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Fiasco Lends Murky Hue to Palm Beach's Rosy Image

Spotlight: The area is transformed in the minds of onlookers from elegant playground to home of the voting-challenged. Residents say the taint is unfair.


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — For many Americans, the images associated with Palm Beach County long have included elegant beachfront mansions, the Kennedys at play, the occasional sex scandal--and a whole lot of money.

Indeed, in the manicured seaside city of Palm Beach, the jewelry and clothing displayed in trendy boutiques lining Worth Avenue often don't bear price tags. If you have to ask, the saying goes, you can't afford it.

But this county now has another image: the home of the folks who couldn't vote straight. "I know the rest of the world is making fun of us," said state Rep. Lois Frankel, aDemocrat whose district is part of Florida's largest county. "They think we're stupid. But we're not like that at all."

In fact, Palm Beach County--with its 1 million-plus residents--is as diverse as any in the Sunshine State: there are the Palm Beach billionaires and the migrant workers of Belle Glade and Pahokee, who toil in the sugar cane fields that stretch to the eastern edge of Lake Okeechobee.

At 2,578 square miles, the county is larger than either Rhode Island or Delaware, and it encompasses 37 municipalities.

Over the years, the city of Palm Beach--which occupies a slender barrier island--has drawn most of the publicity.

Joseph Kennedy, the father of John F. Kennedy, became one of the first Roman Catholics to move into what had become the winter playground for the privileged.

While in office, JFK used the family home as the winter White House--which was in the news again in 1991 when the late president's nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was charged with raping a woman at the estate. He was acquitted of the charges.

In the 1980s, Roxanne Pulitzer's divorce from publishing heir Peter Pulitzer led to court testimony about islanders' drug use and sexual escapades that was so steamy that bailiffs were said to have blushed.

But the county seat of West Palm Beach and smaller cities such as Jupiter, Lake Worth and Boynton Beach are more typical American towns--filled with middle-income people working everyday jobs and raising children who attend public schools. And many are Democrats.

But Palm Beach County also has a lot of older residents, including retirees from the Northeast. Many are Jewish. And many are Democrats too.

"We are Democrat-rich," said Frankel, who heads the Democratic delegation in the Florida House.

One of this county's other Democrats is elections supervisor Theresa LePore, who designed the now-notorious "butterfly ballot" so that larger print could be used to assist elderly voters who may have eyesight problems. LePore has insisted that the presumed benefits were nonpartisan.

But the butterfly backfired.

"Theresa designed something she thought would help seniors, but it was a mistake," said Frankel, a friend of LePore's.

The two biggest industries in Palm Beach County are agriculture and tourism. Visitors can watch a polo match in Palm Beach, play golf at one of some 150 courses or tramp through Everglades saw grass at the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

The county is the spring training home for two Major League Baseball teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Montreal Expos.

But some locals fear the ballot brouhaha already may have marked the county with an indelible stain.

"Some people are very embarrassed by this," said Connie Bonvechio, who runs a Riviera Beach charter fishing business with her husband, Bob. "But this is the way life is; nothing is predictable. This could have happened in Texas or anyplace."

In the long run, said Bonvechio, the publicity could be good for the county. "People are going to see sunshine and palm trees and want to come," she said. "We've got lots of fish too."

Already, advertisers and entrepreneurs are beginning to cash in.

T-shirt vendors have turned the embarrassing circumstances to their benefit with a cynical, $10 take on the Palm Beach County ballot: It shows how a voter could follow a straight line from George W. Bush's name to a punch card hole, and then get lost in a spaghetti-bowl of lines leading from the names Al Gore and Pat Buchanan.

A local FM radio station has mocked the area's unintended role in U.S. history with a promotional spot that says: "When the people need a new president, they turn to Palm Beach County. When the people of Palm Beach County need classic rock, they turn to 98.7--the Gator."

Frankel, for one, wishes the spotlight had never shined this way. "What I want Palm Beach County to be known for is its very caring, respected citizens," she said. "But so many of them are upset right now over this. Many can't believe this is happening to us."


Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.


Palm Beach County, Fla.

Its people . . .

* Population is 1,050,968.

* 24% are 65 and older.

* 9% are widows.

* 73% are white, 14% black, 11% Latino and 1% Asian.

* 235,000 are Jewish.

* Median household income is $50,265.

Its politics . . .

* Of about 640,000 registered voters, there are 287,000 Democrats and 228,000 Republicans. Voters registered with minor parties or no party at all number about 125,000.

* In previous elections, the county supported George Bush in 1988 but backed Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996.

Sources: Claritas, Associated Press, Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County

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