First And Main
10:25 pm
Tue August 7, 2012

Florida Market Draws Candidates Like Bees To Honey

Originally published on Wed August 8, 2012 2:36 pm

As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition has begun a series of reports from an iconic American corner: First and Main. Several times in the next few months, we'll travel to a battleground state, then to a vital county in each state. In that county, we find a starting point for our visit: First and Main streets, the intersection of politics and real life.

In the swing state of Florida, in the political battleground of Hillsborough County, First and Main sits in a suburban Tampa trailer park. As you travel out from there, you find the county not only includes the city of Tampa, but also extensive farm regions.

One place you might have glimpsed on the news in the past is Plant City, which has become a stopping point for presidential candidates hunting for votes.

The Parkesdale Farm Market has been along this highway for many years. It has grown from a simple fruit stand to a full-blown farmers market, where you can get every kind of vegetable, depending on the season. Here, "where strawberries are king," the offerings include strawberry shortcake and strawberry milkshakes.

We sat down with Jim Meeks, whose family has run this place for decades.

"When people are hurting a little bit [and] they want to stretch the dollar, they come to places like mine," Meeks says.

They especially come for cheap food in the winter, which around here is strawberry-harvesting season.

Despite the financial crisis, Meeks says, his market has never made less than the year before.

A Swing-State Superhighway

Some customers want more than a milkshake.

Plant City spreads out along Interstate 4, which reaches northeastward across the heart of the Florida peninsula, from Hillsborough County through Orlando and beyond. You could think of it as a giant Main Street for central Florida.

Politicians know this populous highway corridor contains many swing voters.

"If they can get this corridor on their side, they've got it made," Meeks says. "Everybody admits that if you take the corridor, you take Florida."

Republican presidential candidate John McCain dropped by this fruit stand in 2008. On another day, Sarah Palin's bus pulled into the parking lot.

"[She] tried to come in, with her bus and everything, but there were so many people here, she ... could not get off the bus," Meeks recalls. "I gave her a milkshake — and the rest of the people on the bus. That's how busy it was."

He doesn't always get notice when politicians are stopping by.

"When Obama came here, I didn't get any," he says. "The guys come out here and they say, 'We want to bring somebody here in about 30 minutes,' and I said, 'You can bring anybody you want to here. We love to have people.' And I didn't know who it was until he walked in.

"I did make a milkshake [for] him, and I told him if he didn't drink it, he would not be elected. ... And he laughed and he said, 'Well, give me one.' "

Obama did win, though it was McCain who got Meeks' vote.

At the time, he said, there wasn't anything he particularly wanted to hear about from the candidates, but "now there is."

"I just think because I am an independent little-business guy, I think we're getting pushed around a little bit, you know," he says. "It seems like there's going to be a bunch of taxes and things [that are] going to affect us.

"From what I've heard — there's going to be some more regulations and more rules and more laws."

He says nothing has really changed yet, "but I have the feeling."

Health Care Uncertainty

We talked about this at a picnic table in an area decorated with red-and-green tinsel, in honor of Plant City strawberries.

Meeks says if President Obama drops by again this fall, he'd want to ask him about taxes and regulation. His daughter-in-law, Xiomara Meeks, says she'd like to ask either candidate, Obama or Republican Mitt Romney, about affordable health care.

Xiomara Meeks is part of Florida's growing Puerto Rican community. She's a geologist who now manages the books at this family business. Her 4-year-old daughter was born just in time for Obama to be photographed holding the baby in 2008.

As the manager of a family business, she is a fan of the president's health care law.

"As a business owner, we have our own personal insurance policy, and ... it's a lot of money every month, you know, and in order to afford it, we have such a high deductible," she says. "I'm lucky that I can afford it, but a lot of people can't.

"And I don't see the benefit of not helping other people to be able to afford their health insurance instead of running to the emergency [room], you know, and having all those bills go unpaid for the hospitals."

It was only recently that Jim and Xiomara Meeks got to thinking seriously about what the health care law means for them. They were prompted by this summer's Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law.

"We're really not sure exactly what's going to happen to us," Jim Meeks says.

As for the cost of subsidizing health insurance for others, he says: "How much they want from me?"

