Political antics no surprise in city where alligators stroll

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 November, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 November, 2000, 12:00am

Flying into Tallahassee, the first thing you see is a circus, complete with merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels, out on the edge of town.

Nothing seems more appropriate as the tiny southern city finds itself at the centre of the political drama that has followed last Tuesday's still-undecided presidential election.

Carved out of the heavily wooded swamps that run up from the Gulf of Mexico through the Florida panhandle to the Georgia border, Tallahassee is the capital of Florida state.

It is here that Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush have dispatched their delegations, headed by former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and James Baker, to lend an air of dignity to an increasingly bitter fight. Alligators sometimes stroll across the wide, empty streets and moss hangs from the trees. It is Bush country, with George's younger brother Jeb installed in the Governor's mansion.

Local cafes advertise 'Jeb Burgers', while local strip joints openly declare 'legislative parties and stag nights welcome'.

Florida has seen its share of scandals and intrigue, most recently the Elian Gonzalez tug-of-war. Tallahassee is no stranger to political heat, but it has never seen anything quite like this.

'We generally don't get that much action around here but suddenly we are the centre of the world,' said one local taxi driver, happily claiming to be an expert on local balloting and the arcane nuances of the Electoral College.

A large black man so big he lies virtually horizontally in his reclined drivers' seat, he breathes in whenever he needs to steer.

'People expect us to have all the answers. I tell you what, they start opening these ballots and they got problems all over the place. There'll be no end to it. This ballot business is a gator pit.'

Remarkably, he switches off the local football broadcast to catch the latest political crisis development.

I ask him about Fidel Castro's claim that Florida has now sunk to the political depths of a 'banana republic'.

'He's talking about Panama,' the driver intones with a wink.

Then he pulls out a map and points to the next closest town, down 213 on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a place called Panama City.

'It is a tragedy, I tell you. Our system is sacred,' he said. 'It is not supposed to look like a fiasco.'