Crazy in Palm Beach

The cast of characters in the Florida saga rivals the O.J. trial, but the stars are the members of this wealthy county's elections board.

Topics: 2000 Elections,

The Florida electoral mess has transformed this tranquil oasis for the white and wealthy into the temporary capital of the state of confusion. And, like O.J. and impeachment before it, the saga has introduced a new cast of characters, maybe most notably Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state and co-chairwoman of the Bush campaign, whom enemies caricature as a hybrid of Cruella De Vil and Morticia Addams and admirers describe as a latter-day Joan of Arc.

But none of the characters have been as wild, tragic or entertaining as the three-member canvassing board from Palm Beach County.

Every time the commission meets, at least twice a day, CNN and company cut live to the scene for the latest drama. The emergency operations center in West Palm Beach is becoming as familiar to U.S. television sets as “The Brady Bunch” or “Seinfeld.”

Maybe the board’s best moment was its middle-of-the-night meeting to vote on conducting a countywide manual recount. They emerged from getting news of the sample hand count, sweaty and glassy-eyed, and after dramatic debate voted 2-1 to recount their controversial butterfly ballot manually. They assumed their now-familiar roles: Board chairman Charles Burton called for restraint and voted against the proposal; Democrat Carol Roberts grabbed the spotlight and pushed the recount through; while poor Theresa LePore sat like a glacier, seemingly on the verge of collapse.

Thursday’s canvassing board meeting was another emotional apex, when the board announced it would continue its manual recount after getting the OK from the Florida Supreme Court, even though the state’s election results have been certified. But by Thursday night, the familiar scenes of county employees holding ballots to the light and looking for hanging chads were again being broadcast to the world.

Now the Palm Beach emergency operations center has become the world’s largest stakeout. All of us — reporters, protesters and county employees alike — spend our time milling around the parking lot, waiting for news like obedient puppies waiting for their masters to walk through the door. There doesn’t seem to be a local in the group — we’ve got Democratic and Republican Party operatives from Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas, Ohio, Washington; reporters from England, Japan, China, South Africa. And while the news is bigger in Tallahassee — Supreme Court rulings, daily press conferences by Bush and Gore apparatchiks — the crowd in Palm Beach is of a comparable size and frenzy.

The three-member canvassing commission now holds all its meetings on a podium in the parking lot to accommodate the hundreds of reporters permanently parked in West Palm Beach. Daily, they take their places at the long table on the riser, with dozens of microphones shooting up like tulips from a Tiffany vase among the backdrop of windblown palm trees. And in the center, the three unwitting commissioners suddenly cast into the global spotlight are handling the newfound fame with varying degrees of composure and measure.

It is important to keep some perspective. To give an indication of the kinds of problems local government in Palm Beach normally deals with, just take a look at its Web site. There, as the page’s lead item, are important rules about “landscape irrigation restrictions” — rules about when you can and cannot water your lawn.

Now these three board members find themselves in the center of the battle for the presidency, something that could well hinge on the county’s manual recount — which has stopped and started more than Richard Farnsworth’s lawn mower.

It’s probably the understatement of the campaign to say Theresa LePore is not enjoying her 15 minutes of fame. The notorious designer of the infamous butterfly ballot has been the personification of pitiful this week. Every time the canvassing commission members have taken their now-regular places in front of the television cameras, LePore looks simply catatonic. By the time Tuesday rolled around, she sat nearly comatose in her chair, lifeless behind a pair of dark sunglasses, hardly saying a word, seeming drugged.

And though she clearly would like to crawl under a rock and hibernate for a few hundred years, she is forced in front of the cameras, day after day.

If Carol Roberts is the board member most hated by Republicans, LePore may be the most hated Democrat in all of South Florida by members of her own party. It was LePore, of course, who approved the notorious butterfly ballot, which led to mass confusion on Election Day. More than 19,000 ballots had votes cast for more than one presidential candidate, and thousands of other voters claim the ballot led them to mistakenly vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

On a human level, you cannot help but feel sorry for the woman. After all, she thought the ballot’s larger type would help the county’s senior citizens see the ballot more clearly. “So they wouldn’t have to squint,” she was quoted as saying soon after the election. She is the character in this melodrama who makes you cringe instinctively when you see her, the one who inspires the thought, “Thank God that’s not me.”

