Race An Issue That Simmers In Florida Battleground

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As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition has begun a series of reports from 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 — an iconic American corner — First and Main streets.

Near the corner of First and Main, in a trailer park in Hillsborough County, Fla., Gregory Brown sticks the key into the motorcycle he has for sale.

Brown is a glazier. He installs plate-glass windows in high-rise buildings — or he did, when he had work.

Now he's living on unemployment checks, plus a disability check from the woman who lives with him. It's still not quite enough to pay the bills, which is why he's selling the motorcycle for $4,000.

"That $4,000 will probably carry me through the next two months in bills," he says. "And after that, I don't know what I'm going to do."

In Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa, the economy is recovering more slowly than in the rest of the country.

"I've never been more broke in my life," Brown says.

In his free time, Brown has been following politics. He's been listening to Rush Limbaugh, and says he intends to register to vote this fall. He blames President Obama for his economic trouble.

As we talk, Brown brings up the president's onetime minister, Jeremiah Wright.

"I know what I believe in, and I believe that Jesus Christ spilled his blood for my soul, and Rev. Wright doesn't believe that," he says. "He believes that white people are evil, and so does our president and so does his wife."

When asked specifically if he thinks the president believes white people are evil, Brown says: "Yes. I believe that if you go to a church long enough and you hear that kind of rhetoric, after a while it gets into your soul."

It has been years since Obama denounced his former pastor's remarks attacking the United States, but Wright is still on Brown's mind today.

'The Bellwether County'

The economy is the central issue in this fall's campaign. But when you talk with people in Hillsborough County, they link the economy to other issues, ranging from health care to public safety to their children's future to race.

That last subject affects voters in different ways in this county of close to 1.3 million people.

We drove through parts of it with Susan MacManus, a Florida political scientist.

"Hillsborough County is extremely diverse," she says. "It's why a lot of the political ads are tested here; a lot of focus groups are done in Hillsborough County. Because of all the counties in Florida, it's considered the bellwether county for a lot of reasons.

"First, its racial and ethnic makeup mirror the state's at large. And, of course, it has the three key geographies of politics: very rural areas, suburban areas and, of course, downtown Tampa, the urban core."

And it has a wide range of opinions, as we heard moving away from First and Main and toward that urban core. Tampa has a substantial Hispanic and African-American population.

Downtown, not far from where the Republicans will hold their national convention later this month, is the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church — a beautiful old brick structure with stained-glass windows that is actually no longer a church. It's another place that tells a story about Tampa and Hillsborough County today.

We step into a courtyard and spy three people next to a fountain.

Joselyn Walker-Saffore attended this church for decades, as did Robert "Pete" Edwards. His grandson Michael, who's 2 1/2, was the last baby baptized at St. Paul's, Edwards says.

We walk into the old sanctuary, with its high wooden ceiling. Michael runs off to play while the grown-ups talk.

"This church — they called it a 'big hat' church, because your hat and your purse and your shoes all match," Walker-Saffore explains. "This was the church to belong to if you thought you were or wanted to be somebody in the city of Tampa."

It was a center of Tampa's black community.

"Some of the speakers that we've had at this church: Rev. Jesse Jackson, President Bill Clinton, Thurgood Marshall," she says.

But in recent years, the congregation dwindled, and the church had to close.

The building became the community center for a nearby apartment building — which, in a way, was a sign of racial progress. The black middle class that once gathered here spread to other communities as racial segregation declined.

'There's No Jobs'

Recently, however, Walker-Saffore says the middle class has been suffering.

"I have a daughter, and she was an insurance adjuster. She was laid off and she's been laid off since March," Walker-Saffore says. "And, you know, you search and search and can't find anything. I have another friend that's recently been laid off after 10 years with the city.

"So, you know, it just seems to be rampant. And I have so many friends looking for jobs and there's no jobs" — even for people with college degrees.

"For me, as a black person, it's always been hard. So it is hard. But I think the playing field has been leveled a little bit so that's why people are more concerned," she says.

In other words, while the black unemployment rate has always been higher than the white unemployment rate nationally, there has also been a strong black middle class — like the people who built St. Paul's. And now, even that middle class is feeling the economic pain, she says.

And here in the former black church, Obama does not escape criticism.

Edwards is a registered Republican who argues that the president has not done much for the black community.

"When you look at the way he has avoided addressing any major issues in the Afro-American community, that tells me two things," Edwards says. "One: He's really, in my opinion, not in tune to it. And two: Even if he gets elected for the second term, you still won't see that much significant change to it."

This onetime voter for George W. Bush will vote for Obama. But he says that's only because he's unimpressed with Republican Mitt Romney.

Walker-Saffore, however, says she feels the president was "dealt a bad hand."

"Like you say, you can't pick your family members but you can choose your friends. He didn't pick the situation he was elected to, he inherited it," she says. "So I think we need to kind of let him keep working a little bit longer to see what happens."

Her deeper concerns are closer to home.

"I have four adult children and I have 11 'superchildren' — I don't like that word that starts with g-r-a," she says with a laugh.

We are in the state where a black teenager was shot this year by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Walker-Saffore says she worries about the world her "superchildren" will inherit.

"It is very scary," she says. "Especially a parent of black male children, like the Trayvon Martin situation — I mean, so you are concerned with the way things are going and their possibilities for life as they grow older."

She's thinking of the next generation — of kids like Michael, who's now playing in the former sanctuary of the church, in the swiftly changing city of Tampa.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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