Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not everyone's decided in Florida

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CLEARWATER BEACH, Fla. -- The man who may single-handedly decide the 2012 presidential election sits on a bench on a pier on a beach on the storm-weary Gulf of Mexico, selling homemade shell-and-beadwork necklaces for $5 a strand.

He is neither a politician nor a fundraising "bundler," not a celebrity or a Wall Street one-percenter, his allegiance pledged to neither the Republican nor Democratic Party. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will spend more than $1 billion this autumn, trying to get him to make up his mind.

The man on the bench did live in a Big House once -- actually, two times -- but that was the Colorado State Prison, not President Obama's Chicago mansion or Governor Romney's waterfront palace in San Diego with an elevator just for the cars.

"I went to prison twice before I was 21 years old," Howard Dallas Higgins is telling me in an exclusive interview I secure by promising to buy one of his five-buck creations. He is a 41-year-old white man, the father of one son and three daughters by a multiplicity of partners, a convicted forger and burglar who now sells burglar alarms (!) and makes jewelry on the side.

H.D. Higgins once was a skilled break-in artist and handy enough with a laser printer to concoct cashable Social Security cheques, but then, after a seven-year wait to have his convictions "expunged," as he puts it, the felon's suffrage was restored. In 2000, George W. Bush carried Florida by 537 votes out of six million, or at least the Supreme Court said he did. In 2012, in Florida and nationally, the hanging chad punched by just one person may make all the difference.

Bombarded by television advertising in which each candidate for the presidency -- and every other office down to Pinellas County dogcatcher -- labels his or her opponent as a venal fraud, Dallas Higgins (he left the Howard in his jail cell) confesses "you don't know who to believe."

"I just tune them out now," he says. "I'd rather sit here on the beach and enjoy what freedoms I have left."

Mr. Higgins admits to a personal history closer to that of a Honolulu stoner than a Mormon Elder. He grew up in the Denver suburbs as a dark-souled misfit, smoking weed and going to Metallica and Megadeth concerts with "all the kinds of dregs of society," including the two lost boys who would commit the Columbine massacre. Chastened by prison while still in his 20s, he went into the stucco business in Las Vegas, warbled with a heavy-metal band for a while, and finally washed up in Clearwater with the wind and the water and the sand.

"Did the hurricane scare you?" I ask him.

"I wish there was something out there that DID scare me," he replies. "You do time in prison before you're 21, you fight to stay alive in there, you don't scare easily. The only thing that scares me is the collapse of the U.S. economy."

Dallas Higgins avers he truly is undecided; the Obama wave that washed over him in 2008 has receded into ripples. If not for the criminal convictions, he would be a perfect candidate for the pro-Romney ads currently inundating Florida that present a medley of middle-class folks talking about how they, too, have soured on the young Senator they swooned for, four stagnant years ago.

"I really had a hope that he might look out for the best interests of the lower and middle classes," Mr. Higgins recalls. "And I voted for him because he's black, too."

"He still is," I remind the swing-state voter.

"Yeah," he shrugs. "And I don't think he's done THAT bad compared to Bush."

"Does Mitt Romney's wealth matter to you?" I wonder.

"Absolutely it matters!" Dallas Higgins yelps. "If he's rich, where does his interest lie? With other rich people! But him being rich doesn't bother me. It's the poor kids starving that bothers me. In a country as big as this, how can you tell me there's not enough to go around?"

Selling jewelry on Clearwater Beach, he says, brings in $50 to $80 a day, not exactly Mitt money, but it keeps the artist from lingering in bars, or behind them.

"Do I pay taxes?" he asks rhetorically. "Not on THIS, dude."

After all, it is only a weekend gig. Monday through Friday, Mr. Higgins goes door to door, selling coded, hard-wired security systems designed to keep away people like the person he once was.

"Now that everybody's robbing everybody else to get something to eat, I just look up where's there's been a burglary and call the neighbours," he says. "Unfortunately, fear is a sales tactic, and politicians know that better than anybody."

"Do you tell your customers that you're a former burglar yourself?" I ask, picking out a necklace for my bride.

"Actually, it's become a bonus," the Undecided smiles.


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 J11

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