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Florida’s famed weirdness creeping into political races

by Gary Fineout

AP

Florida’s penchant for the weird and strange — often manifested in new forms of criminal behavior (think chasing people through a store with a live alligator) — is so prevalent it has created a cottage industry of chroniclers and followers.

But, like a contagion that has escaped a hermetically sealed lab, the swamp fever of Florida weirdness appears to be spreading now to the politicians who represent the state’s nearly 21 million residents.

Over the past week, a legislative candidate staged an elaborate scam to try to convince people she was a college graduate. Another candidate had to deny putting out a Facebook ad accusing an opponent of distributing tainted breast milk. And then there is the thing about sphincter bleaching (more on that later).

Even for longtime followers of the Florida experience (guns, gators, greed) this is a bit confounding.

“Florida politics has always been as weird as Florida in general, but this year has seen a Twilight Zone level of campaign screw-ups, oddball candidates, post-Republican Trumpers in all their lunatic glory, edge cases, easily debunked fraudsters and a cavalcade of stupid,” said Rick Wilson, a GOP consultant whose recently channeled his hostility toward the president into a best-selling book. “The political subspecies of ‘Florida man’ is in full glory.”

Ah yes, Florida man. The now-revered meme and trope about bizarre incidents in the Sunshine State often spreads across the internet faster than a startled palmetto bug in the middle of the night.

It does not, on most days, refer to those men and women who have sought public office. (Although the record must reflect some notable incidents over the years, including a fist fight in the Florida House of Representatives, a parking lot brawl instigated by insults hurled on the radio, and a county commissioner who fled the country amid a tangled tale involving drugs and a stolen car.)

But consider these recent events:

A city commission candidate on Florida’s east coast told The Daytona Beach News-Journal on Wednesday that his Facebook account had been hacked and that the hacker had put up an ad attacking his opponent for passing on genetically defective breast milk.

Melissa Howard, a candidate for the Florida Legislature, dropped out of her race this past week after it was revealed that she had falsely claimed to have a college degree and posted a purported copy of her diploma online. Howard had previously posted a photo of herself with what looked like a Miami University diploma. But the Ohio university later sent reporters a statement saying she attended the school, but never graduated.

The Miami Herald reported that the mayor of Hallandale Beach in south Florida on Monday accused a city commissioner of making a living from “sphincter bleaching” after she questioned whether he made a living at all. Mayor Keith London was appointed to his job earlier this year after the previous mayor was arrested and charged with accepting illegal Russian campaign donations.

The Herald acknowledged it wasn’t clear what London meant. Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub’s mother does own a spa that sells skin-bleaching cream, but she told the paper she doesn’t work there.

One veteran political observer in Florida isn’t convinced that Floridians are witnessing a new trend. Instead, Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist, contends the rise of social media has made it more likely that such incidents get attention.

“I don’t think it’s any more or less crazy,” Schale said. “I think it’s more out there. … For democracy to be representative, the public space is going to have its share of people who are nuts.”

OK, America, you have been warned.