Marihelen Wheeler takes the fight to Ted Yoho - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Marihelen Wheeler takes the fight to Ted Yoho

How a soft-spoken school teacher could send Florida’s most infamous Tea Partier packing

For Florida’s Democrats, it’s hard to remember an election cycle that’s been more chaotic than this one – or more laden with opportunity.

That’s because Judge Terry Lewis has taken a hammer to the GOP’s Florida gerrymander once again – and his latest court order has both Democrats and Republicans scrambling.

Judge Lewis redistricting order has had huge implications in political races. (Wikipedia)

Judge Lewis redistricting order has had huge implications in political races. (Wikipedia)

His ruling several weeks ago that the congressional map drawn up by Florida’s GOP-dominated legislature was unconstitutional was big news in that it meant the all-but-certain defeat of at least one formerly protected incumbent down the road. But for most political observers, “down the road” meant sometime after the critical 2014 elections.

Not so, contended Judge Lewis in an order to the legislature last Friday. The state’s congressional boundaries must be redrawn by August 15 – less than two weeks’ time – in order to be in place for the 2014 midterms.

This is big. No one is yet sure what kind of new map the legislature will produce – thanks to an extensive redistricting research project, they have dozens of maps to choose from. But there’s one guarantee: At least one GOP seat will take a hit when the heavily-gerrymandered 5th district currently held by Corinne Brown bleeds tens of thousands of quarantined Democratic voters to a neighboring district.

The question is, which one?

“At this point, we just don’t know,” said Marihelen Wheeler, Democratic candidate for the 3rd District of Florida. She is poised to become the nominee to take on freshman Republican Congressman Ted Yoho in the district, which just happens to share a 200-mile border with the soon-to-be-dismembered 5th District.

A local activist, Mrs. Wheeler is well acquainted with the power of an ironclad gerrymander to help thwart public opinion.

“It’s oppression,” she called it. “A bullying tactic that’s been used in this state to shut people out of the process.”

Even so, Wheeler doesn’t sound like a candidate who is hitching her hopes to a judicial bailout. Despite the (current) Republican lean of her district, she’s given every sign of being a happy warrior who is glad for the chance to travel extensively across the geographically sprawling 3rd District and talk to people she describes as thoughtful, energetic, and sick of the terrible Washington dysfunction.

Marihelen Wheeler (Public Domain)

Marihelen Wheeler (Public Domain)

“The face of politics is changing as we see it,” she tells me. “The people I talk to who you wouldn’t necessarily assume would climb on board – Independents, even Republicans – these constituents look at this Congress and throw up their hands in disgust.”

One such constituent is Tommy Taylor. A 67 year-old small business owner who is active in the district’s politics, he’s seen a lot of Congresses, and says this may be the most dysfunctional yet.

“My issue with this Congress,” he said, “is that it’s done absolutely nothing.” The gridlock, he says, is caused not so much by principled policy differences as it is by petty squabbling.

A self-described moderate and middle-of-the-road voter, Taylor is the kind of constituent that a victorious campaign will need to win over in this district where conservative Democrats still outnumber Republicans. Asked whether this Congress’ failures would hurt any incumbent running in the 3rd District, his answer was succinct. “I think so.”

It’s a disillusionment that’s common in the 3rd District, even by those who aren’t inclined to vote for a Democratic alternative to Yoho. In fact, it’s widespread throughout GOP-held Northern Florida, where four other Democrats have lined up to take on Republican incumbents nestled in GOP-friendly districts.

Ted_Yoho,_official_portrait,_113th_Congress

Ted Yoho official portrait.

In the 1st District, retired Army officer James Bryan has risen to the challenge to give Republican Congressman Jeff Miller the fight of his political life. In the neighboring 2nd District, GOP representative Steve Southerland is a rare Floridian target of the DCCC and is facing Gwen Graham, the daughter of the popular Democratic senator Bob Graham. In FL-11, Democratic candidate David Koller is hanging two-term Congressman Richard Nugent’s anti-immigrant rhetoric around his neck, while farther south in Central Florida, former reporter Alan Cohn is betting that the voters of District 15 have grown weary of Congressman Dennis Ross’ votes to shut down the government and sink reforms that poll well in the district.

These Democratic challengers have one thing in common: judging by the partisan leanings of their districts, they are all playing offense, waging war on slightly inhospitable territory. And with the exception of Graham, none of these candidates has attracted any sort of outside help from national Democrats – yet.

“I think that the D-triple-C is dragging their feet in Northern Florida in general,” Wheeler told me, “because they think that these districts are unwinnable.”And while the outside assistance would be nice, the lack of attention from the party’s bigwigs doesn’t bother her. In fact, it’s led to a sort of friendship and bond between the handful of challengers that few would have predicted.

“We call each other, try to find ways to share and maximize our resources, maybe even develop a unified message,” Wheeler said. After the primary, the group of Democratic challengers may even adopt platforms that share one universal message: that their biggest goal in Congress will simply be to make the institution work again.

