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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

In One Community, a Sense of a Job Well Done

November 21, 2000|MARK FINEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. — As high-powered lawyers debated the future of the U.S. presidency before robed Florida Supreme Court justices far to the north, Bernice Goldman did what she and the other girls who helped push that legal case always do on Monday afternoons:

They played canasta and poker in the clubhouse card room at the Lakes of Delray retirement village.

But on this Monday, the elderly card sharks here mostly basked in the afterglow of a self-empowerment all too rare among people for whom life is mostly in the past.

"It's that we're being heard, that we do have a voice, that we're not just a retirement community anymore," said Goldman, who was among the many elderly Jewish voters in Palm Beach County whose election day complaints touched off the fierce legal battle that is now before the state Supreme Court--and that may determine who next sits in the White House.

Added Leon Teger, who edits the Lakes of Delray Times and who watched every moment of the Supreme Court's live broadcast Monday from his condo: "I personally think this is the greatest thing ever to happen to democracy.

"I don't see people in the street throwing stones or blowing things up. People are speaking their minds. And now, the nation is listening, debating, deciding. Today, I feel a great pride."

In the small office where his World War II Purple Heart hangs on the wall above the "lucky piece" of shrapnel that pierced his stomach during a 1943 bombing run over Romania, Teger, 79, said his pride is shared by his four children and eight grandchildren--who have spoken of their grandfather's community during show-and-tell in school.

But there's bitterness as well.

In the two weeks since the mostly Jewish retirement communities across Palm Beach County launched the first angry salvos against their county's "butterfly ballot," and explained how it made them mistakenly cast presidential votes twice, not at all or, worse, for ultraconservative Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, Jay Leno has had a field day with them.

The late-night TV host has been joined by other comedians, by columnists and by Internet jokers in ridiculing not only South Florida but the retirees themselves. A typical jab noted how the seniors could juggle a dozen bingo cards, win a canasta game blindfolded and spot a stranger at half a mile, but failed to correctly punch a single hole in a ballot.

"My son called me and said, 'What are you stupid people doing down there?' " said Muriel Kreisler between deals Monday in the card room.

"How does it affect us?" asked Goldman, who retired here from Brooklyn, N.Y., 27 years ago. "People want to know if we're literate or not."

Responding to one such column that derided the county's "Sidney & Gert" voters, the daughter of a Delray Beach resident wrote a letter to the editor that circulated widely here. It said local retirees "are mostly the sons and daughters of immigrants from countries that had no vote, no citizens' rights, who came to this country, lived in small apartments, worked long hours and stressed the importance of education to their children.

"They are not just sitting around playing canasta in those condos, they are organizing 'Know Your Government' clubs, bringing politicians into the community for lectures."

And at Lakes of Delray, they've even been voting--again. The community, in fact, managed to do what their state and nation have not.

Last week, the residents held their annual condo association presidential elections, and Teger noted that there was unprecedented security: "There were three poll watchers counting every single ballot."

"But there were no recounts," community manager Tim Hare added. "There were no contested votes. And we had a single winner. There is a new president of the Lakes of Delray."

Back in the clubhouse, entertainment director Joan LaFontaine tried to explain why, against that backdrop, several residents played canasta Monday afternoon rather than watch the broadcast of the state Supreme Court hearing.

"Probably because it's all become so boring," LaFontaine said. "But the residents here are more politically involved than they were before. We've had the television networks, the major newspapers from the U.S. and abroad. Canadian television and Swedish television came here. And the one good that has come out of all this," she continued, "is that it has given our residents a sense of individualism. When you go to a retirement village, you lose that. You become part of a crowd. This has given them back that sense that they're individually important once again."

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