Queen of the Recount

Carol Roberts still gets THE REACTION, two years after Palm Beach County's dangling and dimpled chads became world-beamed symbols of the 2000 presidential election morass. While W. Bush does his John Wayne thang in the White House, preparing to finish off his daddy's business with Saddam, the formerly most-reviled villain...
Share this:
Carol Roberts still gets THE REACTION, two years after Palm Beach County's dangling and dimpled chads became world-beamed symbols of the 2000 presidential election morass. While W. Bush does his John Wayne thang in the White House, preparing to finish off his daddy's business with Saddam, the formerly most-reviled villain of the Republic... er, recount, is picking her way through the khaki-shorted and T-shirted throngs in makeup-melting heat on a recent Saturday during the 15th-annual Las Olas Labor Day Art Fair in Fort Lauderdale.

The candidate is a flinty blonde with a Lauren Bacall-like, throaty voice cultivated by years of chain-smoking More cigarettes, for awhile even in her commission office in defiance of a no-smoking policy, with creamy hair that curls softly over her ears and a we-made-West-Palm-Beach-what-it-is-today, doyenne-like air of entitlement.

Clad in mood-withering black slacks and a short-sleeved black blouse unbuttoned over a silky black T-top printed with red roses, the Palm Beach County commissioner is pumping flesh and making stilted small talk. She introduces herself: "I'm Carol Roberts, and I'm running for Congress. I would really like your vote." Not to knock her for it. What else is there to say to a stranger? Then she determines whether the potential voter lives inside the newly hacked-out, jigsaw-puzzle-piece-shaped 22nd Congressional District. Sometimes the conversation strays into the issues Roberts is hammering in her campaign to unseat Republican E. Clay Shaw Jr. -- the cost of prescription drugs, for instance. Or her support for a living-wage ordinance in Palm Beach County. Other times, there is just an awkward silence.

Fortunately for Roberts, a phalanx of fresh-faced field workers, trained and paid by the Illinois-based Strategic Consulting Group to work on Democratic political campaigns, forms an advance guard. Decked out in purple T-shirts (purple for women's equality, Roberts points out) emblazoned with the words "Carol Roberts for Congress," they distribute fliers to those who will take them and offer a cheery, "Would you like to meet her?" By bringing a steady stream of people to Roberts, they keep this campaign on simmer.

As she rounds one line of booths on Las Olas Boulevard and returns the other way, Roberts is overcome by the heat. She takes refuge in the shade beneath the canvas awning of illustrator and graphic artist Jean Eastman Carruthers. "I know I'm not supposed to be shopping," she says with mock guilt to her son, Rabbi Stephen Roberts, who has flown in from New York for the weekend to campaign with his mother.

High-beam politicking seems to come naturally to the 43-year-old Stephen, whose head is covered with a crocheted, rainbow yarmulke because he's Jewish and gay. While Roberts talks to artists, he stays on the sidewalk. "Hi," he says, training a big, embracing smile on fairgoer after fairgoer. "My mother, Carol Roberts, is running for Congress in the district, and she would like your vote." To an exhibitor, he says, "She's a big supporter of the arts." When one wisecracker asks, "How are her matzo balls?" Rabbi Stephen doesn't miss a beat. "Her matzo balls are light and fluffy," he yells to everyone within earshot.

And then it happens.

Melanie Russ enters Roberts's rolling campaign zone against the tide, pushing a stroller. Roberts is talking to a voter. Russ recognizes the 66-year-old candidate immediately and is hustled to her side. "I want to thank you for what you did during the recount," Russ exclaims to Roberts. "I admire you so much!"

In the face of the acclaim, Roberts demurs: "I only did the right thing."

During the 2000 election, as a member of Palm Beach County's three-person canvassing board, Roberts advocated a full manual recount of the county's 425,000 ballots. Told the results might be rejected or challenged in court, Roberts responded, "Will we go to jail? Because I'd be ready to go to jail." The quote was repeated in the media, airing internationally on CNN. Roberts became a folk hero. In the ensuing weeks, Republicans tried to have her removed from the canvassing board, saying she was too involved; she had not only pasted a Gore/Lieberman bumper sticker on her SUV but had raised funds for U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Roberts says she didn't realize how much she had become associated with the recount until she took a post-election trip to Asia. On the airplane, a woman asked her to autograph a copy of Time magazine. She was recognized by a shopkeeper in Laos. Later, in Italy, a woman leapt from her car to give Roberts a hug.

