TRENTON, Fla. —Casey Mitchell points them out, one by one.
“There are seven people packing that I see right now,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell is standing on the Trenton High side of a rivalry high-school football game with Chiefland High. When Mitchell says “packing,” he means that they are carrying guns.
One … two … three … four …
“Actually, not sure about that one,” he says. He finds a seventh one anyway.
The point, Mitchell tries to make repeatedly to a reporter from New York, is that what would be crazy to people in New York isn’t crazy in Florida. Mitchell is a constituent of Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), who has made waves as a freshman congressman for saying things that are deemed controversial.
Yoho’s latest questionable remark is on the issue of the debt ceiling, which he doesn’t think should be raised because of a belief that hitting it would “bring stability to world markets.” Economists in New York and elsewhere feel differently about that. The Treasury Department has warned of economic calamity rivaling anything outside of the Great Depression.
“Again, the tsunami is the debt ceiling debate,” Yoho said in an interview. “And you saw where I stand on that. Not raising the debt ceiling is not an automatic trigger for a default.
“I want to say that again, so you get it right. Not raising the debt ceiling is not an automatic trigger for default.”
When you talk to his constituents, it’s not hard to understand where those feelings come from.
The vast majority of those in Yoho’s district — one that is heavily rural and conservative outside of the liberal Gainesville and blue Alachua County — are driven by the belief that the nation’s debt is out of control.
Some are to the “right” of Yoho — they believe the nation should have to balance its budget and that the debt ceiling should never have to be raised again.
Some are to the “left” — though they are aware that failing to raise the nation’s $US16.7 trillion debt ceiling could bring economic calamity, they believe that the mentality of “kicking the can down the road” will only delay the inevitable doom of a piling-up national debt. Better to get it out of the way now.
Many are united, though, in their steadfastness against increasing the nation’s borrowing limit, whatever the reason.
Mitchell, for one, is an example of how strongly the residents of North Central Florida feel about the ongoing fiscal debates in Washington. He is a livestock inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is furloughed from his job because of the federal government shutdown. If Monday comes and goes without a resolution, he’ll miss a paycheck.
And if Republicans get some kind of concession in a deal that really addresses spending, Mitchell says it will have been worth it.
“We need to break the cycle of dependency on government,” Mitchell said. “We are enslaving people. There are three generations … that have been enslaved by the government. There’s almost no going back.”
In a crowd of hundreds of people at the biggest high-school rivalry game in the area, it takes about 15 people to find a detractor. One of them is John, a retired school administrator who didn’t want to give his last name.
“There are poor old ladies who are worried about their Social Security checks,” he said, adding that he’s also worried about his own check. “We need to get this over with.”
John voted for Ted Yoho in the 2012 election. A lot of people in Yoho’s district voted for him — he won the general election by a landslide after pulling off a huge upset of 24-year incumbent Republican Rep. Cliff Stearns in the primary.
Part of the reason that Yoho made waves on the national scene and shocked Stearns in the primary is due to his average, everyman reputation and the fact that, being in the community for 20-plus years as a large-animal veterinarian, he knows a lot of people.
Yoho doesn’t practice anymore — but sometimes, when a patient comes calling, he’ll still do a favour. Kat Cammack, Yoho’s chief of staff, says he’ll occasionally still be fresh off a flight into Gainesville, in Washington-clad suit and tie, when he’ll get a call from someone asking if he just has a couple seconds to take a look at a minor problem with one of their animals.
He almost always has a couple seconds.
This is the type of personality that won Yoho a seat in Congress. But once in a while, people like John wish Yoho would just say no. John is a registered Republican, and he’s worried about the future of the Republican Party beyond Florida’s District 3.
“Find another way. Win elections,” John said. “If you keep going like this, you’re not going to win one for a long time.”
Therein lies the problem. As Jeremiah Tattersall exasperatedly puts it, Yoho is living in an echo chamber with people just like him. That’s what happens when you win a district drawn in such a way that you win 65% of the vote.
