This paper is being printed as votes are being counted in the most historic state election of our lifetimes. Publication schedules don’t allow for analysis of that until next week. However, there is no better time than now to talk about the mechanics of covering these campaigns and these candidates. Reporting on campaigns from Northeast Florida is interesting; you don’t really get the same show the rest of the state does.
Take the Democrats. Bernie Sanders doesn’t make it this far north, but we got Joe Biden this year. See, we’re blue collar. Not progressive.
Republicans. We get a lot of rollouts. Ron DeSantis rolled out a new coalition of support every week. Rick Scott definitely spent his share of time in Duval County also.
Republicans like Duval, because it’s basically a homecoming game. Top reporters rarely attend Republican gaggle stops, and questions are often softballs. While reporters from Tampa, Orlando, and Miami get to break big news and ask adversarial questions, here it is possible to get through a gaggle without anything but the sanitized message the campaign wants pushed.
My take: the gaggle is where we get to ask the interesting questions.
Near the campaign’s end, I covered DeSantis at a Republican Party of Florida “headquarters,” a strip-mall cubbyhole on San Jose Boulevard. POTUS had called Andrew Gillum a “stone cold thief” and I wanted to know how DeSantis felt about that exact phrasing.
DeSantis, a prosecutor before he got into the politics game, knows how the spirited give-and-take of a gaggle goes. It was formula: me asking the redirects, him with the dodge.
The interesting variable was a hostile crowd jeering as I asked the questions. I used to be a fan of Gordon Solie’s Championship Wrestling from Florida, and the heat was surreally reminiscent of the old Dusty Rhodes/Kevin Sullivan days, a function of the cramped quarters and a roomful of people who couldn’t tell shoot from kayfabe.
A journalist has to do the job. At least until we burn out and move into PR.
There’s a paradox in this business. If you don’t do the work in the trenches, the powers that be have no incentive to work with you. You know going in that you are disposable and that your work will be forgotten as soon as you’re gone. You are David against an army of Goliaths. And your slingshot is out of warranty.
So you ask the tough questions even if the crowd boos you. Someone has to. Especially in this market, which they think is a pushover.
Throughout the primary, I covered Andrew Gillum a lot—more than anyone in the area. Possibly more than everyone combined.
What I saw at those Gillum events belied the polls. The numbers showed him way back, but the stops were drawing people. People young enough, or idealistic enough, to still believe that change was possible.
Just before the primary, I covered a Gillum rally Downtown. It was at a packed club, and he worked the stage like a headlining MC. I knew then that the final tally would be close.
What interested me, though, during Gillum’s rise was that Democratic donors
in the state were staying away. (People from other Democratic campaigns said, off the record, it was that FBI investigation you may have heard about.) Yet third-party groups were pouring huge money in, behind a mayor of a city who didn’t have a progressive record matching the platform.
I asked Gillum how he’d control the playlist if billionaires kept picking the songs on the jukebox. He answered the questions in that way politicians on the way up talk to journalists during unguarded moments, before every national media outlet wants them in the A Block.
I got a lot of good stories out of this campaign, though not enough for a book. Opportunities abound for local media going forward.
It would be ideal if pols faced more gaggles with tough questions. They treat us like a small town. In part, that’s because they know the people covering their events often cover them like spot stories.
We are going into an era of change, both in state government and local affairs.
In many ways, we’ve seen drastic improvements in coverage. City Hall is peppered with public records requests from every media outlet, and the smart reporters in radio, TV and print compete for scoops but support each other in pursuit of an objective truth.
We should see that same spirit in local media coverage of larger state government, especially when state policy intersects with local issues—but also when it’s clear they are announcing something here because the most plugged-in reporters are elsewhere.