On the campaign trail in District 21

by Marihelen Wheeler

Five years and counting, I’ve been on the campaign trail, offering my time and energy to go and “fix” what ails us in this country.

As a recently retired educator of 37 years, I am confident that I must surely have some solutions to the issues that grip and gripe the middle class and am hoping that voters will somehow agree.

Since March, I have been campaigning for the Florida House 21 seat that is being vacated by Keith Perry. An open seat often means a scramble by candidates to rush to the front and claim it for their own. In this case, three Republicans ran forward to the primary, and then there was me waiting to see who would be my challenger in November.

Now, District 21 is a remarkable district that runs west from 13th Street in Gainesville through Gilchrist and Dixie Counties to the Gulf of Mexico. It includes the academics and entrepreneurs in Gainesville, as well as the farmers, small businessmen, corrections officers, watermen and women who work the rural and coastal areas. 

I love going to the country. It is a welcome relief from phone banking and canvassing and gives me a chance to remind those registered Democrats in outlying areas that they have a candidate they can vote for in 2016. It’s exciting to start up a conversation that somehow begins with the question “Are you voting for Hillary”? That used to unnerve me a bit until I remind folks that as a teacher trying to correct bullying and rude behaviors, I can’t vote for anyone else.

I follow up quickly, and I mean quickly, with the thought that Washington doesn’t know we exist down here and that Tallahassee is where our trouble is coming from. That seems to settle the question pretty well as people acknowledge the truth of it.

I’ve been disappointed not to have had the forums in Gilchrist and Dixie Counties to actually tell voters who I am as a person. They may look at the “D” by my name and discount me because of what they perceive the party to represent and not know that in truth, I connect with them on many levels.

First, I’m a Kentucky girl who grew up in a small rural and conservative part of western Kentucky. I went to the county high school with FFA, 4-H, MYF and all the youth organizations set up for country kids. Many folks I’ve met in rural District 21 have relatives in Kentucky and enjoy the same hunting and fishing that my brothers do. My maiden name is Haddock, a great tasting fish, and my family coat of arms is a hand holding a fish!

I was born on the Gulf in Biloxi, Mississippi when my father was in the Air Force. My husband is an Army veteran.  I grew up listening to my grandfather tell Civil War stories that he heard from his grandfather.  We lived six miles from where Jefferson Davis was born and where there is a monument as tall as the Washington Monument dedicated to him. I even have two letters  from Jefferson Davis, himself, written to family members that I keep in the bank vault here in Gainesville.

I once won a DAR contest on the delivery of the Gettysburg Address. I can relate to the history that so many Southerners hold so close to their hearts and have grown up with the problems also associated with holding that history too close and for too long. 

I have not been able to tell the Dixie County folks that I was trained along with other teachers to fire a gun, get a concealed weapons license and be prepared to protect my students from a maniac wielding an assault rifle. That license alone would scare someone to death as my photo makes me look like Ma Barker.

I have wanted to say that my father was Field Commander of the Kentucky State Police and my sister Commissioner of Prisons, and I have felt the fear of families sending their law enforcement officers out to work. I understand rifles, shotguns and revolvers, but I  need someone from the NRA to explain to me the need for assault rifles and magazines that hold a gazillion rounds of ammo. I come from a tradition of hunting as sport for food or basic protection from rabid animals, or to warn off drunken ridgerunners in Eastern Kentucky. This kind of gun use, I get.

My visits to Dixie County have felt like “daycations” as I come back to Gainesville feeling like I have had a visit with homefolks and family.

I look forward to more conversations about how we can protect the beloved Suwannee River. I want to tell them that Texas Oil Companies do not have their best interests at heart and that they are wise to protect the unique persona of their small town life. If given the chance I would remind them that the folks from South Florida are looking to their country cousins in the North for refuge when the waters get too high or polluted there.

I would assure them, that as an educator of 37 years, I support the need to ensure their children are properly educated and receive vocational opportunities. I want to tell them that I appreciate the beauty of their history and their culture and that I am not unlike them in so many ways. I can be their voice, complete with the sweet southern accent that softens all polite conversations.

Likewise, I also have the same fierce defiance and grit required when home and family is attacked as we can see is happening on so many fronts in Florida. Folks in Dixie County make sensible decisions for the wellbeing of their communities and are proud of their history. I’m the candidate who gets that and I’m hoping to be the candidate who gets their vote.

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