“You answer to birthers. You answer to people who seriously believe you’re like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks and would be standing next to them,” said Tattersall, a field staff of the North Central Florida Central Labour Council, a group that opposes Yoho and often demonstrates against him.
“And you answer to people who don’t believe the debt ceiling is a real thing.”
Tattersall is right. If you walk up to 20 people at random at various points in this district, there’s a good chance that at least 15 will appreciate the fight in which Yoho is participating on their behalf in Washington. The economists’ warnings, the temporary Wall Street freak outs — nothing has tempered their willingness to engage in this battle.
Why aren’t you concerned about defaulting?
“The people who are saying that are using scare tactics,” said Todd Newtown, the clerk of the Circuit Court in Trenton.
It’s almost a unanimous consensus among economists.
“Well, sure, the Ivy League liberals …”
There are more than a few Republicans and conservatives who agree that breaching the debt ceiling and risking default would be dangerous, no?
“I think they’ve bought into the scare tactics.”
Conversations like these are aplenty.
What do you think would happen if we breach the debt ceiling?
“I think it would be like the opposite of the bailout of GM,” said Caroline Vickers, a Trenton resident, referring to the auto industry bailout of 2008 and 2009. “We shouldn’t have done that. If you make poor decisions, you have to suffer the consequences.”
“We stop borrowing now, and start spending with what we have,” added David Biddle, a state committeeman in the Florida GOP. He theorized that there is enough revenue coming in every day that it would force Washington to make tough spending choices on the fly.
“There’s a scare tactic out there that if we breach the debt ceiling and default, there’s just no more money coming in, and that’s just not the case,” Biddle said. “There’s money to be allocated different ways. And maybe you have to make some cuts somewhere that might not make everybody happy, but at some point, you have to say, enough is enough.”
So what can we cut? Social Security? Medicare? Those are the big, long-term problems on our docket.
“No one’s going to cut Social Security or Medicare. That’s another scare tactic,” Biddle said.
So what can we cut now?
“You can start with foreign aid. Cut that out. You can cut, you know, federal arts …” Biddle said.
“There are a lot of grants,” adds Bob Clemons, a director of finance for the local school board.
“Grants. There’s a lot of grants,” Biddle confirms.
There’s a pause for about 10 seconds.
“It’s a big problem,” Clemons said.
“It is. It is,” Biddle said.
Biddle comes back a little while later. He says that the government shutdown has helped show that there can be significant cuts in the federal workforce.
“There are no non-essential employees in the private sector,” he said.
Laurie Newsom, the president of the Gainesville Tea Party and a small-business owner, has a four-point plan to cut spending.
One: Get rid of the Department of Education and Environmental Protection Agency. States can take over those functions and have the ability to regulate their environmental practices, she said. Two: Get rid of the Federal Communications Commission. Three: There are a few little things that can be cut, such as cutting some funding for the National Institutes of Health and the CDC’s tracking of flu season.
Fourth is the big one: Get rid of Obamacare. This would, in the short term, increase the deficit, but Newsom thinks it would be worth it for the economic growth and certainty it would provide small businesses.
“Now, a lot of people will say, this is a pipe dream,” she said. “Well, I don’t think it is. … And if we don’t have some sort of leverage, like the debt ceiling, it’s not going to happen.”
At a Gainesville, Fla., Starbucks coffee shop, a man performs the audacious duty of signing a petition.
The petition is the second in a recent series from Starbucks, which urges those in Washington to proverbially “Come Together” and compromise on a solution that won’t screw up a still-fragile but recovering economy.
30-one others, so far, have signed this petition. Why? Why sign a petition in Gainesville, Fla., on the eve of crisis — one that has virtually no chance of reaching his representative, let alone Congress as a whole?
“They need to do something about this,” said the man, who also only wanted to be known as John for this story.
John, a retired former mechanic, is a registered Republican who voted for Ted Yoho. He supports the fight Yoho is carrying on. And despite his empty plea on the petition, the ultimate solution he supports is one that doesn’t involve a lot of coming together.
“The only thing I’ll say is that I don’t like that Obamacare,” he said.
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