There's a congressional election in Florida Tuesday that's worth watching — even if you don't live in the Tampa Bay-area district where it's taking place.
It's not because the winner of the neck-and-neck special election between Democrat Alex Sink and Republican David Jolly will affect the GOP's stranglehold on the U.S. House this cycle. It won't.
Rather, the contest to succeed the late longtime Republican Rep. Bill Young is taking on exaggerated importance as both national parties and their deep-pocketed donors frame it as a proxy for how President Obama and his signature health care legislation will play at the polls in November.
All of it is playing out in one of the few remaining competitive congressional districts.
"The Democrats have to shake things up to prove they are not a permanent minority in the House," says David Wasserman of the non-partisan Cook Political Report. "Winning this race would go a long way to show that."
Recent polls suggest that Sink has been holding on to a slight lead over Jolly, with Libertarian candidate Lucas Overby capturing the support of around four or five percent. A poll released Monday by Democratic-oriented pollster Public Policy Polling gave Sink a 48 percent to 45 percent advantage, with Overby at six percent.
Tuesday's winner will only savor temporary victory: She or he will have to run again in November's regular mid-term election.
The race, awash in money that has funded an avalanche of ads, pits two on-paper party moderates against each other in a district that Young had held since 1972. He was the longest-serving GOP member of Congress when he died in October.
Republicans enjoy a voter registration advantage of about 11,000. But the 13th district, largely white and skewing old, voted for Obama narrowly in 2008 and again in 2012.
Jolly came to the race hobbled by a competitive GOP primary battle in January that put him behind in raising money, and raising his profile.
In Sink, 65, the Democrats have a well-known candidate who had a nearly three-decades-long career as a banker before winning statewide office in 2006, becoming Florida's chief financial officer.
The first Democrat elected to the state cabinet since 1998, Sink, subsequently came up short in a run for governor in 2010, losing to Republican Rick Scott by 1 percentage point.
Sink, whose late husband, Bill McBride, was the Democrats' unsuccessful nominee for governor in 2002, supports the Affordable Care Act, but has said she would like to see it improved.
Republican candidate Jolly, 41, is a lawyer and lobbyist who came to Washington straight out of college and went to work for Young. He left the congressman's office in 2007 for the world of lobbying, opening his own firm, Three Bridges Advisors, three years ago.
Jolly has called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act and says he supports overturning Roe vs. Wade. He's seen as a more polished campaigner than Sink, who was described as an "awkward orator, often stiff on the stump" in a 2010 profile in the Tampa Bay Times.
Wasserman, of the Cook Political Report, cautions that the national media is overstating, at least to some degree, the singular importance of Obamacare in the Florida race.
Immigration and flood insurance are huge local issues, he said, and will play a role in the outcome. Sink supports comprehensive immigration reform; Jolly opposes a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
"The national parties seem to be ignoring these issues in favor of test-driving their big-ticket national interests," Wasserman says. "In the district, voter interests seem much more varied."
The Money Race
Given Sink's advantage in not having a contested primary, she's been better positioned to raise money and to get a jump on early voting, including — and especially — absentee ballots.
She has outraised Jolly, $2.54 million to $1.04 million as of Feb. 19, but outside groups have also invested heavily in the race, with some estimates suggesting that in excess of $10 million per campaign will be spent.
A running tally of early voting shows that 42 percent of the 122,314 votes cast, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office, have come from Republican voters, 39 percent from Democrats, and 19 percent from other.
But, Wasserman says, "most private polling suggests Sink is winning about twice as many Republicans as Jolly is winning Democrats."
While one national party or the other will quickly claim their victory is a validation, the vagaries of this special election suggests otherwise. That makes it likely the true litmus test on Obama and the Affordable Care Act won't come until November.
The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.
