Prelude to a Butt Whippin'

Jay Bevenour

Nothing can incite a crowd of Democrats like talk of the 2000 election. So that's immediately what West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel goes for in her fiery speech. She's warming up a crowd of a few thousand in front of the downtown library. Hiding behind a ficus hedge, waiting to be announced, is the presumed savior of the Democratic Party -- John Kerry, looking even more gaunt than he does on television. "In Palm Beach County, we take this election personally, don't we?" she asks, and the lunchtime crowd erupts. She tells of seeing voters actually weep over their butterfly ballots, and the throngs boo and hiss their disdain. Then, Frankel goes for the kicker. "But this November," she readies them, "we will redeem ourselves in the eyes of this country!"

Kerry emerges with his stump speech about George W. Bush's lies and flawed fiscal policy. It's a damn good speech really, and after he's done, hundreds line up along metal barricades to tell him so. Security guards announce to the masses that he'll be carrying his own pen for signatures, and as he scribbles on placards for his faithful, Kerry fields a question as to whether he'll win Palm Beach County this year. "If they count the votes, I will," he says rather unenthusiastically. Then he notices his words are being written down, so he elaborates. "Well, we hope so. I just need to compete hard and we will win. And I will work hard."

There's a reason for Kerry's rather tepid response. Palm Beach County is no longer a place Democratic candidates can assume will throw them money and support, as it has since liberal New Englanders helped found it a century ago. The local Democratic Party hierarchy is in a shambles, with accusations of a Republican mole. Long-time members who express their discontent have been sent into exile. And powerful south-county fundraisers are putting their dollars instead behind political clubs that operate as mini-fiefdoms. The party is almost broke, has organized few election-year rallies, and lacks any leaders ready to take charge.

What's worse, the party's disorganized leadership denies the problems, dismissing dissenters and refusing offers of help from those who used to run things. The party's treasurer, Scott Britton, explains it with a quote not from some Democratic strategist but from the man he seeks to bring down: "It's like George W. always says. Those who don't want to join us will be left behind, and those who want to help us, well, great." Britton, whose day job is as a court-appointed mediator, says there's no negotiating with the traitors. "I'm not going to mediate with people who all they want to do is complain."

Meanwhile, local Republicans see their chance, targeting minority and Jewish voters who were once so heavily Democratic that Republicans never bothered seeking converts among them. Democrats still make up 45 percent of the county's registered voters, compared to 32 percent for Republicans. But the GOP believes its efforts to register voters, assisted by agents from the national office, will bring new numbers to their ranks.

In addition, the Republican Party of Palm Beach County has raised more than a half-million dollars this year. Democrats have managed just over $10,000, with half of that coming from one donor. That's $56 for the Republicans for every dollar collected by the Democrats.

Republican leaders, headed by savvy Chairman Sid Dinerstein, see President Bush doing well this year in Palm Beach County. Some even predict he'll win outright. "Is it my goal that George W. Bush wins Palm Beach County? Absolutely," says Dinerstein, who's comfortably retired at 57 years old and treating his unpaid position as a full-time job. "Is it a long shot? Absolutely, but you can bet we have a game plan on how it can be done."

The Democratic Party has long been the party with little organization, and this year's presidential contest will be a test of its ability to come together, says Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the well-oiled Broward County branch. Ceasar, a lawyer in Plantation, has spent seven years as the party's Broward chairman, giving it stability like no other county in Florida. "We're in pretty good shape statewide, and we have a lot of potential," Ceasar says tentatively. "The real question will be whether we have the ability to come together for this presidential election."

With Palm Beach's infamous role in the 2000 election, a good showing by Bush here would likely get national attention on election night and perhaps would be an indication that voters aren't all that upset about the whole Supreme Court-stole-the-election thing. Along with Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Palm Beach has always been the Democrats' answer to the heavily Republican northern and central parts of the state. A good showing here would give Bush momentum toward Florida's 27 electoral votes, which is a hefty 10 percent of what he needs for reelection. But more important, this year's vote will signal whether there's been a change in a county that has always been the Democratic Party's citadel, a place where politicians come to fill their pockets.  

In the end, just how important is a well-planned local campaign in a presidential election? If it counts for anything in Palm Beach, it appears that Bush has at least a shot at carrying the county.

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."

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."

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.

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?"

In the meantime, local Democrats aren't faring as well with minorities. After her appointment, Loehndorf appointed only one black to a leadership position in the party -- and not to one of the more influential committees, like fundraising or voter registration, but to the committee on affirmative action. "Was this an oversight or deliberate?" asks Fladell, the political consultant. "It was a terrible, horrible oversight for a party that's supposed to represent minorities."

The Republicans' campaign for Jewish voters has received inadvertent help from Loehndorf herself, critics say. She has insisted on holding party meetings in downtown West Palm Beach, something that irks south-county retirees, says Jay Weitz, chairman of the Peoples Choice Political Action Committee, which represents mainly conddo-dwelling Democrats. "Much of our south-county people are retirees who can't make that kind of trip at night," says Weitz, a 72-year-old retired salesman in Boynton Beach. The reluctance of the party to appreciate that fact could lead some Jewish Democrats to go instead to Republican functions, he says. "We're trying to work with the party leadership up there," Weitz says. "At this point, we are no longer talking as seriously about splitting the party, but I hope they know they need to bend over backwards to recognize these south-county voters."