"We were up in Ohio cheering you on," Russ tells the candidate.

"It was the right thing to do," Roberts repeats.

Roberts doesn't have to campaign for Russ's support.

It happened again two days later, on Labor Day. Miami-Dade resident Laura Fogel sought out the candidate as Roberts ambled through Davie's Pine Island Park greeting voters. "Most people want to meet stars," Fogel says, "but to me, you are a star because you stood up for the country when no one else did."

That's quite an endorsement for the would-be congresswoman. Too bad Fogel doesn't live in Roberts's district: It would be another vote in the bag. But that slight geographical snafu hints at the problem dooming her run for the U.S. House. Roberts is trying to get elected to Congress on a platform that appeals to traditional liberals in a district that her opponent's party managed to gerrymander into a conservative one.

Wresting the District 22 seat from Shaw will be almost impossible. Voters have returned the Republican to Congress 11 times. He serves on the powerful U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. He wrote the welfare-to-work legislation. Before he went to Congress, Shaw was mayor and vice mayor of Fort Lauderdale. Democrats in Broward County vote for him even though he has supported a ban on gay adoption in the District of Columbia, has opposed a measure that would have diverted military money for AIDS treatment, and is rated poorly by most liberal organizations.

For the past decade, Shaw's weakness has been outside his home county. Two years ago, he beat back challenger Elaine Bloom by only 599 votes, though he handily dominated the Broward part of his district by 19,000 ballots. A former Democratic state representative from Miami Beach, Bloom was able to draw votes from the part of the district that snaked south into Miami-Dade County, as well as from gay and liberal voters throughout the coastal areas that stretched into Palm Beach County.

To shore up Shaw's Republican base in District 22 against further Democratic incursions, the Florida Legislature did a cynical, Ronco slice-and-dice during this year's redistricting. Shaw got a chunk of South Florida that excludes the swinging beaches of Miami-Dade. In Broward, most of Wilton Manors, a gay-gentrifying city just north of Fort Lauderdale was cut out too. Wealthy Republican areas, including ritzy Parkland and Southwest Ranches, were included.

Shaw has said that voting patterns, not race or sexual preference, were the criteria used to shape the new district. The result is that the balance of registered voters has shifted from 42 percent Democratic and 38 percent Republican to 45 percent Republican and 35 percent Democratic.

Nationally, the Shaw/Roberts race is one of more than 40 in which Democrats and Republicans are scrapping for control of the House and Senate. Republicans currently hold the House by a 222-211 margin, with two Independents. Democrats have a one-vote advantage in the Senate. Tipping the balance in favor of Republicans would allow President George W. Bush to push through more of his agenda. Donkeys win, and Bush has problems.

Democrats contend that the Roberts/Shaw race is very competitive. Roberts has spent 26 years in elected office in Palm Beach County, which now comprises 57 percent of District 22. "She has strong grassroots support, and she started off the race with strong name recognition," says Kim Rubey, press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "She began the race in an enviable position, and she is doing very well."

But winning won't be easy, says University of South Florida political science Prof. Susan MacManus. "You have got to do something that separates you from your opponent," MacManus opines. "She has got to really run an attention-getting campaign."

Roberts has chosen to get attention by attacking.

At a media event July 3 at Palm Beach International Airport, placard-toting members of the AFL-CIO tried to pressure Shaw to sign a pledge against privatizing Social Security. In articles in the daily newspapers the next day, it was noted that Roberts had signed July 2 and challenged her opponent to do the same.

In early August, Roberts blasted Shaw for a television ad he aired boasting about his role in securing money for the multibillion-dollar Everglades cleanup. Roberts said Shaw neglected to protect a key portion of the funding and pointed out that he had received poor grades from environmental groups, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club. "If you look at the press coverage, we are totally controlling the agenda in this campaign," boasts Roberts communications director Stephen Gaskill.

