Oil-free Florida Panhandle preps for Obamas weekend vacation in Republican stronghold

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Florida Panhandle preps for presidential visit

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — The first family is headed to the Florida Panhandle this weekend to tout the oil-free white beaches and sparkling turquoise waters for the tourist industry, but conservatives in this Republican stronghold haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat.

A billboard just outside of town funded by the conservative media organization WorldNetDaily.com says “Show us the birth certificate,” a dig by those who question Obama’s citizenship. And a current GOP candidate for county commission once jokingly called the president Osama bin Laden.

Bay County includes hotels, motels, restaurants, souvenir shops and ice cream stands along the beaches. The county has voted overwhelming for Republican presidential candidates in last 30 years, supporting the GOP by a margin of about two to one every year except 1996. In 2008, the county supported McCain by a margin of nearly three to one.

Florida’s NAACP has called in recent years for financial boycotts of the county after a black teenager died following a videotaped fight with guards at a county-run juvenile boot camp. The guards were acquitted in the 14-year-old boy’s death, and in April, the justice department declined to bring federal civil rights charges against them.

Florida NAACP officials didn’t return messages left by The Associated Press.

In 2006, former longtime Panhandle lawman Guy Tunnell compared Obama to terrorist Osama bin Laden and the Rev. Jesse Jackson to outlaw Jesse James as state officials were preparing for protests after the boot camp death at the state capital. Tunnell was then head of Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, and while he apologized, the remarks cost him his job.

“My attempt at humor was ill-conceived, ill-timed and inappropriate,” Tunnell said then.

He is now running for commissioner and his campaign signs are all over the area. He also didn’t return telephone messages about Obama’s visit.

Buddy Wilkes, general manager of the family-owned Shipwreck Island water park on Panama City Beach, believes the Obamas’ visit will have long-term benefits.

“People are going to see pictures of them on the beach and ask, ‘Where is that beach?’ and then come visit us next summer and summers after that,” he said.

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