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By Trevor Bach
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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Then came the 2000 election fiasco -- and a second debacle two years later that led to Loehndorf's appointment. That's when Democrats met to pick their next chairman. Friedkin and County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, then a powerful figure in the party, put their collective power behind Carol Roberts, a former county commissioner and failed congressional candidate. Roberts had been the voice of the local party during the 36-day recount in 2000 and one of the Democrats' most powerful leaders. It was her face on television as she helped count hanging chads and demanded investigations into lost votes. So for many, the chairmanship seemed a way to reward her.
But Roberts also invoked a long-simmering fight in the local party. On one side were the south-county Democrats, made up largely of wealthy Jewish retirees and businessmen. On the other was the party's more left-leaning side -- labor activists, environmentalists, and those who have always seen the political process as a cause more than an establishment. It's a split not unlike the one in the national party. The north-county candidate for chairmanship was Loehndorf, a little-known retired social worker from West Palm Beach who also headed the local union of municipal employees.
At a meeting in December 2000, the pro-labor Democrats backing Loehndorf managed a coup. They pointed out that Roberts had allowed her membership in the party's executive committee to lapse. By rule, she was ineligible to be chairwoman. Friedkin tried to correct the gaffe by inserting her name on a list of new members, but a Democrat suffering from Alzheimer's forgot to put her on the roll. By default, the job went to Loehndorf, without her ever giving a speech on her plans for the party.
Roberts did not return several phone calls for this article. After her repudiation, Roberts no longer shows up at party functions. Her supporters suspect the rejection pushed one of the party's most powerful members into the shadows.
What the Democrats soon learned after Loehndorf's election is that they had selected someone with no ability to lead others, says Andre Fladell, a well-connected consultant. Fladell advises everyone from congressmen to city councils, and both the Palm Beach Post and the Sun-Sentinel have called him one of the county's most influential people. Fladell says Loehndorf and the people she's put in leadership positions "are inept politically, unsuccessful economically, they are poor public speakers, and they're rude to minority and Jewish." At his Delray Beach chiropractic office, a barefoot Fladell, who's known for the odd costumes he wears to parties, says Loehndorf and her cronies "have absolutely no understanding of how to build networks."
Friedkin describes Loehndorf's election this way: "It was a kick in the teeth for the party. Everything we had done, everything we had built, she tore it down."
A week later, Republicans held a dignified meeting, complete with free Christmas cookies, and elected Sid Dinerstein to be their chairman. The antithesis to Loehndorf and her unkempt ways, he unveiled a Republican campaign to capture Palm Beach County.
Not long after Loehndorf's appointment, her party got a surprise visitor. Rob Ross, a Boca Raton lawyer and Republican Party regular, defected to the Democrats. Ross had been a two-time candidate for chairman of the Republican Executive Committee and was well-known as a staunch conservative. Among his far-right connections, Ross worked for a conservative Christian movement called the Florida Republican Assembly. In 1995, he helped found FLA-187, an organization bent on cutting off welfare, education, and other benefits to illegal aliens. After Ross asked the left-leaning Loehndorf for a role among Democrats, the party's new leader made him finance chair, putting a new convert from the Republican right in charge of the party's money.
Then, Democratic Party regulars came across a 1998 letter Ross wrote to British historian David Irving, who believes that the Holocaust was exaggerated. In the letter, Ross tells Irving he thinks the historian's critics are "pawns" who are "trying to besmirch your good name and professional reputation..." Ross suggests that Irving do research into one of his toughest critics, the Anti-Defamation League, which the lawyer claims is engaging in racketeering. Ross ends his note with this salutation: "Thanks again for all of your candor and your willingness to stand steadfast against the Orwellian tide of political correctness."
Ross agreed to comment for this story but then canceled several meetings to do so. "I could talk about this, but not over the phone. No way," he says. Previously, Ross publicly denied that he's anti-Semitic, and he said he had not known that Irving was a Holocaust denier.
In early 2003, Boca Raton lawyer Steven Meyer, who had worked for the party under Friedkin, discovered the letter while trying to dig up dirt on Ross, whom he suspected wasn't truly a Democrat. Meyer, along with political consultant Kartik Krishnaiyer and others, brought the letter to Loehndorf. They demanded Ross' immediate dismissal. Loehndorf refused to remove Ross, prompting an exodus of the south-county Jewish Democrats who hadn't already sworn off the party leadership.
Publicly, Loehndorf initially denied knowledge of the letter, even though Krishnaiyer, Meyer, and others explicitly say she discussed the letter with them. Finally, in June 2003, bowing to pressure from the fractioning party, Ross resigned his party post.