How the Trayvon Martin Case Is Changing Florida Politics

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April 11 2012 7:16 PM

The Trayvon Election

How the Martin case is changing Florida politics.

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Trayvon Martin supporters gather for a rally in his honor in Florida, where local politicians are scrambling to position themselves in relation to the case

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Related in Slate: George Zimmerman has been formally charged with second-degree murder.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

It took 14 sheriff’s deputies to storm the Orlando barbershop in August 2010. The barbers, hard at work, were handcuffed. Brian Berry, the owner of Strictly Skillz, looked on as his shop was raided, then swept by the police for drugs. They didn’t find any. They left. The barbers sued for damages.

The lawsuit dragged on, and was still unresolved as of last month, when Central Florida was consumed by the story of Trayvon Martin. On March 26, supporters of the Martin family held a community hearing in Eatonville, one of the first all-black towns founded after the Civil War. Jesse Jackson was there, as was Al Sharpton, as was Jerry Demings, the sheriff of Orlando’s Orange County. It was that sheriff’s department that the Strictly Skillz barbers had sued, with the help of lawyer Benjamin Crump. Crump’s law firm, still working on the barbershop case, was now cycling its attorneys from TV studio to cable-news truck to talk about the Martin case.

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What did the barbers think of all this? Did it strike them as odd that the Orange County sheriff was there supporting the Martin family? That their own lawyers were more focused on the media melee than the pending barbershop case? No, actually, not odd at all. Visit Strictly Skillz today and you see a T-shirt pinned on the wall, with one of the famous smiling photos of the dead teenager and the words I AM TRAYVON MARTIN.

“It’s a tragedy,” says Berry. “I think everybody in Orlando’s watching this, and the nation’s watching this. Everybody wants justice.”

All other grievances are temporarily on hold. Nothing else in Florida politics matters as much right now as the state’s attorney investigation of the Martin killing or the debate over the Stand Your Ground law. And notably it’s Democrats, who have been on the losing end of “law and order” politics since 1966 or so, who are having an easier time talking about this subject.

Florida is one of seven states where state’s attorneys are elected to handle cases in several different counties. Sanford resides in Seminole County, which together with neighboring Brevard County make up the 18th state’s attorney district. It’s a partisan office, and Democrats haven’t even bothered to run for it since the 1980s. But they’re running for it this year. The current state’s attorney is retiring—he removed himself from the Martin case, handing it over to a special prosecutor.

Ryan Vescio, a Democrat, is an assistant state’s attorney for two neighboring counties. He got into the 18th race three months before Martin was killed. He’s talked about the case whenever it’s come up.

“Natalie Jackson, one of the attorneys on this case—Natalie and I have worked on community issues for a few years now,” said Vescio. “I asked Natalie: How’s everything going? How’s the family doing? When did the state’s attorney reach out to talk to them? And she said they never even reached out to her to talk to them. That’s absolutely standard protocol! This is the job. We aren’t selling lemonade on the side of the road.”

Vescio’s Republican opponent will be probably Phil Archer, an assistant state’s attorney in the Seminole/Brevard office. He didn’t personally handle the Martin case. (We’re talking about a big office, with a budget close to $20 million.) I asked him why the office backed off the Martin case.

“A lot of community leaders preferred that an outside agency be involved,” said Archer. “Because of the rhetoric, because of the outcry and the attention, it was better to have an agency outside the circle investigate this.” This was pretty much all he wanted to say about the “extraordinary” case. “All candidates—well, everyone, but especially candidates—should refrain from discussing the case until the investigation is closed. We’ve been hearing some accusations made by community members, and candidates, that may not be true. I think that poisons the well.”

From the start, the Martin killing has been an emotional issue for black Americans, who have rallied around the Martin family. We don’t have good polling yet in Florida, where the issues are especially raw. But we do have polls from the rest of the country. According to Pew, only 24 percent of white people said they were following the story closely (compared to 58 percent of black respondents), and 43 percent said the coverage went overboard. Democrats were twice as likely to follow the story as Republicans.

Gallup’s poll had better details. Among black Americans, 51 percent said they believe George Zimmerman is guilty of a crime; among non-blacks, the number was 11 percent. Seventy-two percent of blacks said racial bias was a “major factor” in the case. Among whites? Thirty-one percent. The poll was taken after President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” and before NBC News fired a producer for editing George Zimmerman’s 911 call in a manner that made him sound like he was out to kill black people.

Florida politicians are well aware of the polls. “I don’t know if there is a division,” said Vescio, “unless it’s just that that people don’t like the spokesmen who’ve stood up for one side or the other.” He wasn’t referring to anyone by name, but the situation in Sanford is following a well-established pattern, one familiar from other cases that made race a political issue. Civil rights leaders arrive; those leaders are attacked as “race hustlers”; local politicians try to turn the story in their favor, in this case by convening “Stand Your Ground” forums and mounting attacks on the city of Sanford itself.

The last stop I made in Sanford was at the Willow Tree Café, an old German restaurant with a patio suitable for parties. On this particular day the patio had been taken over by the Don Miller Show, a Central Florida black talk-radio forum that was spending two hours on “healing Sanford.” (The show had printed up T-shirts for the occasion.) Rep. Corrine Brown, the Democrat who represents the city, rolled by the café with a small entourage, bursting with pride about the neighborhood. “Everybody likes the Riverwalk?” she said. “Well, if you want to know where those funds came from …”

Brown sat for a short, boosterish segment about the city, then stopped to talk to adoring constituents. What could she do about the Martin case, a constituent asked. Well, maybe there’d be another look at Stand Your Ground, but “it’s not going to pass in this time period.” What else could politicians spend their time on? “We can look at the do’s and don’ts of community watch.” It’s the case that no politician can avoid talking about.