Businesses with more than 50 employees are supposed to offer health insurance plans or pay a fine. This small business, with fewer than 50 employees, should not be affected, though Jim Meeks doesn't quite believe that.

That's a consistent theme among conservative voters we met in Hillsborough County: They're less concerned with what the president has actually done these last four years than what they fear he might do.

"From what I know and what I feel, the ... 50 employees is just the beginning because there's an awful lot of companies that have 15, 20, 30 people. Eventually they're going to get them, too," Jim Meeks says. "They're going to get down there."

"That's the disagreement," Xiomara Meeks says. "I say that they won't and he says that they will."

Common Ground

Jim and Xiomara Meeks don't agree on how to vote.

She's for Obama. He's against the president — not excited about Romney, he says, though the Republican will get his vote.

Still, they don't disagree on every issue.

As we talked, both brought up migrant workers, many of them immigrants, who pick the strawberries around here.

"If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be here. People don't understand that. If you live in a subdivision someplace, you don't understand that," Jim Meeks says. "If they were to kick all of [the immigrants] out, and we had to buy our food ... from Venezuela, Chile, Mexico — they would scream bloody murder at the prices that they would have to pay."

The migrant workers move to different states in different seasons. Sometimes they're in Florida, sometimes in Ohio.

And in that way, they resemble the presidential candidates who've come to the Parkesdale Market in the past, and who may well migrate here again for strawberry milkshakes this election season.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This week, MORNING EDITION is traveling to an iconic American intersection. It's the intersection of politics and real life: the corner of First and Main.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're visiting a series of presidential swing states. We're meeting voters in battleground counties, beginning in each county at First and Main Street.

MONTAGNE: This week's reporting began at the corner of First and Main in a suburban Tampa trailer park, and ranges out from there, across Hillsborough County, Florida.

INSKEEP: The county includes the cities of Tampa, and also extensive farm regions. The farm zone includes Plant City, Florida, a place you may have glimpsed on the news in past presidential campaigns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Well, the speakers are playing the hits of a past decade here at the Parkesdale market, which has been along this highway for many years and has grown from a simple fruit stand into a full-blown farmers market where you can get every kind of vegetable, depending on the season. You can also get strawberry shortcakes and strawberry shakes, which are delicious - tiny bits of strawberry at the bottom of the cup.

We sat down with Jim Meeks, whose family has been running this place for decades, along with his daughter-in-law, Xiamara Meeks.

JIM MEEKS: When people are hurting a little bit, they want to stretch the dollar, they come to places like mine.

INSKEEP: They especially come for cheap food in the winter, which around here is strawberry harvesting season.

So if you look back over the last, I don't know, five years - I mean, since the financial crisis started, what's the pattern of business? Did it go down at all? Has it gone up the whole time?

MEEKS: We've never had a bad - never had a year less than the last one.

INSKEEP: Some customers want more than a milkshake. Plant City spreads out along Interstate Four, which reaches northeastward across the heart of the Florida peninsula, from Hillsborough County through Orlando and beyond. You could think of it as a giant Main Street for Central Florida.

Politicians know this populous highway corridor contains a lot of swing voters.

MEEKS: If they can get this corridor on their side, they've got it made. Everybody admits that if you take the corridor, you take Florida.

INSKEEP: Which is why John McCain dropped by this fruit stand in 2008. On another day, Sarah Palin's bus pulled into the parking lot.

MEEKS: Tried to come in with her bus and everything, but there were so many people here, she couldn't get off it.

INSKEEP: Sarah Palin couldn't get off her bus.

MEEKS: She could not get off the bus. I gave her a milkshake, and the rest of the people in the bus. That's how busy it was.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: They ordered to go.

MEEKS: OK, fine.

INSKEEP: How much notice do you get?

MEEKS: When Obama came here, I didn't get any. The guys come out here, and they say we want to bring somebody here in about 30 minutes. I said, you can bring anybody you want to. But we love to have people. And I didn't know who it was until he walked in. And but I did make a milkshake to him. And I told him, if he didn't drink it, he would be elected.

(LAUGHTER)

MEEKS: I told him like that, and he laughed. And he said, well, give me one.

INSKEEP: Obama did win, although it was John McCain who got the vote of Jim Meeks.

