WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — It was barely past dawn on Election Day when Brian Cholnik, the owner of Royalty Lawn and Landscaping, climbed into his white Chevy Silverado pickup for the short drive to Seven Oaks, a gated subdivision with sparkling fountains, Spanish tile roofs and screened-in pools.
The voters in this community and others like it north of Tampa are among the most coveted in Florida. Many are members of young families, headed by people ages 30 to 49, a group that makes up nearly a third of the state’s voters. This critical corner of the Tampa area helped deliver Florida to President Obama in 2008. It helped Republicans return to power in Congress in 2010. In 2012, there are a lot of Mitt Romney signs in the tidy front yards.
Cholnik and a handful of employees have cut the grass and manicured the bushes here throughout Obama’s presidency. Twelve hours a day, six days a week, they keep paradise looking like paradise.
But beyond the gates, among the endless rows of pastel stucco houses, Cholnik catches subtle reminders of people’s struggles. Customers who confide that they might no longer be able to afford his services. Couples getting by on one income rather than two. More renters and fewer owners, a result of the foreclosure crisis that swept through Florida.
“People don’t have the jobs they once had,” said Cholnik, a trim, tanned, divorced 32-year-old who came to Florida from Buffalo a decade ago. “People aren’t making the money they once did.”
The man who mows their lawns and edges their sidewalks understands. Cholnik hasn’t raised prices in years, even as the cost of gas has doubled and other expenses have kept climbing. He frets about keeping his workers employed and providing for his 5-year-old son. He can’t remember his last vacation.
Cholnik says he voted for Obama in 2008. But on Tuesday, as a steady rain gave way to sunshine, he took a break from laying sod and digging drainage ditches and pruning palm trees, drove to a nearby Methodist Church and cast his ballot for Romney.
“Obama did the best he could,” he said. “I don’t blame him, but I’m disappointed. I just believe a new outlook wouldn’t hurt.”
Half an hour later, he was back at work. Paradise doesn’t take care of itself.