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A common cause

As politicians and lawyers battle over ballots, black and Jewish voters in Palm Beach County feel disenfranchised.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Some seniors at Century Village in West Palm Beach say they were confused by the ballot. Left to right, Lucille Schatz, Raymond Feder and his sister Marlene Feder say they really aren't sure they voted correctly in Tuesday's election.

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


WEST PALM BEACH -- The Rev. Herman McCray may not have a lot in common with Wally Boden.

McCray, 59, is an African-American civic leader born and raised in Riviera Beach, a working class city in northern Palm Beach County.

Boden, a 70-year-old New York Jew, retired a dozen years ago to Boynton Beach, a more upscale community in the south portion of the county.

But after Tuesday's election they have a common cause. As politicians and lawyers battle over the ballots, McCray and Boden want to know why the county's predominantly Jewish and black precincts were the ones hardest hit.

To understand the controversy swirling around Tuesday's vote, it's important to understand the history of Palm Beach County's racial politics.

Even by Florida standards, it's an unusually dramatic tale of demographic and political transformation. It also explains electorally why the county has become one of Florida's strongholds for the Democratic Party.

It wasn't always that way.

This was once such a Republican bastion that Richard Nixon easily outpolled John Kennedy here in 1960. Ronald Reagan won here both times. George Bush was victorious in 1988.

But the string of Republican victories ended in 1992 with Bill Clinton.

Clinton won again in 1996, and Al Gore stretched that even further this week. Even before Wednesday's recount, Gore enjoyed a 116,000-vote advantage, capturing more than 58 percent of the county.

photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Bob Smith, lets everyone know he voted.
But it is hard to argue that the candidate, or his party for that matter, should take all the credit for that.

Instead, the answer can be mostly found in the county's population trends over the last 50 years. Palm Beach County has one of the highest population growth rates in Florida, running about double the state's average.

The population stands at just over 1-million.

Jewish immigration, primarily from the northeast, accounted for a large share of that. Beginning in the late 1960s, the Jewish population has risen to almost 230,000, according to recent studies by the Jewish Federation.

Like most immigrants obliged to fight for their rights, they made their home in the Democratic Party.

When Boden arrived in Boynton Beach, there were barely 9,000 Jews living in the city. Today that number has risen 400 percent to more than 37,000, according to a study by Dr. Ira Sheskin at the University of Miami's Geography Department.

"There's a lot of us here and we're worried about Social Security and our future," said Boden. He has voted Republican in the past. But not this year.

Like their African-American neighbors, the Jewish community has had to overcome racial prejudice. In the 1960s Boca Raton was an unofficial "restricted city," where Jews were kept out of the property market and local golf clubs.

"It was difficult to be Jewish here 30 years ago," said Ken Swart, spokesman for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County. "Things have changed a lot."

African-Americans have been living longer in Palm Beach County, and their population has also grown. Life has not improved so much for them. Even so, some things have changed.

McCray is old enough to remember when it mattered a great deal which side of the railroad tracks you lived on -- blacks on the "west side" and whites to the east.

"Black people couldn't own anything on the other side of the tracks," he said, sitting on a tree stump outside McCray's, a family-owned barbecue takeout. Whites also built a 4-foot-high concrete block wall stretching a quarter of a mile to keep blacks out.

The 59-year-old Baptist and civic leader still keeps a copy of the 1956 Riviera Beach ordinance banning members of "the Negro race" from the beaches used by "members of the White race."

In those days many worked in the sumptuous Palm Beach mansions of America's super-rich Anglo elite.

When blacks rioted in July 1967 to protest police brutality and lack of public services, it was considered one of the most serious outbursts of its kind at the time.

Led by McCray and others in the community, blacks began organizing and encouraging voter registration. By 1970, blacks made up 56 percent of registered voters in Riviera Beach.

The mansions are still there. But African-Americans now control city government in Riviera Beach.

"In Riviera voting means a lot because we got more black people here than white," said McCray. "When black people vote here they know they can make a difference."

But after Tuesday's election he senses echoes from the past.

"Maybe we don't have outright racism anymore," he said. "But when they throw out 19,000 ballots and you deny the rights of the people to vote; hell, what do you call that?"

This time blacks are not alone. All across the county, Jewish voters are outraged by the county's handling of Tuesday's election.

What they find most galling is how so many votes were cast in their neighborhoods for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

At the Veterans of Foreign Wars post polling station in Riviera Beach, Buchanan received 13 out of 709 votes, one for every 50 cast for Al Gore. Elsewhere in Florida, Buchanan fetched one vote for every 167 votes cast for Gore.

They also complain that unfair confusion over the now-infamous "butterfly" ballot led to so many being spoiled.

In two precincts at the Anshei Sholom synagogue in Century Village, a heavily Jewish condominium complex, Gore outpolled Bush by a total of 461-64. But a surprising 10.5 percent of ballots were spoiled by "double-punching." Compare that with a 4.14 percent average for overvoting in the county, and less than 1 percent for the rest of the state.

It was no surprise, then, to find African-Americans and Jews among the crowd of 2,000 protesters demonstrating Thursday outside the county government offices in West Palm Beach.

Later that evening, the Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed a smaller gathering at the New Macedonia Baptist Church off Martin Luther King Avenue in Riviera Beach.

Jackson recalled how the early civil rights movements enjoyed the support of Jewish leaders. Now he said it was time for a new coalition of Jews and blacks to challenge Florida's election.

Among the audience was a delegation of Jewish retirees.

"Rev. Jackson is right," said Sam Oser, 75, president of the Democratic Club at Century Village. "And we are ready to form that alliance again."

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