Did you have anything you wanted to know from either candidate in 2008?

MEEKS: Not really. Now there is.

(LAUGHTER)

MEEKS: I don't know, I just think - because I am an independent, little-business guy. I think we're getting pushed around a little bit, you know. It seems like there's going to be a bunch of new taxes and things that are going to affect us. From what I've heard, there's going to be some, you know, more regulations and more rules and more laws.

INSKEEP: Has anything actually changed for you? Is the regulatory situation any different than it was a few years back?

MEEKS: Not really. But I have a feeling.

INSKEEP: We talked about this while sitting at a picnic table, in an area decorated with red and green tinsel, in honor of Plant City strawberries.

So if either of the candidates came right now, if President Obama drops by again this fall - which could happen, I suppose.

MEEKS: Mm-hmm. It really could.

INSKEEP: You might ask him about taxes...

MEEKS: I will.

INSKEEP: ...and regulations. What would you ask him about, if you get a chance to chat with either one, Obama or Romney?

XIOMARA MEEKS: Affordable health care.

INSKEEP: That's Jim Meeks' daughter-in-law, Xiomara. She's part of Florida's growing Puerto Rican community, a geologist who now manages the books at this family business. Her four-year-old daughter was born just in time for Barack Obama to be photographed holding the baby in 2008. She is a fan of the president's health care law.

MEEKS: As a business owner, we have our own personal insurance policy, and it's a lot of money every month, you know. And in order to afford it, we have such a high deductible. I'm lucky that I can afford it, but a lot of people can't. And I don't see the benefit of not helping other people to be able to afford their health insurance instead of running to the emergency, you know, and having all those bills go unpaid for the hospital.

INSKEEP: It was only recently that Jim and Xiomara got to thinking seriously about what the health care law means for them. They were prompted by this summer's Supreme Court ruling that upheld the law.

MEEKS: We're really not sure exactly what's going to happen to us.

INSKEEP: And as for the cost of subsidizing health insurance for others, Jim Meeks says: How much they want from me? Businesses with over 50 employees are supposed to offer health insurance plans or pay a fine. This small business, with fewer than 50 employees, should not be affected, though Jim Meeks doesn't quite believe that.

That's a consistent theme among conservative voters we met in Hillsborough County. They are less concerned with what the president has actually done these last four years than what they fear he might do.

MEEKS: From what I know and what I feel, 50 employees is just the beginning. Because there're an awful lot of companies that have 15, 20, 30 people. Eventually, they're going to get them, too. They're going to get down there.

MEEKS: Well, that's the disagreement, that I say that they won't, and he says that they will.

INSKEEP: Jim and Xiomara Meeks also disagree on how to vote this fall. She's for President Obama. He's against the president - not excited about Mitt Romney, he says, though Romney will get his vote. Still, they don't disagree on every issue. As we talked, both brought up migrant workers, many of them immigrants, who pick the strawberries around here.

MEEKS: If wasn't for them, we wouldn't be here. People don't understand that. If you live in a subdivision someplace, you don't understand that.

INSKEEP: Don't understand that legal or illegal immigrant labor is supporting a lot of the country. That's what you're saying.

MEEKS: Yeah. Absolutely.

MEEKS: Yeah. That's right. Exactly. If they were to kick all of them out, and we had to buy our food - which we do have to sometimes when we get bad weather - from Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, they would scream bloody murder at the prices they would have to pay.

INSKEEP: The migrant workers move to different states in different seasons. Sometimes they're in Florida, sometimes in Ohio. And in that way, they resemble the presidential candidates who've come to the Parkesdale Market in the past, and who may well migrate here again for strawberry milkshakes this election season.

Mm. Oh, you can really taste the strawberry. That's great.

MEEKS: Well, you know, that's the deal. You can really taste the strawberries.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: We're listening to voters in our series First and Main. And tomorrow, we'll meet a Florida voter who grew up picking Hillsborough County strawberries as a migrant farm worker.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, since I was around nine years old, until I was in high school. I didn't like being the kid who was poor, and got picked on. You show up in the middle of the school year, you're Mexican, so obviously, you must pick tomatoes.

INSKEEP: We'll hear how those experiences influences her politics, tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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