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Possums Are Playing Upside-Down Role In Florida Elections

Panhandle Marsupial Event Is Vital Campaign Stop; Jeb Bush Was a Regular

Friday, August 11, 2006 - 00:00
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WAUSAU, Fla. -- Katherine Harris, the Florida congresswoman, U.S. Senate candidate and controversial former secretary of state, dangled a live possum by its tail. Other candidates waited their turns.

"Keep shaking!" auctioneer David Corbin admonished the candidates. "Don't let it crawl up your arm and bite!"

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Rod Smith gave his possum a quick shake, and it went limp.

In most states, political candidates march in parades and kiss babies. In Florida, they also handle possums. In years past, Gov. Jeb Bush did it, and all but one of his serious would-be successors in this year's election have tried their hand at it. Other handlers of possums or observers of possum-handling this summer include two U.S. Senate hopefuls and at least three would-be state judges, along with candidates for agriculture secretary, state chief financial officer and a slew of local and county positions.

The ritual is recommended for any candidate hoping to win votes in the northwest panhandle, some 90 miles west of Tallahassee. In this region, the place to reach crowds is Wausau's annual Fun Day and Possum Festival, which is in its 37th year. Here, candidates shake hands with potential constituents, cheer the Little Miss Fun Day contestants and place bids on possums to raise funds for local charities -- scoring points with potential voters. Then they hold up their writhing winnings for the obligatory possum photograph.

At least once in their career, most sample a plate of possum, this year cooked with peppers and onions and served up with sweet potatoes, greens and corn pone. "It's kind of greasy," says Ms. Harris.

"You know that part where they say it tastes like chicken?" says Mr. Smith, a north Florida state senator seeking the Democratic nod for governor. "That's a bad chicken."

Standing nearby, Mr. Smith's 19-year-old son Dylan looks at his father in surprise. "You don't like possum? You like squirrel," Dylan Smith says.

"I like squirrel," Mr. Smith says. "I don't like possum or raccoon."

Wausau has one blinking yellow light and 411 residents, but an abundance of possums in the surrounding woods of loblolly and slash pine. Possums are credited with keeping a lot of people alive hereabouts during the Depression. "I was raised on it," says Robert Taylor, 64, an exterminator and lifelong resident of Panama City, about 35 miles south.

Mr. Taylor says possum is tasty fried or barbecued, but he no longer indulges. "I watch my cholesterol now, and that guy's loaded with cholesterol." At 220 calories for a 100-gram serving, roast possum supplies 128 milligrams of cholesterol, or 43% of an adult's daily recommended intake, along with 10 grams of fat, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.

The festival dates back to 1970 when a highway engineer named Dalton Carter was asked to start a fund-raiser for local civic groups. "I prayed on it, and Fun Day came to mind," Mr. Carter, 74, recalls.

The possum auction was added the following year, and now it is the highlight of the festival. This year, several hundred people packed into Wausau's 8,000-square-foot sheet-metal Possum Palace pavilion in sweltering heat to see how much bidders would offer for possums. The largest amount paid this year was $700. Ms. Harris, the Senate candidate, paid $400 for hers.

During the bidding, political tensions are mostly muted, though in 1998 Ms. Harris dubbed the baby possum she won for $100 "Sandra" after her opponent for secretary of state, Sandra Mortham. This year, Republican and Democrat candidates stood together as the auction approached, eyeing the nearby cage of possums, including a big, one-eyed male that the handlers called "fierce."

Most winners hand back their possums, to be set free. But one exception was former Gov. Bob Martinez, who kept his $750 prize in a cage at campaign headquarters until Election Day at the urging of younger staff members, who named it after country singer Waylon Jennings. Then Mr. Martinez gave Waylon to a zoo in Tampa. "He had got to be a pretty big guy," the former governor says. "They're ugly, but cute."

Nocturnal omnivores and North America's only native marsupial, Didelphis virginiana, or opossum, is found throughout the Eastern U.S. and is probably best known for "playing possum," or facing danger by pretending to be dead. Its other notable feature is its prehensile tail, which can cling to trees or human hands.

Possums cause little nuisance, other than eating pet food left outside or rooting around in household trash bins or gardens and nesting in attics, says Andy Andreasen, the University of Florida Extension Service agent for Washington County.

One candidate this year saw more than a photo-op in the event. Max Linn, running a long-shot campaign for governor under the Reform Party banner, saw an analogy. "There's a direct correlation between possums and politicians," Mr. Linn said. "They get into office and they play possum -- then every election, they go out and pretend to be something else."