From her Land O' Lakes homestead, Susan MacManus watches Florida's political evolution
Retired USF professor and political analyst Susan MacManus has seen Florida's political landscape change drastically over the years from her farmhouse in Pasco County.
Pasco is among the fastest growing counties in Florida, and driving through the county, the signs of growth and development are everywhere.
But, in Land O' Lakes, not far from the big box stores and highways, a dirt road sheltered by tall pine trees leads to a slice of Old Florida.
Here a white two-story farmhouse sits behind a huge oak tree.
A few years ago, University of South Florida Professor Emeritus Susan McManus retired after 47 years teaching political science.
But the 76-year-old is still a familiar name, face and voice as a political analyst. This farmhouse — and the property that sits on a small lake — has been in McManus' family for 100 years.
MacManus' grandfather, who emigrated from Germany, grew citrus here. After citrus greening destroyed the trees, the family planted pines instead.
Today, it's a haven for animals like owls, bobcats, armadillos and gopher tortoises. Three of the tortoises are nicknamed Gramps, George and Tiny. Dotted around the garden are animal sculptures MacManus' mother designed from old farm machinery parts.
MacManus discusses the property where she grew up fishing and swimming — and still does — and changes to Florida's political landscape as the state's population has grown.
Have you ever had any close calls with an alligator?
No, no. Not other than the Florida Gators. I'm a Florida State Seminole. So that's the only encounter we have with the Gators: football.
This is really a just an amazing spot. I wonder, though, do you worry about the encroaching development? Do you wonder sometimes how long this place might stay the way it is?
Of course, we do. Fortunately, across the league is one of my relatives and also the local park abuts against the pond; they're not likely to sell out anytime soon. So we're pretty protected. But there are pieces of the lake that still are slivers that are owned by others. And you just never know. My whole career when I'd have sort of had an exasperating and exhausting day, I just come home, put on my shorts and T shirt, take my shoes off and walk down here, and just Just breathe in the lake and the surroundings. It was very peaceful and still is.
This is kind of your antidote to the wildness of Florida politics.
Absolutely, yes. Yes.
Tell me about how you got into politics. What drew you to this life?
My family was always current events focused. Our discussions were always about what's going on and talking about why, and it was never a vicious discussion. When I went to Florida State as a freshman I was planning on majoring in, of all things, physical education, because I grew up with sports, and I loved it. But once I got there, I had terrific teachers and the proximity to the Capitol, and I would just find myself just walking down to the Capitol and walking around, never realizing what I would do. But I changed my major at the end of my freshman year to poli sci.
As you were kind of talking about your family, as we toured the house, you were saying your parents were from different political parties. And there there was a lot of political diversity in your family overall.
Right, a lot of diversity. The broader extended family includes everything from Baptist preachers to railroad union leaders and everything in between mostly farmers in between. Yeah, we saw a lot of differences. I just grew up with it. And I think it made me a much better professor because at USF at the beginning of every semester, I would ask my students what they were to give me a little bit of an idea and I was explained to him before I asked took the survey. I said, 'Look, my parents are one of each and I wouldn't have a job if it weren't for politics being different.' And then I would ask them which way they leaned, you know, Democrat or Republican or what? And invariably, in my Florida politics class, it would almost be divided. And I never wanted to alienate by becoming ideological and forcing my views on others. I'm very adamantly opposed to that, because it's one of the problems we have right now is people don't learn to listen to somebody else's viewpoint.
When you look at what's happening in Tampa Bay area in some counties, in particular, say, Sarasota County, what strikes you as the most interesting or noteworthy things about how the landscape has changed politically in the last few years?
Well, this area is still the most diverse. And so one of the things that's happened is the age makeup of the areas and some of the counties have changed. And a lot of that is driven by changing technology and a diversifying economy, which we've certainly seen in this area. But COVID is a prime example of how younger people migrated to this area. There were jobs. It was open.
So politics have changed tremendously. When I was young, Pinellas was the first county to go Republican, and now it's a very competitive county. Sarasota, also Republican, is more heavily Republican now than it used to be. Tampa, you know, a little bit more Democrat than Republican. It used to be the bellwether, but it's not anymore. The significance is that the in-migration changes everything. Whether it's in-migration that reflects age differences, racial or ethnic differences or even party affiliation differences.
My lesson in teaching Florida politics for years was you cannot, in a state that sees so much infilling and even movement within the counties between elections, you can't take data from two years prior and really feel confident in a lot of counties in Florida because things change that quickly. The biggest mistake some people make in Florida as candidates and as parties is not doing enough demographic work and it has to be done constantly because we have such, you know, churning of our population within the state and then new people moving in and some people moving out.