Several times a week, Roberts's camp lobs missiles at Shaw by e-mail and fax. On June 17, Roberts criticized Shaw for taking campaign contributions from Enron and Arthur Andersen in past campaigns.

On July 1, she criticized Shaw for taking $200,000 from a political-action committee funded by the pharmaceutical industry.

On July 23, Roberts chided Shaw for sponsoring a Social Security "privatization plan." Shaw has drafted a bill that would allow for private investment accounts funded with personal tax credits, though he says his plan would not touch the revenue that goes to the Social Security Trust Fund.

"Clay Shaw won't call his bill a privatization plan because he's into smoke and mirrors," Roberts said in the release. "The Shaw plan should go in the trash heap with the President's plan. Our seniors need a solvent Social Security system, not more empty promises from Republicans."

Her most notorious stunt, though, has been to create a controversial, toll-free line, 866-RX-CAROL, that tells consumers how to obtain cheaper drugs from Canadian pharmacies over the Internet. Such purchases are illegal. "I think what she is doing is reckless," says Shaw's campaign manager, Larry Casey.

It's a little after 1 p.m., and storm clouds are turning a dirty-gray sky into a nasty, bluish-purple bruise. But so far, the deluge that threatens to ruin Labor Day hasn't yet afflicted Davie's Tree Top Park, where the AFL-CIO-affiliated Federation of Public Employees is sponsoring an old-fashioned family picnic. Under a canopy of massive oaks, there must be 500 people here -- mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and kids... lots of kids -- clustered around card tables or lolling in lawn chairs. Plates are passed laden with down-home American picnic fare: barbecued chicken, baked beans, cole slaw, hot dogs, sauerkraut. The crack of ice-cold beer-can tabs being jacked open punctuates the air. A line of eager children stands in front of a vendor swirling luscious, giant, pink beehives of cotton candy on paper cones.

For candidate Roberts, this is prime campaign country. Most of the people here are enjoying a day off from work. They're dressed in clothing that a smear of barbecue sauce or a helping of baked beans won't ruin. By contrast, Roberts is dressed for business -- gray pinstriped slacks, toenails painted bright red, face shielded by a straw hat decorated with a black-and-white braid. This is the third of five stops for the candidate on a Labor Day blitz that began at 10:30 a.m. with skycaps at the Palm Beach International Airport to discuss the living-wage ordinance she recently proposed. The day will end with a 6:30 p.m. appearance at a Labor Day concert at Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

Despite the ladies-who-brunch attire, Roberts is in her element at this union gathering. Although Shaw has the endorsement of politicos from both counties, Roberts has been backed by the Democratic stalwarts: labor unions, women's groups, and gay and lesbian and human rights organizations. Emily's List, which donates money to pro-choice candidates, gave Roberts $35,000.

Roberts is greeted warmly. People like to see a candidate come to them, says communications director Gaskill. To some people, Roberts talks her campaign planks. To others, she offers bits of her personal life. "I have six grandchildren myself," Roberts says to several grandmothers watching over their respective grandchildren. To Phillip Paniccia, a disaster team captain standing in front of a Red Cross truck, Roberts describes her father. "What I'm proud of is that my dad had a 50-year pin with the Red Cross," she says. "He taught first aid."

It is perhaps telling that, in a majority Republican district, Roberts spent Labor Day fortifying her Democratic base. "A lot of Democrats have supported Clay Shaw," North Broward County Democratic Club President Sarah Brown explained when Roberts stopped by the club's picnic later that day. "Carol has to go out and recapture Democratic votes."

As did Elaine Bloom before her, one group Roberts is banking on for votes is Broward County's burgeoning gay community. And, like Bloom, who received help from her gay son, David, Roberts has employed her offspring at campaign appearances. Stephen became a rabbi after a career in finance. He lives in New York City and worked with the Red Cross after 9/11 counseling the families of victims of the World Trade Center attacks.

"I'm here campaigning for my mother where I think I can make a difference," Stephen says after several campaign stops at gay-dominated events. "The gay and lesbian community is part of who I am."

Rabbi Stephen is a big fan of his mother's political career. He was in high school in 1975, when his mother made her first run for office. Her ambition doesn't surprise him. He describes it with the Hebrew phrase "tikkun olan," which he translates as "repair of the world."

