Palm Beach: Ground zero

Much like Florida's vote tally on Tuesday, this county has seen its own flip in recent decades -- from a GOP fortress to a liberal Jewish and black stronghold.

Published November 12, 2000 2:59AM (EST)

Republicans used to have it real good here. In 1960, Richard Nixon crushed John Kennedy 62 to 38 percent. In 1984, Ronald Reagan ripped Walter Mondale 186,000 to 116,00. Four years later, George Bush Sr. did a job on Mike Dukakis by 37,000 votes. Democrats couldn't crack the GOP stranglehold in Palm Beach County.

Meanwhile, Jews and blacks once had it very bad here. Until the 1960s, Jewish people weren't allowed to live in many parts of the county, not to speak of joining the area's country clubs -- the settings of Town and Country magazine spreads. Blacks, outnumbered and outspent, had little or no political power.

But that has all changed, much to the chagrin of the GOP.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Rockefeller and their friends who once lived and played in the wildly wealthy town of Palm Beach -- a Republican fortress separated from rest of the county by a waterway -- must be rolling over in their burial vaults. The money is still here -- there's no GAP or Banana Republic on the main drag of Worth Avenue, only Chanel, Valentino, Armani and Gucci. But the local political power has gone "across the bridge to the mainland," as people here call it.

Liberal elderly Jews have been pouring into the county steadily since the 1960s, joining the area's growing black community. In 1992 and 1996, they helped Bill Clinton win landslide victories in Palm Beach County. According to the first tally of the 2000 vote, they endowed Al Gore with an even larger winning margin -- 117,000 votes more than George W. Bush.

Now the same two political forces are leading the angry fight for a revote in the county. Their effort, which they say will make Al Gore president and send Bush back to Texas, has drawn international attention. Since Tuesday's vote, Palm Beach County has become the epicenter in the Florida election controversy, with growing protests and vituperation between political partisans. In addition to the Buchanan vote ambiguities, more than 19,000 ballots were discarded in the county because individuals voted for two presidential candidates. On another 10,000-to-11,000 ballots, no presidential candidate was chosen, indicating that the computers may not have detected holes in the cards. The county began a hand recount of ballots Saturday -- a process the Bush campaign is seeking to halt in court.

"We have an historic alliance, the blacks and Jews," the Rev. Jesse Jackson said Thursday night in a fiery speech inside the New Macedonia Baptist Church in a black political stronghold "across the bridge." He cited a long history of Jewish and black cooperation for civil rights causes.

Some 10 elderly Jews -- looking fragile and way out of place in that black church -- sat in the front pews, avidly applauding and pumping their fists. They represented tens of thousands of other Jewish residents who are calling for a revote.

A confusing ballot caused the votes of many Jews and blacks to be disqualified, they say. Even worse, because of the confusion, some Jews say they mistakenly voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who once described Adolf Hitler as "a man of courage." While the Bush campaign later insisted Palm Beach County was a bastion of Buchanan support, offering statistics for the county's Reform Party voters, Buchanan himself and his Florida organizers have conceded that many of his 3,407 votes in the county were probably cast in error. They claimed only about 300 to 500 supporters in Palm Beach.

"When I took one look at that ballot on Election Night ... it's very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore," Buchanan said on NBC's "Today" show Thursday.

Speaking at the Baptist church, Jesse Jackson, for once, agreed with Buchanan -- on the ill-designed ballot. "We're fighting for our vote to count -- together," Jackson told the Jews gathered at the Baptist church. He said the two groups would meet together, march together, "even go to jail together" in order to achieve a revote in the county.

The alliance Jackson is advocating would have been impossible 30 years ago. And the change in the politics of Palm Beach has been caused, more than anything, by the astounding immigration of Jews to the county.

"It used to be very tough to be a Jew here," says Ken Swart, spokesman for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, based in Boca Raton. "If you go back to Boca Raton in the 1960s this used to be a restricted city. No Jews allowed. If you tried to buy a house or join a golf club, forget it," Swart says.

But the barriers came down during the 1960s. Today, some 130,000 Jews live in a three-town area in and around Boca Raton, and they comprise 43 percent of the population. According to local Jewish organizations, it's the fastest growing Jewish community in the United States.

Another 101,000 Jews live in the rest of the county. In Boynton Beach alone, the Jewish population grew from 9,262 in 1987 to 37,444 today, according to the Jewish Federation. Some 10,000 Jews live in one sprawling condominium complex called Century Village between West Palm Beach and the sugar cane fields to the west.

"We're about 65 to 70 percent Jewish here out of a total of 14,000 people, with a sizable Italian population as well," says Marvin Zwiebach, president of the congregation at Synagogue Anshei Sholom, which is within the walled complex. "The people who have come here, both Jews and non-Jews, come from the northeast mostly and some from Chicago. Those people tend to be liberal. And that has been liberalizing the southern part of Florida."

Zwiebach, who always wears a yarmulke and a guayabera, stands next to a shrine in the synagogue dedicated to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Asked about almost 200 votes that were recorded at Century Village for Pat Buchanan, Zwiebach shakes his head.

"Bush maybe -- some of my best friends are Republicans -- but Buchanan never," he says, attributing the votes to the confusing ballot.

Kurt Weiss, president of the United Civic Organizations at the village, scoffs at the totals. "The people here who are truly for Buchanan, you could fit them in a phone booth," Weiss says. "They screwed up the ballot ... We need a fair vote."

About 10 miles away in Riviera Beach, a town of some 30,000 people 70 percent of whom are black, the Rev. Herman McCray says he believes the balloting process was unfair. McCray's barbecue ribs takeout business looks out on a weedy road called Old Dixie Highway.

McCray, 59, who was born in the county, doesn't just see Old Dixie here; he lived it -- and not that long ago, he says.

"Thirty years ago, there was still an ordinance in force in this town that said blacks couldn't go to the white beaches." Sitting on a tree stump on the porch of his business, he points to the remnants of a 4-foot-high cinder block wall next to his building. "That wall right there used to divide the black community here from the white community. That's why they built it. That was in the '50s. You went over that wall into the white neighborhood, they drove you out of there or they arrested you ... You talk about racism? It was here ... and it's still here in this election."

In 1967, the town experienced a major race riot -- a low point in local political history. But little by little, blacks became the majority in Riviera Beach, and in 1970 it became the first town in Florida with a significant racial mix to have a majority of blacks on its town council. The "wall" came down.

"Because we're the majority here, people in Riviera Beach are used to their vote making a difference, on the local level especially," said McCray. He said in the national race between Gore and Bush those black voters also have crucial interests that demand a revote.

"We've seen what Bush's brother has done here in Florida," he says, referring to Gov. Jeb Bush. "We've seen him propose a plan which he calls affirmative action but really just snuffs out affirmative action. We expect his brother to do the same. Just like their daddy did. Who else but George Bush could have put somebody like Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court? We don't need more."

By John Lantigua

John Lantigua is a Miami freelance writer. He shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald. Lantigua's fifth novel, "The Ultimate Havana" will be published next year by Signet.

MORE FROM John Lantigua

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush Religion