- Joe McGinniss, author of the true crime book Fatal Vision and the titular "journalist" of Janet Malcolm's scathing study The Journalist and the Murderer, died on Monday, his attorney told The Associated Press. He was 71. Malcolm's book opens with these two sentences: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." She was referring to McGinniss, who wrote Fatal Vision about Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters in 1970. According to Malcolm, McGinniss pretended to believe MacDonald's claims of innocence to gain his confidence, though his book ultimately portrayed him as guilty. McGinniss rejected Malcolm's accusations, writing that he wanted to believe MacDonald, but that his views shifted over the course of the trial: "Day after hot, humid day I would sit in court looking at crime-scene photographs that depicted the carnage inflicted upon MacDonald's wife and daughters. Then, within the hour, he'd be chatting affably with me. Each time, my reaction was the same: this man could not have done this to those people. Yet every day the evidence mounted. Concrete physical evidence; unambiguous, clear. It could not be, yet it was. He could not have, yet he did." McGinniss' other books include The Selling of the President 1968, an exploration of the political theater behind Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential run, and The Rogue, a book about Sarah Palin — which he researched by moving into the house next door to hers in Wasilla, Alaska.
- George Saunders' story collection Tenth of December has won yet another major literary award - the first annual Folio Prize, worth £40,000 (about $67,000). Last week, he won the $20,000 Story Prize. "Saunders's stories are both artful and profound," Folio Prize chair Lavinia Greenlaw in a statement. "Darkly playful, they take us to the edge of some of the most difficult questions of our time and force us to consider what lies behind and beyond them. Unflinching, delightful, adventurous, compassionate, he is a true original whose work is absolutely of the moment." Accepting the award Monday night, Saunders said, "I think in a time like ours, where so much of the public discourse tells us that we are antagonistic, that we're separate, fiction is a wonderful way to remind ourselves that actually that's a lie."
- Kevin Prufer has a poem called "How He Loved Them" in The Paris Review about a car bomb that blows up in front of a courthouse. (Read an interview with Prufer about the poem here). It ends:
"What the colonel had done that day
had troubled his heart,
but the sound of his granddaughters' laughter
lifted him high into the air
like a scrap of burning paper
blown from the street into the trees."
- Audiobook narrator Simon Vance speaks to Slate about his job: "Many people read to themselves so fast — sometimes scanning the page in apparent moments of not-much-going-on to get to the next bit of action — that the audiobook listening experience can actually be richer for the way it forces one to listen to the book at a narrator's pace."
There's still no sign of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 — the Boeing 777 with 239 people aboard that disappeared early Saturday while on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Tuesday's news about the flight and the search for clues to its disappearance includes:
— Stolen Passports. There's word that Malaysian authorities believe the two passengers on board who had stolen passports "were Iranians who authorities believe were trying to migrate to Europe," as the Los Angeles Times writes.
One of the men, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai, has been identified as 19-year-old Pouria Nour Mohammad Mehrdad. Frank tells our Newscast Desk that the young man was apparently "flying from Kuala Lumpur, through Beijing and Amsterdam, to Frankfurt; where his mother was waiting for him."
Malaysia's inspector general of police, Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar, said Tuesday that "we believe he is not likely to be a member of any terrorist group and we believe he [was] trying to migrate to Germany."
"The other man traveling on a stolen passport was not named," the Times adds, but authorities believe he too was an Iranian trying to to immigrate to Europe.
The news that at least two people on board had stolen passports led to speculation about the possibility they were connected to a terrorist organization. But as NPR's Brian Naylor reported on Morning Edition, stolen passports and other fraudulent travel papers are a growing problem around the world and are used for a wide variety of reasons.
— Expanded Search. Malaysian authorities, as well as "search teams from Australia, China, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines, New Zealand and the United States of America" are now looking for signs of the jet on "both sides" of the Malay peninsula, Malaysian civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said Tuesday.
The airline said Tuesday that searchers are also looking "on land in between" — that is, on the Malay peninsula between the South China Sea and the Malacca Strait. According to the airline, "the authorities are looking at a possibility of an attempt made by MH370 to turn back to Subang," an airport on the peninsula.
— Four Focuses. It likely won't be until the plane is found that investigators can start to figure out exactly what happened and whether some sort of catastrophic mechanical failure was responsible for its disappearance. But as the investigation continues, police in Malaysia are also concerned about four possibilities, the inspector general said Tuesday: "hijacking, sabotage, personal problems among the crew and passengers and psychological problems among the crew and passengers."