For the Republicans, nobody could be better suited for the job of recruiting Jews and minorities than Dinerstein, an ex-Jewish Democrat himself. Dinerstein says he was raised in a blue-collar family, with his father, a bookkeeper, never able to buy his own home. Dinerstein says making his own way into the business world got him interested in the Republican way. Dinerstein founded a check cashing company that grew to 600 employees before he sold it 11 years ago, allowing him to retire to Palm Beach Gardens, where he bought a 5,800-square-foot home appraised at $826,000. So Dinerstein says that, as a Jew and a self-made man, he's the perfect spokesman for the GOP's minority crusade. "At the local level, the party's not going to change the minds of a large number of people," Dinerstein admits. "But there are margins that it can affect. You're talking 4 or 5 percent, but that can often make the difference in many races."  

However, Dinerstein is realistic about President Bush's chances here, even if his party can win support from minority voters. In 2000, the president managed to get only 35 percent of the votes in Palm Beach County, compared to 62 percent for Al Gore. And that was even with the thousands of votes thrown out and others who claimed they accidentally voted for Pat Buchanan. "It would be a miracle for Bush to win this county," he says, "but it can be done."

The black folks in the back of the room at the recent GOP meeting are more optimistic about Bush's chances here. "He's going to win, hands down," says Cadogan, a 35-year-old engineer in a sharp black suit with a tie-less blue dress shirt below it. "Hands down, he's going to win Palm Beach County."

"Oh yeah," says Royster, wearing blue khakis and her shoulder-length hair so straight, it looks ironed. "The president is going to win."

Not so convinced is Sean Williams, a 37-year-old from Boynton Beach with small-lens eyeglasses perched on his nose and pens lining the pocket of his dress shirt. "Let's be realistic, guys," he says. "He's not going to go from -- what did he win, like a third? -- to 51 percent. I'd like to believe it, but I don't know.... "

Cadogan politely cuts in. This is not something black Republicans can waver on, not when they're trying to convince their brethren of a rebellion. "No," he says sternly. "I'm sure he can win."

"OK," Williams relents.

Looking entirely Wall Street in his suspenders, dress pants, and polka-dotted tie, Mike Aves heads down Clematis Street looking to recruit voters. He's been put in charge of the March 9 election-night party for the Democrats, and so far, things haven't gone well. As of 7:34 p.m., only a dozen people have shown up, the food is limited to cheese cubes and chicken wings, and none of the TVs work. The small crowd is starting to rumble about the lack of election returns -- with, among others, two West Palm Beach city commission seats up for grabs -- and Aves knows that such a small crowd won't hold the few politicians present for long. He heads off from the bar he booked for the occasion -- a dance club called Liquid -- in the rather foolish hope of persuading young people to change their evenings for a lame political party. "I just hope I don't run into Mayor Frankel," he says, crossing Olive Avenue. "She's going to rip me a new asshole."

A self-employed financial planner, Aves explains that he's on a mission to help the dance clubs and bars make it in a downtown that's otherwise struggling. "That's something Frankel's not too happy about," he says. A block later, he spots Frankel outside an Irish pub. "Oh, shit," he says. "I'm screwed." Aves turns quickly to a homeless guy and a spacey woman, both of whom are completely wasted. He tries to talk them into coming before the guy cuts him off, saying he couldn't afford the $5 cover charge donation. Aves tries to remain positive: "Well, I still hope to see you there."

Walking frantically now, he ducks into a hipster clothing store and corners two women near the dressing rooms. "Very professional," the first girl says of the mustard-colored flier he's handed her.

"Yeah, we've got to make politics hipper."

Back in the club, the crowd has expanded to maybe 20 now, but many are still grumbling about the lack of a TV. Aves tries to organize running a cable line from the bar next door and again avoids Frankel, who's now sipping a cocktail at the bar. "What I really need right now more than anything," Aves says to nobody in particular, "is a damn drink."

That night, Aves' party joined a long list of local Democratic soirees that went sour. In the Loehndorf reign, the party has held few get-togethers, and most of them that have been put together have been disorganized and poorly planned, her critics say. "When the Democrats get together nowadays, it's chaos," says Lazar, the ex-CIA officer. "They're usually very odd meetings where nothing gets done."  

Democratic clubs in south county, consisting mainly of retired, Jewish New Yorkers, still draw consistent crowds. They operate independently of the county party now, with little communication between the clubs and headquarters.

For instance, the March meeting of the South County United Democratic Club in Delray Beach drew a crowd of 220 to hear judicial candidates speak. The meeting dragged on for about two hours until volunteers carted in boxes of ice cream bars, essentially ending the meeting as the crowd hurried for the free treats. Anne Kamin, a 77-year-old Delray resident, debated whether Jews would leave the party as she chomped on a chocolate-covered vanilla popsicle. "The only ones who vote Republican are the ones with money, like my son the stockbroker," Kamin said. "But who knows? Maybe it's all going to change."

In comparison to the Democrats' lack of organization, the Republican Party of Palm Beach County has amassed a huge network of meetings and clubs. In Palm Beach County alone, 20 clubs meet regularly, including four women's clubs, three clubs for minorities, and two for children. Says Dinerstein: "I'm not kidding. There's an event every day that I could go to. I've got to pick and choose."

Back at the election-night party for Democrats, Aves is sipping his Heineken alone at the bar when he's cornered by Loehndorf and political activist Lisa Ramsey, who are not too happy about the flop of a party.

Ramsey, a dedicated party idealist who has worked successfully with Loehndorf and her predecessors, speaks first: "Where's the TV?"

"Don't ask," Aves responds curtly.

"Well, what about a computer? We were supposed to have a computer so we could look at results," Loehndorf chimes in.

"Oh, I couldn't get my computer up here," he says. "It would have been a huge hassle."

Ramsey asks about a phone. At least they could have a phone line going to check in with the elections office.

"Oh, that was me," Loehndorf admits. "I was supposed to bring it. I just totally forgot. I don't know what's wrong with me today."

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