Boca Raton basks in the political sun

October 21, 2012

It’s hard to find a place that has been bathed more in the political sunlight than this city in pivotal Palm Beach County, on the east coast of swing state Florida.

“Hey, we like the sun,” Mayor Susan Whelchel said on the sidelines of a Romney campaign rally here Saturday. “This is just one more little piece to our paradise.”

Ann Romney spent the evening trying to persuade the people of Boca to vote for her husband. Mitt Romney spent the day preparing for Monday’s final presidential debate, to be held here at Lynn University.

The Republican also has spent the past several weeks repairing the damage he did to himself during a surreptitiously filmed fundraiser here, in which he dismissed 47 percent of Americans as self-proclaimed “victims.” That campaign event took place at the home of private investor Marc Leder in Long Lake Estates, a gated community surrounded by a veritable moat upon which ducks lazily drift. (Leder resurfaced here Friday night to speak at a Paul Ryan fundraiser, but it was held at the nearby St. Andrews Country Club, not his now-politically toxic home.)

For Whelchel, who has spent 20 years trying to convert the image of Boca from an exclusive enclave with condos for retirees to a vibrant and diverse community with jobs and universities for young people, the connection between Romney’s rant and Boca’s reputation made her a touch defensive.

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“Boca has always been known as an area that is fairly affluent — [but] not like Palm Beach,” she said. “But there’s so much more to Boca.”

This year, the new thing to do is to accommodate candidates and talk politics.

“Boca’s in the limelight now,” said Michael Schwartz, 76, as he and his wife, Linda, 72, strolled through the Town Center at Boca Raton mall, pushing a pink stroller that held Shana Rose, a black-and-white Shih Tzu adorned with a pink bow. He also doubted that anyone would remember four years from now where the election’s potentially decisive debate had been held. “We’re having our 15 minutes; maybe we’ll have a little more.”

The couple called the notion that all of Boca was as loaded as Leder a misperception. “There are middle-class people, too,” Schwartz said. As for politics, Linda said that she wasn’t thrilled about President Obama but that he will get her vote because she had a problem with Romney stemming from his “binders full of women” remark and the aspect of Romney’s faith that promotes the posthumous baptism of people who never belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her husband was more emphatic about his vote for Obama, arguing that because two Supreme Court justices could be replaced in the next term, any woman supporting Romney “should have their head examined.”

Like Boca, mall-goers were split in their opinions.

Checking out the sparkling necklaces in the Cartier window across from a display of a white Bentley and Rolls Royce was 82-year-old Thelma Leder, the owner of a now-famous Boca last name. (“Oh no,” she said when asked if she was related to Marc Leder. “Not that one with all that money.”) She did share Leder’s politics, though, calling Obama “dictatorial” and expressing confidence in Romney’s ability to bring back jobs. She also agreed with her fellow Boca shoppers that this year’s focus on the sun-kissed town was intense. “It’s a lot,” said Leder, who retired to Boca from Long Island, “around the corner from Hofstra,” site of the last debate. There are so many New York transplants in this part of Florida that the debate promises to be a sequel — at least as far as accents are concerned.

About 5 p.m., as elderly couples and friends started filling up the cafes and restaurants for early dinners, Romney campaign workers put the final touches on the “Women for Romney” rally in Mizner Park’s upscale Plaza Real. A large crowd began to fill the Count de Hoernle Amphitheater as a stretched Ford Expedition limousine carrying a dozen little girls with glow sticks idled nearby. Romney staffers used air cannons to shoot “Women for Mitt” T-shirts into the crowd. Staffers wearing the shirts blended in with the EMS workers clad in pink Boca Raton Fire Rescue T-shirts. A tax lawyer dressed her Great Dane, Ziggy, in a blue Romney T-shirt. Above them all, a statue of the great Boca benefactress, Florence “Flossy” Keesely, reached for a star atop a cascading fountain. At her bronze hem sat the bronze likeness of her little dog, Schatze.

Adam Hasner, a Republican candidate for Congress who represented Boca Raton in the state legislature for eight years, told the crowd how honored he was to “spend the night” with women for Romney and then exclaimed, “All eyes are on Boca.” A few minutes later, as he shook hands with supporters, he rejected the image of Boca that some took away from the “47 percent” event. “This is a very diverse community, a very generous community and very engaged community. Glad to have the spotlight on it,” he said, excusing himself. “We got to go to a black . . . we’ve got to go to a dinner.” (“We’ve got to go to a black tie!” his wife happily told a friend behind him.)

On the edges of the rally, Andrew Kleopa, 27, and his girlfriend, Maureen Kent, 26, pushed a green stroller holding two Pomeranians — Mercedes and Max. Kleopa, whose father owns several gas stations around Boca, wore Ray-Bans and said he enjoyed all the media attention that Boca was getting. He supported Romney because “he doesn’t want to raise taxes” and argued that anyone would pay fewer taxes if they could. He’d even try to find a way to write off his new puppy, purchased hours earlier down the block. Kent, platinum- haired and dressed in a tank top, short shorts and diamonds, works for Kleopa’s father, who happened to drive up in a black Bentley. (“Don’t tell me you got another one,” he said upon seeing the new dog.) Kent said her family in Michigan was less sure about Romney.

“She better understands what the parties stand for now,” Kleopa interrupted. But he also added a note of un-Boca-centric uncertainty. “I kind of think Obama is going to win. I don’t know if Romney can win Ohio.”

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