— No Missing Passengers. Also Tuesday, Malaysia Airlines sought to correct earlier reports about five passengers who allegedly checked in, had bags put on the flight, but then did not board the plane. Those earlier reports indicated that the bags supposedly put on board were removed before the plane took off. But the airline now says that "there were four (4) passengers who had valid booking to travel on flight MH370, 8 March 2014, but did not show up to check-in for the flight." Since they had not checked in, those four did not have any baggage that needed to be removed from the jet, the airline says.
Listen. It's a command that Maud Casey's quick to utter, and it's one she repeats often in her new novel. With good reason: If you're listening closely enough, you might just hear her pull off a feat as graceful as it is clever. Out of the clanging of church bells, the ticking of watches, the snatches of overheard phrases, even the two clashing voices at the heart of her book — out of this hectic mess of sounds, she manages to create a delicate harmony.
In music, there's a name for this kind of thing, this weaving of a handful of melodies into something entirely new: fugue. But for poor Albert, the subject of The Man Who Walked Away, the word "fugue" has a very different meaning. It's the name of his mental disorder, and he's the first in the world to be diagnosed with it. Quite simply, Albert walks. He's compelled to walk, in fact, often overtaken by some relentless urge that makes him walk hundreds of miles and adopt new identities along the way. When this urge ebbs, he's left with no memory of what just happened. He awakens a stranger in a distant town.
Inspired by a real-life case in 19th century France, Albert's story is a tough one to tell. In clumsier hands, this book might have come out sappy or plain boring — after all, histories of Victorian-era speed walkers aren't typically my thing. But Casey handles the story expertly. Without inventing a past that Albert can't remember himself, she cherry-picks moments to color in careful detail — then immediately drops them to pick up others, sometimes miles or years away. If, as Albert observes once, "every sound is a jewel to be weighed and considered," Casey treats every moment of his travels the same way, considering each individual jewel closely and ditching the strand that would tie them together.
In doing so, she effectively shoves us into Albert's well-worn shoes. He's deeply troubled and awfully curious-looking, but Casey never lets him become a curiosity. She keeps us too close to find him strange. Just as Albert tries to talk himself into embracing the inevitable — "Fascinating? Magnificent? Yet another escapade?" — I so easily shared his fright and astonishment that at times I wanted to hug the poor guy, if only he'd stand still long enough.
Albert isn't alone, though. He splits the book's center stage with his doctor — a man named, helpfully, the Doctor. If Albert is a wanderer, always lost, the Doctor on the other hand is very much a man of his era. He's the type of man who, when alone, will recite to himself the names of bones, the type to relish the whispered "click-clickety-click" of his bicycle — that same beautiful machine for which Albert has no use. The Doctor believes in systems; he knows the value of "giving the ethereal if a solid spine."
Between these two voices, with such different personalities, Casey alternates her chapters. She was smart to do so. For, as lovable as these two men are — and, yes, I did come to love them — they're both best served in small doses. The space between Albert's big ears can get a bit stifling, because so much of it is taken up by his condition. Anchorless, Albert resorts to repetition for comfort, turning a phrase over and over obsessively. And the Doctor's own set of compulsions and insecurities stray sometimes into monotony. There were points amid these repetitions, I'll admit, when I was relieved to leave Albert for the Doctor, or vice versa.
But because Casey pairs these sections, they play instead like a duet: In Albert, the question that doesn't quite know what it's asking; in the Doctor, the answer that can't claim to solve anything. Back and forth they banter, and for all this, Casey never lets the conversation get too grim. The other inmates of the asylum interrupt them, their own disorders a source of humor and pain — in particular the asylum's director, just a hair's breadth from being an inmate himself, who strictly forbids his patients from eating pudding, as he's sure it helped cause the last war.
Above these interruptions, and around the clamor of a dozen different towns, the voices of Albert and the Doctor continue their conversation. With sure hands, Casey nudges them toward one another, bit by bit, until all these different sounds share the same song. She rescues Albert from his fugue by making him part of, well, a lovelier kind of fugue. And I'm glad that she invited me to listen.