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 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."

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Susan Eastman
Contact: Susan Eastman