And Marihelen Wheeler is at the vanguard of this alliance. A school teacher who has worked on various public policy boards including her work as district coordinator for the group CIRN (Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now), she’s already confronted Congressman Yoho once before, asking him at a town hall meeting if he could find it in his heart to support in-state tuition rates for undocumented students who were brought to the United States as children.

ted“I cannot,” was Yoho’s reply, “because you’re rewarding bad behavior. Not of them, of their parents.” He went on to describe how he was “dumbfounded” by requests to do what’s best for “the Hispanic group, or the American Latino Group of the Hispanic American Group or the Asian Group or the Vietnamese Group. “I said, ‘wait a minute – how many times are we going to hyphenate America?’”

His statement drew applause from his Tea Party supporters seated around him, but it was recounted online and aired by various news stations, where a more mainstream audience reacted with disbelief not just at the policy the Congressman had endorsed, but the way in which he’d phrased it.

This comment, made in November 2013, came on the heels of Yoho’s declaration that a debt default by the United States would “bring stability to world markets.” Coming at a time when House Republicans were threatening to cause default if their policy preferences weren’t enacted into law, the statement horrified financial experts and business leaders, as well as plenty of political observers who had to look at Ted Yoho in a new light and wonder if there just might be enough like-minded members in Congress to cause a U.S. debt default and a global financial Armageddon.

6f0ec56c0But his most famously galling gesture was to hold an event celebrating gun ownership on December 10 2013, the one-year anniversary of the Newtown shootings in Connecticut. Amid an outcry, his office issued a statement saying the Congressman’s thoughts and prayers would be with the victims and their families, even as Yoho himself was at the firearm rally.

It’s a track record of cluelessness and insensitivity that places Yoho comfortably in the ranks of the biggest embarrassments in Congress. But what might be even more damaging to his political career is his voting record itself.

“A lot of the time,” Wheeler said, “Yoho has voted without doing his homework.” She ticked off a list of Yoho’s political missteps, from voting to shut down the government to what might be his biggest unforced error: showing a tin ear to pleas for immigration reform in this district with heavy Hispanic presence and plenty of small business owners who have come to rely on a workforce they hope can gain legal residence and come out of the shadows.

Immigration, she said, will be one of her top priorities if she’s sent to Congress. “It’s been killed by inaction in the House… they didn’t even vote on it. But these families that need the reforms deserve a vote. The solid majority of Americans that back immigration reform deserve a vote.”

It’s a clear and simple message that’s winning her plenty of fans around the district. And while she emphasizes the need for immigration reform more than most of her fellow challengers, she’s not alone in her most basic message: that the disaster that is Congress has to be fixed, but can’t be fixed from within. In northern Florida and elsewhere in the country, it’s a message that just might propel some dark horse candidates to victory in a year where Congress occasionally polls below Vladimir Putin in its favorability ratings.

In the meantime, Wheeler predicts that the best case-maker for her candidacy is Yoho himself, not just for his gaffes and tone-deaf maneuvers, but also for his refusal to take her seriously.

“I don’t think he’s too concerned,” Wheeler told me, chuckling.“He thinks I’m just a sweet-natured, white-haired school teacher… a flea on his ear.”

And Yoho doesn’t seem to be concerned. He’s certainly not toning down his rhetoric or advocating caution in the months leading up to the election, continuing to make the news with a full-throated endorsement of investigations into the administration and thinly veiled insinuations of impeachment.

Yoho led the battle with 15 GOP members to impeach Holder. (Screenshot)

Yoho led the battle with 15 GOP members to impeach Holder. (Screenshot)

But there are plenty of warning signs a shrewder, more humble incumbent wouldn’t ignore. From a gubernatorial contest in the state that’s generating presidential-level excitement and the turnout that comes with it, to the enormous question mark over the reshuffling of the boundaries for the 3rd District itself, there’s a lot that’s up in the air. Looking back on this election, Yoho might conclude his biggest mistake was branding himself as the sort of fringe candidate who could only prevail in an overwhelmingly Republican district, as opposed to one that only leans his party’s way by a point or two. An influx of minority voters from the former 5th District could be the kiss of death to his young congressional career.

But even without that, a storm could be brewing. There’s still time for Yoho to do the smart thing: to tack to the center, drop the impeachment talk, and skate by as inoffensively as he can on the strength of the district’s GOP lean.

But that just doesn’t seem to be in Yoho’s political DNA. Despite a serious challenge from an affable campaigner, Yoho hasn’t toned down his rhetoric, or his antics in Washington. Add that to the disillusionment his voters are feeling over not just his individual gaffes but the state of Congress itself, and you’ve got the conditions for an upset. One thing seems clear. With his penchant for gaffes and jarring comments, Ted Yoho is the only Republican who could possibly lose this district. And it’s just his luck to be running against one of the few Democrats who could win it.

Yoho will try to go big until November. Voters might just send him home instead.


About the author

Wills Dahl

William Dahl is a recent graduate of The College of William and Mary, where he majored in Government and studied abroad in La Plata, Argentina. He has worked for community foundations in Argentina and Miami dedicated to community engagement and prosecution for human rights abuses. A native Virginian, he moved to Baltimore in 2013 to join a financial research firm, where he enjoys being able to write on the side. Contact the author.
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