"My mother doesn't need to be involved in politics," he says. "She could be in a salon getting a manicure and a pedicure, but my mother believes in trying to make the world a better place."

Carol Roberts says that, for her, gay rights is a personal issue, a natural outgrowth of her close relationship with her son. Stephen kept his homosexuality secret through high school and college because he feared he would be banished from his faith. When he finally came out to his parents after college, they immediately told him they would stand by him. "We are a very strong family that loves each other and supports each other," Carol Roberts says. "And we think that Stephen is just an incredible human being."

Last year, Roberts says, her whole family, including Stephen's brothers, sister, and cousins, attended a marriage ceremony in which Stephen exchanged vows with his partner. Carol and Hyman walked with their son down the aisle, she says. Her support of federal antidiscrimination laws and domestic-partner benefits is a logical outgrowth of her relationship with Stephen, she says. She also believes that Florida's ban on gay adoption is ridiculous.

Terry DeCarlo, director of development for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of South Florida, praises Roberts's support of Stephen. "I'll give her votes for being a great mother," he says, expressing his own views rather than those of the center. "In that arena, she is strides ahead of a lot of other parents. But it doesn't mean people will vote for her on that alone."

Roberts, DeCarlo says, is popping up everywhere at events in Broward. She attended the Stonewall Street Festival in Wilton Manors and marched in the Pridefest Parade in Fort Lauderdale. In August, she spoke at the monthly luncheon of the gay business group GayLauderdale. "She has courted the gay community very heavily, very heavily," DeCarlo says. Indeed, appealing to the gay and lesbian vote is a smart move, even if some gay areas were gerrymandered out of the district. The 2000 census, which noted same-sex households for the first time, counted 5790 in Broward County and 3069 in Palm Beach County. The population of gays and lesbians in both areas is, of course, much higher.

Roberts has the same problem among gays and lesbians in Broward that she faces with the general electorate. "When her name comes up, a lot of people say, 'Who?'" DeCarlo says. "She has to be out there basically 24-7... letting people know what Clay hasn't already done, or... what she will do that Clay hasn't."

Roberts aimed for that effect when she spoke to GayLauderdale. "I don't need to tell this group that Clay Shaw is out of touch with this district," she told the luncheon attendees. "That's why he lobbied the state legislature to have Wilton Manors, the heart of South Florida's gay community, removed from the 22nd District."

GayLauderdale doesn't endorse political candidates, but spokesman Milton Lamonte says Shaw has done nothing to help the gay community. "He's not here, and he's never been here," Lamonte says, adding that the legislature's excising of Wilton Manors from the district was a cynical move that may galvanize the gay community behind Roberts. "I don't think [Shaw] realizes how large the gay community is outside of Wilton Manors."

Carol Antonia Klein was born in Coral Gables in 1936 to Lithuanian and Hungarian Jewish immigrants. She married Hyman Roberts at age 17 in the summer of 1953, just months after graduating from high school. The couple moved to Boston, where Hyman had established a medical practice. In 1955, they returned to South Florida, to West Palm Beach. Roberts says she and Hyman always wanted to have a family of six children. They did. And a very successful bunch they are. Among David, Jonathan, Mark, Stephen, Scott, Pamela, there are two doctors, a dentist, a rabbi, a businessman, and an accountant.

When her children were young, Roberts threw herself into volunteer work. She also attended college but never earned her degree. She did obtain her real-estate license. In 1978, she founded a public relations firm. And from 1978 to 1983, she hosted a talk show, R.S.V.P., on WPBR-AM (1340). If a guest didn't show, Roberts says, she would sometimes interview her children on what it was like to be a teenager.

It's 6:45 a.m. on February 21, 1975, at the Roberts home. Three of the couple's children bustle around the dining room. Carol and Hyman sit at a dining-room table that seats eight. He sips coffee. Carol reads the Palm Beach Post.

"You all right?" he says to her, noticing a strange expression on his wife's face.

"Sure," Carol says.

"You somehow don't look right."

"Believe me, I'm fine."

"Maybe you're coming down with something."

A few seconds of silence pass.

"That's awful," Carol says wincing.

