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Seniors Make Politics a Personal Issue : Weekly Meetings Draw Crowds to Wachs Center

November 06, 1986|DAVID WHARTON

Afternoon brought the type of October heat that catches people by surprise and it made things uncomfortable inside a small, white chapel behind the senior citizens center.

The meeting had attracted so many listeners that folding chairs spilled out through the door and into the glaring sunshine. Several people leaned in through the entryway to hear. The speaker, presenting his view on ballot issues, was drowned out by cries of "No!"

"I asked you to show the speaker some courtesy," the moderator interjected. The crowd quieted, but for only a few minutes.

They say this is how it goes every week at the Wachs Multipurpose Senior Center in North Hollywood. For the past seven months, on Wednesday afternoons, Seniors for Action on Issues has been meeting to discuss politics.

Chief Justice Talks to Group

The group is on a roll right now. In September, it scored a coup of sorts by persuading Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird to speak at one of its meetings. There were reporters, photographers and television cameras--the event was covered on news programs and in newspapers throughout the state.

"We asked for Rose Bird, never thinking she'd end up here," said Bertram Solomon, 64, the group's issues chairman.

There are similar groups at several other senior centers around the San Fernando Valley. But since the Bird visit, the Seniors for Action on Issues has become the meeting to attend, playing to standing-room-only crowds. And the 1 p.m. sessions have been getting heated.

"When you get this kind of crowd every week, you've got something going for you," said Victor Levine, 71, the group's legislative chairman.

"I hope you notice how well-informed this group is," said Selma Feldman, 66, of Van Nuys, a member of the group. "They're well-read, bright people."

Topic-by-Topic Approach

There is nothing unusual about the way Seniors for Action on Issues operates its meetings. Representatives from government and the media are invited to speak on a topic, and there is a question-and-answer period afterward.

The North Hollywood group insists upon being referred to as nonpartisan, but a majority of the members express liberal views. When Bird appeared, the audience was effusively supportive, never challenging her and at one point presenting her with a small bouquet of roses.

The members are unfailingly proud of their group.

"We think our format is special," said Alfred Golden, who says he's over 70, of the group's dialogue sessions. "We borrowed it from the Greeks--Aristophanes and Euripides and the other great philosophers."

And, the members are quick to add, they do more than just talk. They send letters to everyone from city councilmen to President Reagan, they say, and place telephone calls to state legislators.

'They Keep Informed'

"I don't agree with everything they say," said Gertrude Morris of Van Nuys, a member who did not give her age. "But they keep informed. They all get out to vote and participate in community programs."

Seniors for Action on Issues was formed by several men--Golden, Levine and Solomon among them--who had been attending a men's rap session at the Wachs center. They wanted something more focused and relevant, Levine said.

"We put up fliers and told people we were starting an issues group."

Only 12 people attended the first meeting. But the audience gradually increased as the weeks passed and word spread. Speakers included Walter Zelman, head of Common Cause, television commentator Bill Press and author-humorist Joseph Schwartz.

Not Just Seniors Issues

Solomon and the other group leaders insist they have tried to keep members from limiting their focus to issues concerning senior citizens.

"I'm tired of hearing everything for the seniors," Levine said. "We are pushing programs that will help younger people too."

During a recent meeting, many of the questions dealt specifically with the needs of senior citizens. But there also was concern voiced about how certain ballot measures would affect children and young people.

When someone remarked that senior citizens were not respected by society, an anonymous voice from the crowd shouted: "We seniors are the ones who made this country what it is today. What makes everyone think we're brilliant? We were stupid then and we're stupid now."

The meeting lasted long into the afternoon. Afterward, the speaker--Sol Garber, a Valley representative from the California Senior Legislature, a nonpartisan, statewide advocacy organization--remained in the courtyard outside to talk with members.

"I'm thrilled with this group," Garber said.

Politically Involved

Garber leads a similar group at the Reseda Senior Multi-Purpose Center, and he said there are weekly political discussion meetings at the Wilkinson Senior Multipurpose and North Valley Jewish Community centers. Garber said he believes the recent focus on Social Security and medical care for the aged has inspired seniors to become more politically involved.

If things keep going the way they have been for the North Hollywood group, members will need to find a larger place to meet.

"We're trying to keep things rolling. We feel we can fill up an auditorium of 2,000 seats," Golden said. "These aren't the kind of people who sit around and wait for the Grim Reaper. They want to know what they can do about solving today's problems."

"Most of the people at the meetings are informed, interested people," said Zara Bigelman, 83, of North Hollywood. "There are apathetic people who don't come here and that is sad."

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