Christie: 2018 election: Florida’s environment don’t get no respect, no respect at all

Although Florida’s economy is heavily dependent on the environment, most political candidates are loathe to put, and keep those issues out front during a campaign.

The state’s environment could use a little more respect from political candidates this election season.

For the past several weeks, candidates have been trying to figure what issues are most important to voters. With some individual races as tight as they are, every hopeful running — be it for county commission or state senate — knows hitting on that one topic that resonates with voters can move the needle just enough to eke out a win. (Well, that and spending a lot of money on the campaign in the last couple weeks.)

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But what are those hot-button voter issues?

Is it education? We do have a flashpoint issue in school security. There’s is also the much bigger issue of our K-12 public schools being in the bottom fifth in the nation. And Florida’s horrendous teacher pay has actually resulted in a shortage of about 4,000 teachers statewide to begin the 2018-19 school year.

Is it the economy? We do have this issue that, despite all the jobs created the last several years, too many residents complain they need two or three of them to make ends meet. That’s what happens when most of the jobs created are minimum wage. Meanwhile, the cost of housing is going through the roof in many places like, well, Palm Beach County.

Is it the environment? Or as I call it, “the Rodney Dangerfield of primary ballot issues.” Voters are witnessing a red tide causing massive fish kills, and manatee and turtle deaths up and down the Southwest Florida coast. They are watching the ongoing green goo affectionately known as “toxic blue-green algae” find its way into the backyard waterways of Treasure Coast residents. And of course, there’s that long-term, existential threat to our very way of life that everyone fears but few want to talk about: sea level rise. (That’s right, I said it.)

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In a survey released by the USA Today Network and Florida Atlantic University in June, voters said the environment was their No. 3 concern after economy and school safety, respectively. But unlike these first two, environmental issues cannot seem to get and/or maintain traction on the campaign trail.

How can that be, one might ask, when dead manatees are floating into marinas? How can that be when water is submerging roads and parks during King tides? And how can that be when several Martin County beaches — Jensen, Stuart, Bathtub and Hobe Sound  — are the latest to close as blue-green algae and red tide continue to spread throughout the state of Florida.

Venting on social media by irate residents about red tide and blue-green algae has gotten so bad that law enforcement is on edge.

A 250-pound Goliath grouper floats in the water in Sanibel, where red tide is killing millions of fish in Sanibel. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

And on August 13, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency over the ongoing toxic red tide bloom.

“The red tide, which grows offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, has drifted toward the coast and is being blamed for killing scores of animals, including manatees, turtles, and thousands of fish,” reported Palm Beach Post staff writer Kimberly Miller.

But around that same time, when he had the opportunity to confront Treasure Coast residents about the blue-green goo that’s ruining their fishing and boating, Scott elected to do the equivalent of a boating flyover — leaving residents and their questions hanging.

Algae in the Caloosahatchee River beside the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva, Fla. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The governor-turned-U.S. Senate candidate isn’t much different from his political brethren on this front; though most can seem to muster a bit more face-to-face compassion. Still, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine tried to ride his sea-level-rise street cred to the top of the ticket, it didn’t work that well. Sure, voters like that stuff. But who can focus on an environmental threat when another candidate is accusing you of being a supporter of President Donald Trump, and guns are blazing at high school football games?

As a result, the environment gets pushed to the back-burner in a state that built its image off of sunshine and beautiful beaches. The state’s three-legged economy — tourism, agriculture and real estate — is so dependent on the environment that every storm season holds the potential to lay waste to all three. Witness: Hurricane Irma.

But so short is our attention span in this era of breaking news that environmental issues, even when they are staring us in the face daily — again, I mention toxic red tide and green algae — can’t keep a politician’s attention. Today, for example, in the wake of a mass shooting at a gaming tournament on Sunday in Jacksonville, gun control is the topic du jour.

Sigh… maybe it will be different in the general election campaign.

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