage to another 80-foot-tall parking garage. Predictably enough, some of them weren't quite up to the task and plummeted to the ground below. At least two people have "nearly died," according to a WKMG-Channel 6 news story.
This being Florida, some of these bright lights decided to blame the structures themselves. For example there's Melinda Norstein, who shattered 22 bones in a six-story fall: "Some people are thrill seekers, which Melinda was not," her lawyer told WKMG. "She wasn't thrill seeking. She did it because she felt she needed to do it under the circumstances she faced."
See, Norstein thought it safer to jump from one high-rise to another than to walk downstairs and over to the garage next door. For that, Norstein told WKMG, she takes "partial responsibility." But not all responsibility, of course, because the parking garage owners should have known she was going to jump, and they should have prevented it. Or at least made jumping safer. Or something.
Melinda Norstein, you're right at home in the Sunshine State.