"What's awful?"

"Do you realize there probably won't be an election in West Palm Beach?"

In his 1985 play, My Wife, the Politician, which was also published as a book by the same name, Hyman Roberts describes how his wife decided to run for the West Palm Beach City Commission.

That election year, West Palm Beach was either the happiest city in Palm Beach County or the most apathetic. It seemed two commissioners would automatically return to office because no one had filed to oppose them.

Just before 5 p.m. on the last day to qualify, with her two youngest children in tow, Roberts filed to run for the at-large commission seat held by incumbent Jim Adams. "If I didn't know anything about him, I figured no one else did either," she says. She listed her occupation as housewife.

At city hall, 13-year-old son Scott quizzed a television news crew that had aimed its camera on a clock, ready to report that no one had filed for the commission seats. Instead, at Scott's behest, the camera crew aired an interview with Roberts.

When Roberts arrived back home that night, her lawn was awash with television news trucks and print reporters, and her political career had been launched. She had only three weeks to campaign for the office. She criticized several commissioners who voted to deposit city money in a bank in which they owned stock. She also urged the city to change from at-large elections to single-member districts to make it more likely that a black commissioner would be elected. On March 25, 1975, Roberts beat Adams.

She made history. She was West Palm Beach's first female commissioner.

"Where do you go from here, Mrs. Roberts?" a reporter asks her on election night in My Wife, the Politician.

"I'll do my best to justify this confidence by the citizens who voted for me."

"What will be first?"

"Suppose I'll have to get a business card to prove I'm really a commissioner."

My Wife, the Politician was read at the Actors Repertory Theater in West Palm Beach in November 1986. It is one of several works authored by Hyman. He has also written on the dangers of the sweetener Aspartame, on conclusions one can draw about wealth and health by studying ailments of rich Palm Beachers, a history of West Palm Beach, and his personal recollections of a visit by Princess Diana and Prince Charles to the region. All have been published by the couple's vanity publishing company, the Sunshine Sentinel Press. He was not available for an interview and makes only rare appearances on the campaign trail.

For most of a quarter century after her first election, Roberts was an elected official in Palm Beach County. Roberts believes her history in Palm Beach County gives her an edge over Shaw. She was elected to the City Commission four times. She served two terms as mayor and four times as vice mayor. In 1986, she was elected to the Palm Beach County Commission. And for the next 16 years, voters repeatedly returned her to office.

Though she lags behind Shaw in fundraising -- he has reported $1.4 million in contributions to her $800,000 -- she has done well compared to other candidates around the country in contributions from individuals. Hillary Clinton's political-action committee donated $5000. Other politicians' PACs have contributed another $20,000. Al Gore appeared at a breakfast fundraiser September 18, raising $50,000 for the party and $50,000 for Roberts. She was tenth in the nation in contributions from individuals in the January-to-June 2002 cycle. She points out that most of her contributions are from individuals in Palm Beach County rather than from political action committees like Shaw's. "I have a wider base of support from people all over the region than I think Shaw realizes," she says.

In her 16 years on the County Commission, Roberts has gained a reputation as a persuasive and passionate fighter who wears down fellow commissioners with discussions that drag on for hours. "When Roberts thinks she's right, she's like a pit bull with a bone. She doesn't give up. Or give in," according to a Sun-Sentinel article dated November 21, 2000.

County Commissioner Mary McCarty, who is also chair of the local Republican Party, has a different take. "The consistency [in Roberts's record] is the lobbyist representing the issue," McCarty rants.

Roberts has been dogged by criticism of her relationships with certain county lobbyists and her penchant for raising money from companies that do business or want to do business with the county. In 1996, Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino labeled Roberts "a woman who's touched up more people than the staff at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum" after she raised $55,000 from Palm Beach County firms vying to work on a party in Orlando celebrating her installation as the president of the Florida Association of Counties.

The most virulent criticism, though, has been leveled at Roberts over her championing of clients represented by longtime friend Anita Mitchell.

Consider, for example:

In 1992, Mitchell's company, the Mitchell Group, was picked to participate in four of five county bond issues. In 1994, Roberts was accused of asking the commission to bend the rules so a friend of Mitchell's could get a $150,000 business grant.