LePore, a lifelong Democrat, has been at this her entire life. She began working in the Palm Beach elections office in 1971 at the age of 16. Election work is in her blood. She is the daughter of a former West Palm Beach commissioner.

Brill’s Content reporter Seth Mnookin, who covered LePore when he was a reporter for the Palm Beach Post, paints a picture of the now-famous canvassing board member as a dedicated, deliberate public servant who was brought down by her desire to do the right thing. “If she had been someone who wasn’t worried so much about getting it right, and wasn’t worried about doing right by the people she represents, none of this would have happened. It’s just one of those situations where you make things worse by trying to overthink a problem,” he says.

“If there was a problem, she was always someone who was both judicious and even-tempered about it, which is a rarity in that county,” adds Mnookin. “She was someone who, if I had a question about something that was going on, I could call her up at home at 11 at night and she was incredibly gracious and helpful.”

That description of LePore was echoed by West Palm Beach attorney Richard Lubin. “She is such a sweet lady, so down to earth,” Lubin says in a tone normally reserved for condolence calls. “She took her job so seriously. She’s the last person you would wish it on, and it’s so sad because to me, there’s no question that the ballot did cost Gore the election.”

Mnookin is hardly surprised at the crazed environment swirling in Palm Beach County, he’s only surprised to find LePore in the eye of the hurricane. “One of the effects of having a county that’s very old and very highly educated is that everyone feels that they’re right and have a right to be heard, and they can often be difficult to deal with. The tragedy of this is that she was doing what she always tries to do, and that’s cater to the needs of her constituency. And they are a very needy constituency.”

Unlike LaPore, board member and county commissioner Carol Roberts seems to come to life whenever the cameras are trained on her.

Roberts has emerged as the Democratic Lucianne Goldberg of Palm Beach County. Thrust suddenly into the public eye in the heart of a political crisis, Roberts is a partisan lightning rod in this struggle, unwittingly serving as a Democratic foil to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. But like Goldberg, Roberts has sucked up the publicity like a vacuum cleaner, showing off another characteristic she shares with Linda Tripp’s former literary agent — a penchant to give great quote.

Certainly, Roberts’ flair for the melodramatic has been cultivated with the eyes of the world fixed upon her. Tuesday night, when the board took one of its many votes on whether or not to resume a manual count, the canvassing board’s legal counsel pointed out there was a decision from the secretary of state prohibiting them from doing so. Roberts wanted to start the count despite Harris’ order. “What happens, do we go to jail? Because I’m willing to go to jail.”

While Roberts delivered her prime-time sound bite to scores of cheering fans in attendance Tuesday, by the following morning, her Republican enemies had mobilized against her. A letter to the canvassing board submitted by the county and state Republican Parties demanded Roberts’ removal from the commission, accusing her of criminal vote fraud, and trying to tip the election for Gore.

“Roberts was observed picking up numerous ballots from the questionable ballot pile and the Gore ballot pile and then interspersing the ballots between piles,” the complaint says. “On approximately 30 separate occasions, Roberts touched the chads on the ballots further contributing to the degradation of ballots.”

Bush campaign spokesman Tucker Eskew joined the call for Roberts’ resignation Wednesday calling her desire to recount ballots “insane and in some cases mischievous.” Indeed, Palm Beach Post columnist Frank Cerabino related in an anecdote that indicated the chain-smoking Roberts has been known to skirt the rules before.

In 1993, Cerabino said, Roberts refused to abide by the new no-smoking ordinance in the building. “She would go ahead and smoke in her office. It became an incident because people complained about it.”

“What bothers me is that it’s an invasion of a lot of people’s rights,” Roberts told a Fort Lauderdale paper in 1993. “We’re talking about my office, where I put my pictures, where I spend eight hours a day, which is like my home. I don’t like to irritate people, but I don’t like to be irritated either.”

When asked if she would abide by the new law, Roberts told the paper, “I’m not going to tell you because you’d print it.”

Roberts’ response Wednesday to the attempt to remove her from the canvassing board was similarly defiant. “As a member of this board, I have been and continue to be fair,” she said, refusing to step down.

