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But the damage had already been done. Many Jewish Democrats swore they wouldn't return. Many suspected Ross had been a Republican mole and, whether that's true or not, blamed Loehndorf for failing to figure it out. "Rob Ross could have been a plant," says Krishnaiyer, who's currently working on Sheriff Ed Bieluch's reelection campaign. "But the real question is why they had this Republican on their doorstep and then they give him this big position in the party."
If anyone should know if Ross had been a spy, it's Charna Lazar. A member of the Democratic Party Executive Committee, Lazar is a retired CIA officer who now runs Wonder Woman Investigations in Boca Raton. "I don't think he's capable [of being a spy]," Lazar says. "I don't think he's that smart or capable of doing anything that clandestine." She also questions Loehndorf's decision to put Ross in a powerful position, considering Ross' conservative roots, and says it's symbolic of the party's troubles. "This party is so thoroughly disorganized," Lazar says. "The party, such as it is, is not organized for political purposes."
In response to the turmoil caused by Ross, south-county Democrats now largely ignore functions and meetings of the party hierarchy. Instead, they attend local clubs that act independently of one another. This year, that will mean candidates will have to schedule engagements at each one of these clubs and donors will have to decide which groups get their money, says Dr. Ken Rosenblatt, a chiropractor who is also president of the Boca-Delray Democratic Club. "Boynton Beach is now the Mason-Dixon Line in Palm Beach County," he says. "Every club and PAC [political action committee] is raising money separately because nobody wants to work with the party. I haven't seen one master plan come down from the party at any level. Every single club is acting like its own kingdom."
Many of those who criticize Loehndorf's regime say it has been unable to take criticism, either about Ross or over the lack of leadership in the party. Meyer says that's because of Loehndorf's background working in government. "She came out of however many years of working for the state, in this environment of nobody taking responsibility for anything, and now that's how she's running the party," Meyer says. "If you bring something up, like this Ross incident or the split with south-county voters, they take this siege mentality, like they're being attacked and need to defend themselves at all costs."
For her part, Loehndorf refuses to discuss the Ross incident. "That has been said and done, and I'm not going to say anything more about that," she says in her office. As for her critics, she says: "You'll always have people who like to say things, negative things. The truth is, there is little [division] between groups. It's nothing more than healthy competition, really."
It's not hard to spot the African-Americans at a recent monthly meeting of the Republican Party. All four of them in the room of about 200 are leaning against the back wall, with a sea of white faces and blue hair in front of them. They say they're standing in the back because all the seats had been taken. Still, not long after the meeting begins, it's easy to see why they are -- but perhaps for not much longer -- on the fringe of the Republican Party.
At the podium is Drew Ryun, the party's national deputy director of grassroots campaigning, and without realizing it, he paints the African-American community in one
giant brush stroke. "If you can convert the black ministers in the black community, then you've converted the whole church," Ryun tells the crowd. "Black folks vote with their ministers. That's how you get the black vote."
The four black folks in the back seem unfazed by the comment. "Being reactive to that would be counterproductive," explains one of the four, Republican Conchita Roy-ster, a vice president at Wachovia.
"I think what's important is to realize what he meant by that comment," explains their leader, Andre Cadogan, in a careful political spin. Cadogan heads the Black Republican Caucus of Palm Beach County. "The truth is, if you talk to black people and show them what the party stands for, they'll realize they're Republicans at heart."
That strategy could lead to a major turnaround for the Palm Beach County Republican Party as well as for the national organization. Cadogan contends that many African-Americans who vote Democratic actually share a moral belief more akin to the Republican right: They're against gay marriage, against abortion, and for school vouchers, he claims. He compares it to the President Reagan-era exodus of white Southerners to the Republican side, when "they just realized they didn't have to vote the way their parents did." Still, the GOP has a long way to go in the county. Only 5 percent of African-American voters in Palm Beach County are registered as Republicans. And Cadogan claims there are probably many black Democrats who secretly vote Republican because few are willing to go public, explaining the predominance of white folks at the meeting.
In response, local Republicans are on a crusade to convert minorities. The party is targeting blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, who make up one in five Democrats in Palm Beach County. Last month, the GOP attracted more than 200 mostly Jewish voters to a rally in Delray Beach, which party chairman Dinerstein says is the first of many such forays into enemy territory. "Let's look at it on its face," Dinerstein explains. "Most Jews are fiscally and socially conservative, so there's no reason for them to vote Democratic. And now the Republican position on Israel is better than the Democrats, so why shouldn't they vote with us?"