Prelude to a Butt Whippin'

The GOP eyes a George W. Bush victory in traditionally Democratic Palm Beach County. Here's why.

The guy manning the phones at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County hasn't seen the county chairwoman. "I'm not sure she's coming in today," he says, returning to his newspaper. Finally, after she's an hour late, he agrees to call her. He reaches Carol Ann Loehndorf at her West Palm Beach home. "She said she's playing on the computer," he explains. "She has to get dressed and then she'll come over."

Three hours after her Thursday-morning appointment, Loehndorf pulls up in her beat-up, cream-colored Caprice Classic, with its seats stuffed with enough junk to fill a yard sale. "I'm annoyed today," she says as she moseys into the party's one-room office. "Somebody stole my fried chicken. There are four culprits, and I've left some nasty messages on their recorders this morning." The leftovers in her fridge at home were destined to be her lunch, she explains, but someone pilfered them overnight. "You can believe I'm going to find out who did it."

In what John Kerry calls his generation's most important election, the Palm Beach County Democrats have organized few successful rallies.
In what John Kerry calls his generation's most important election, the Palm Beach County Democrats have organized few successful rallies.

Loehndorf angles through the two desks in the center of the claustrophobic room. She's wearing an untucked, baby-blue button-down that matches a pair of high-rise jeans. She's well-known for her odd attire. During the Kerry speech, she wore a neon-pink blouse and a painter's-style hat that seemed blotched with every color available. From just about everywhere, she has a gold bauble hanging from her, on her wrist, her neck, her ears, and pinned various places. Gigantic gold sunglasses appear stuck in her wildly curly blond hair. The 62-year-old flips through a stack on the desk: faxes, sheets of pink paper with old messages, newspaper clippings. The office is a calamity of disorganization. Computers piled in the corner sit unused, loose papers cover the desks like a collage, and the handsome mahogany-looking bookshelf on one wall is packed with office supplies, including a giant spool of rubber bands, which certainly took up a lot of someone's down time. A boom box on the folding table near the front door plays smooth jazz as Loehndorf sits on a plastic patio chair. "I don't know what I'm doing," she explains. "I'm just lost this morning."

Nobody is more responsible for the downfall of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach than Carol Ann Loehndorf, her many critics claim. In her year and a half as chairwoman, she's alienated many of the key players who once supported the local Democrats, and in what most political activists would say is her most important task, she has raised almost no cash for the party. Loehndorf has yet to hire any office staff, as she said she would after taking the job, and abandoned a prime, south-county office for a dilapidated strip mall near her home. Elected to the position on a procedural fluke, Loehndorf has since been blamed by her critics for everything that's wrong with the party.

This year, the Democrats have raised just a fraction of the $1 million the party collected in Palm Beach County in 2000. The lack of money means that, while the Republicans were recently advertising for a third paid position, the Democrats have no money for salaries. The party is so broke that the Democrats have tried to keep their toll-free phone number out of the newspapers so it wouldn't be called too often.

Loehndorf defends her poor fund-raising record by saying that's not what she's about. "We're going back to traditional grassroots." She says former party leaders put in their own money, something she's not capable of doing. Loehndorf is living on a state pension after spending 40 years as a Department of Children and Families social worker and lives in the clapboard-style home she inherited from her grandparents. Her son lives upstairs, and Loehndorf, a divorcée, rents out the garage apartment. She explains the weed-filled yard and the peeling paint by saying she started renovations several months ago but never got them going. The two-story home in downtown was appraised by the county for $140,000 in a neighborhood where similar historic houses sell for three times that. "The whole place is torn out inside," she says. "One of these days, I'm going to get that renovation going."

In her entire life, Loehndorf has lived in only two houses, within a two-block radius, and she has had the same phone number since 1968. Her father, a union member with the phone company, died when she was 10 years old, and her mother raised her and her brother by working as a secretary for the Health Department. "I was bound and determined after my childhood," she says, "to take care of myself." She joined the local Democratic Party Executive Committee in 1980 and was a delegate for Michael Dukakis in his failed presidential bid. Because of her job as a state social worker, Loehndorf says she shied away from working on a candidate's staff. So when the party appointed her chairwoman in 2002, Loehndorf had no experience running a political campaign.

The dramatic change in the party actually began before Loehndorf. In 1997, the party appointed Monte Friedkin to chair the party's leadership. Friedkin built an entrepreneur's empire with an aluminum business and had the practical businessman's mind the party needed. But he also alienated some party members with his kick-'em-in-the-balls style. "I got [the Democrats] in business," the ex-New Yorker says. Friedkin persuaded a developer friend to provide prime office space for the headquarters at a discount rate, hired a full-time employee, and bought new PCs, finally bringing the party into the computer age. A year later, with Friedkin persuading would-be candidates to run, Democrats won virtually every top county office. "When I came in," Friedkin says with the air of a successful general, "we put Republicans back 20 years in Palm Beach County."

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