In 1996, Roberts was one of three commissioners who tried to help a company ranked near the bottom of the pack to run the county's criminal justice computer system. Dallas-based Business Records Corp. was represented by Mitchell. When Roberts was installed as president of the Florida Association of Counties in 1996, BCC paid $7500 for a keynote speaker at the event. (In the end, BCC didn't get the contract.)

This past July, Roberts raised eyebrows when she proposed relaxing the rules in the county's 21,000-acre agricultural preserve so developer GL Homes would have an easier time building a development there. GL Homes contributed $7000 to her congressional campaign.

Considering the GL Homes deal, Shaw campaign manager Casey says Roberts has no place slamming Shaw's record on the Everglades. "She lives in a glass house," Casey says.

He also criticizes Roberts for "strong-arming" county lobbyists and firms for campaign contributions. This past spring, the Palm Beach Post reported that 11 items on the April 4 commission agenda were tied to Roberts's campaign contributors. "She has stepped on the neck of every lobbyist that has ever come before the County Commission," agreed attorney J. Reeve Bright, who is counsel to the local Republican Party.

Even without that rap, McCarty predicts Roberts's recount fame will kill any chance she has of persuading Palm Beach Republicans to vote for their hometown girl. If Roberts was respected among Palm Beach Republicans before the 2000 elections, a claim McCarty questions, that support has evaporated, she says. "I think there may have been some shred of credibility to that argument pre-2000 election, when she became Queen of the Recount," McCarty says. "But when she says she would rather go to jail than see George Bush as president..."

When New Times points out that what Roberts actually said was that she would go to jail if necessary to continue the manual recount, McCarty is unfazed. "Same difference," she cracks.

McCarty says Roberts's 866-RX-CAROL hotline is part of a pattern stretching back to the 2000 recount. "Seniors that are looking for affordable prescriptions will try to do anything they can," McCarty says. "But if you are trying to run for office as a lawmaker and you advocate breaking the law, that is a bit of a problem. But again, she says she would rather go to jail than see Bush elected president. So there is a little bit in her history to go against the law."

The bad-girl rep hasn't hurt Roberts yet.

In August, her campaign was again splashed across the headlines.

After a brainstorming session at her campaign headquarters, Roberts set up the hotline 866-RX-CAROL in July to provide information on how to order drugs from Canadian pharmacies on-line. She had learned about Internet pharmacies, which offer cheaper drugs than most American outlets, from a 92-year-old man during a campaign stop at an assisted-living facility.

Problem: Filling prescriptions outside the U.S. is illegal. When questioned by the press in August, Roberts said she didn't realize that such purchases are against the law. "You may have seen some press coverage over the past few days about my toll-free hotline to provide information on how to purchase prescription drugs from Canada over the Internet," Roberts told a gathering for Woman's Equality Day in Boca Raton on August 25. "Well, let me just say this: RX-CAROL is here to stay!

"Pharmaceutical companies have gouged us for too long," she says. "If we lived in Michigan instead of Florida, I would take a busload of you over the border to buy prescriptions. But we can't do that from down here. So I found the next-best thing."

Roberts was at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boca Raton to accept a "Woman of Courage Award" from a chapter of the National Organization for Women. When she introduced Roberts, NOW President Gonzalee Ford commented, "We need more disobedient women," to the crowd's cheers.

A couple of days before, on August 23, the Sun-Sentinel ran an editorial on 866-RX-CAROL counseling that if Roberts continued to advocate breaking the law, "voters should question the judgment and principles of someone who aspires to one of the highest offices in the land."

But for a public fed up with the pharmaceutical industry, Roberts's stance struck a nerve. Every time there was an article about RX-CAROL -- and there have been nine in the past month -- or a television news report aired, calls to her campaign headquarters poured in, communications director Gaskill says. One thousand calls have supported Roberts's stance, Gaskill says, and two criticized her. "I can assure you, those were nonpartisan calls," Roberts says.

The controversy let voters know where she stands, Roberts says. "I consider myself an independent thinker," she says. "I am more than willing to step out and say what I believe. I think I have shown that as a county commissioner, city commissioner, and as mayor."

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.