Roberts’ allies quickly rallied to her defense. “She lives in a fishbowl as well as the other two,” said Burt Aaronson, who sits on the Palm Beach County Commission with Roberts. “There are Democrat and Republican challengers in there monitoring the vote count. As far as charges about Carol and any irregularities, I put no credence to that whatsoever.” (Aaronson himself made news shortly after Election Day over Buchanan’s surprisingly strong showing in the county. He said it was incomprehensible that Buchanan received more than 3,000 votes in Palm Beach on election night because he did not think there were 3,000 Nazis in Palm Beach.)

But there’s just something about Roberts that causes Republicans’ blood to boil.

“I think the board has handled this situation very well so far except for — of course — Carol Roberts, who hasn’t been very nice during the whole thing,” said Bob Ribernider, a Republican observer on hand to monitor a recount should it restart. “She’s just an embarrassment and she should be removed.” If there has been anything like a rudder to this sinking ship, it has been County Judge Charles Burton, the canvassing board’s chairman. Though also a registered Democrat, Burton has earned points for being evenhanded from Democrats and Republicans alike. Presiding over the proceedings with his New England brogue, if you close your eyes you could swear you were listening to NPR news analyst Daniel Schorr.

Burton voted against the initial hand count, citing concerns that they did not have the authority to conduct it. But throughout the process he has been candid with the press, and perceived as fair. As he makes the rounds of the morning talk shows, he is quick with a quip in the midst of what has been an excruciating process. “I was thinking of making up T-shirts with: ‘The Three Stooges: Me, Carol and Theresa,’ he told a reporter from the Financial Times.

Attorney Lubin says he has argued cases both before Judge Burton, and against him when Burton was a prosecutor. “He is a complete gentleman,” Lubin said. “You couldn’t find a fairer, more honest and objective person if you searched the whole country.”

Lubin said as a prosecutor, Burton was considered fair and effective. “He only argued the more serious crimes in that office — murder and child abuse cases,” Lubin said. “He was a good lawyer who didn’t have to result to cheap shots, lies or unethical conduct.”

Lubin, who knows all three members of the canvassing board at least casually, says the events of the last week have changed his perspective on these media mega stories. “When we sit here and see stories from around the country, you never really think what these people are really like, these people out in front,” he says. “Then when it happens in your community and you know all of the players so well, all of a sudden you know what they’re like as people and you think, ‘I’ve got to pay more attention to the human beings involved in this thing.’ But here we are at the center of the universe.”

At the center of the universe, it once again fell to the head of the canvassing board to keep the world’s appetite for information satiated. Wednesday and Thursday were days when news trickled out slowly, with new lawsuits and court decisions making the situation increasingly difficult to follow. After the county stopped its recount yet again Wednesday after voting just hours earlier to resume the hand tally, commissioners and the world waited for word from the Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. But during the dead air, Burton came out to take his spot at the center of the table to address the crowd — not because there was any news to report, simply to pass some time.

“We’re trying to get something so we don’t have folks sitting around doing nothing forever,” he said “Periodically, I get urged to come out and entertain you people.”

The posse gets so antsy at times that on Wednesday, reporters converged around a person dressed up as a giant red felt-tip pen, wearing a blue cape and hoisting a sign that reads “When will it all Blo over?”

The pen suit and picket sign was a marketing gimmick for a marker company that has less than zero to do with the recount. But it is something to do, and it makes for good television, or something. And soon, the scene is like piranhas at feeding time, as reporters push each other out of the way to get their shots and quotes from the giant pen. “You just turn it around and blow the ink and you get an airbrush effect,” the woman giving the demonstration explains. “No, you can’t inhale it.”

Hours later, after the sun had gone down, the entire canvassing board reemerged to announce that the Florida Supreme Court would rule on the future of the recount Thursday. We were all being excused for the evening. But with the setting of the sun, the entire scene had transformed. While the daytime atmosphere is filled with a sense of tedium, there is something about the soft Florida breeze in the warm November night, klieg lights blaring, the persistent hum of the generators in the background that kneads a sense of drama. Even perfunctory briefings like Wednesday night’s short session, when no real news was announced, bring the comfort of a bedtime story, offering an oddly satisfying guarantee that the spectacle will carry on another day, that we will awake tomorrow to find the circus is still in town.

Consider the alternative: Under any other circumstance, this place at this hour would just be a dark, deserted government parking lot.

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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