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Trinchi Warfare

Why does John Ellis "Jeb" Bush keep visiting Amadeo "Trinchi" Trinchitella? Five times in the past six months, the 45-year-old Republican gubernatorial candidate has made his way to Century Village in Deerfield Beach to kowtow to the 80-year-old Democratic power broker.

The reason for the visits has much to do with the way Trinchitella resembles an old-style ward boss. Instead of a sooty Northeastern ghetto, his ward contains 15,000 old folks in a sunny condominium complex; but Trinchitella, a gruff, tough ex-Marine and Teamster official and onetime New York nightclub owner, stalks his turf like a Tammany Hall operative -- cajoling, arguing, making sure the trolleys in the Village are always there to take people to the polls. Says Trinchi about himself: "I can charm the feathers off a chicken, but when I don't want to, I'll hit you over the head. Ya understand?"

Four years ago Trinchi's mostly Jewish Democratic constituents handed Gov. Lawton Chiles 94.6 percent of their support. Bush got a paltry 4.5 percent. Trinchitella, chairman of the Deerfield Beach Democratic Club, says he favors Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay and won't change his mind. He is a lifelong Democrat and has been friendly with MacKay ever since Trinchi "retired" to Florida 20 years ago. Yet Bush keeps visiting. The candidate inquires about the operation and history of the giant condo and what the most important issues are. He doesn't specifically ask for Trinchi's help.

"If he could get 10 percent, 12 percent, that's a big increase over last year," Trinchitella says of Bush. "Of course I'm gonna stay with the Democrats. But that doesn't mean that, as a leader of this village, I can't be courteous to him. If he becomes the next governor, Century Village has still gotta exist. My prediction is he'll get his 10 percent. And he won't know if he got it in spite of me or because of me."

Some think the reasons for the visits are more pointed -- that despite his public posture, Trinchitella may wind up endorsing Bush. "It wouldn't surprise me if he did," says Barry Epstein, a political consultant. "Above all, Trinchi's a pragmatist."

Others speculate that the visits involve a subtler stratagem. "Maybe he keeps visiting Trinchi because he doesn't want Trinchi to work too hard in November," says Bruce Warshal, publisher of the Jewish Journal. "Bush knows that all these Democratic officials can't officially come out and support him. But it isn't black and white. There are intermediate positions. Trinchi could slow down, take a rest, take a nice vacation."

What's certain is that, for the time being, Trinchi has something Bush badly wants: the power to sway thousands of votes. In light of recent events, that seems surprising.

Bush has been asking about Trinchi's health, which isn't good. After heart surgery six years ago, Trinchitella's diabetes worsened. Lately he's had a cold he can't shake. This past Sunday he was scheduled for surgery on a bad knee that's had him walking with a walker. He acknowledges that he's slowing down and may be overextended in his activities. Besides leading the local Democratic club, he serves as a city commissioner in Deerfield Beach, sits on the board of directors of the North Broward Hospital District, and acts as chairman of the Century Village recreation committee and president of the local Italian-American Club.

Meanwhile Trinchitella faces a changing demographic landscape within his Century Village stronghold. "In the past," he says, "we all came from the same background: the Northeast. Our issues were the same: social security, crime, Medicare. We all went through the Second World War. There are a lot of Holocaust victims here. We all went through the Depression. I was able to harness those common interests, politically."

Recently, though, that commonality has started to fray. "Since Century Village was built, we've had a 50 percent turnover, through death, through people selling out or getting old enough to go back with their families or dying," Trinchitella says. "The age group is a little younger. We don't have exactly the same relationship we had in the beginning. We have a problem in the sense that a lot of 'em are Canadians, and so they don't vote. There's no question about it, it makes my job more difficult."

Trinchitella's political power derives first and foremost from his ability to get out the Democratic vote through his newsletters, meetings, and Election Day trolleys. But it's been a foul season for Democrats, from Washington to South Florida. A new, 300-member Republican Club has sprung up inside Century Village, formed partly out of disgust with the Clinton sex scandal. In Tallahassee the ouster of former speaker-designate Willie Logan this spring has led to a schism between black and white Democrats, a phenomenon not helped by the recent failure of Sylvia Poitier, Broward County's only black county commissioner, to gain reelection, despite lobbying by Trinchitella. November brings a gubernatorial election that Bush is favored to win, helped along in recent days by the surprise endorsements of both Logan, a Democrat, and the Jewish Journal.

Amid this whirlwind, a pajama-clad Trinchitella sits at his kitchen table and smiles. He says his influence is stronger than ever, and even his enemies agree. Twenty years ago Trinchitella led a revolution of homeowners who ultimately wrested power away from the original condominium developer. He fought for years to kill a $47 million highway project that would have made the place noisier. And most recently he brought in a clinic and pharmacy, despite opposition by some condo-dwellers who feared outsiders would eventually wind up using them. These past battles explain his enduring, entrenched political power, he says. Even more important is the fact that Century Village, under Trinchi's leadership, charges only about $150 per month in condo fees -- money that covers everything from security, cable TV, tennis court and swimming pool maintenance, and an in-house newspaper to running water.

Three weeks ago Trinchitella was installed as general chairman of the United Jewish Appeal of Deerfield Beach. The event drew 1600 people.

"Why was I installed as the first non-Jew in the history of the United Jewish Appeal?" Trinchi crows. "Because I can raise money! There was no solicitation of money that day -- that'll take place later. Yet $41,000 was donated in my name."

The turnout was bolstered by Trinchi's fiancee, Joan Geller, who is Jewish -- and who happens to be the mother of Florida Sen. Steve Geller and Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller.

"His power and his personal popularity is at a peak," says Warshal, the newspaper publisher. "I don't see it diminished at all. In fact I think he's got new vigor."

Says Trinchi: "I'm 80 years old, and I carry a big load. But I have no intention of easing up." If there is a weakening of his influence, it may show itself after the gubernatorial election, he notes. "We'll wait and see how it goes.

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Sean Rowe

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