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John Kerry's Senior Brigade

In Palm Beach County, Dedicated Retirees Get Out the Vote

By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2004; Page C01


At Kerry-Edwards headquarters last week, the seniors were sadly shaking their heads because an absentee ballot had not reached the man in hospice care in time. His dying wish was to cast a vote against President Bush, and if only he had signed the ballot before he died, it would have counted.

God forbid that should happen to one of them.

Lynn Kobrin, center, talks with registered voters on the phone for the Kerry-Edwards headquarters in Delray Beach, Fla. (Joshua Prezant For The Washington Post)

So they stream by the hundreds into the office here, volunteers in their seventies and eighties, die-hard Democrats, many of them Jewish, still irritated about the famous Palm Beach County butterfly ballot of 2000. Some estimate that the confusing ballot caused a couple thousand of their comrades to vote for Pat Buchanan when they meant to support their Joey, vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and they are out to avenge all that has happened since. They tick off the war, the economy, Social Security, prescription drug benefits, homeland security, education and the man in the Oval Office, whom they regard with suspicion for a perceived lack of intellectual rigor. They don't talk that much about John Kerry.

Victor Villandre, 65, a retired high school physics teacher from Long Island, is the office's volunteer coordinator. "Those people," he says, waving a hand at the dozens of gray heads huddled over television tray tables, making calls, "are the patriots. They really love their country, and they are afraid that this is their last chance to take it back."

It's a last dance for the children of the New Deal. Their Florida was supposed to be a retirement heaven of palm trees and golf courses and early-bird specials. And now here they are, nearly frantic with passion and purpose, canvassing hours each day in the hot sun, bunions and all.

Shirley Zarwan, 79, has just come back to the office after standing in front of a dollar store, buttonholing shoppers. She has given up tennis and bridge. "We have two weeks to go," she says, "and I would give up anything."

She sets aside a little money each week and doles it out to various Democratic pleas for money, "Hillary, Bill, Carville, Terry, they're all asking." She does not worry that she is spending her children's inheritance. "That's why I'm doing this!" she says. "It's their future. They have to pay down this debt!"

The most dedicated of the seniors show up seven days a week, 10 and 12 hours a day. Already they have collected more than 60,000 absentee ballots countywide, distributed more than 65,000 campaign buttons, according to the paid Kerry staffers, who are all in their twenties. From this office, one of five in Palm Beach County, the volunteers make 8,000 calls a day, contacting likely voters, asking them if they need a ride to the polls, explaining the new early voting rules. The large cardboard sheet on the wall asking for Election Day drivers had 150 slots. It's full, and the new goal is 300.

This is a cohort using activism to defy the disillusionment and loss of control that can accompany aging. Gerontologists long have linked physical and mental engagement with a fulfilling retired life. And with 537 votes being all that divided a sea of nearly 6 million votes cast in Florida in 2000, both presidential campaigns have found it easy to recruit volunteers.

Particularly feverish is the activity at this Kerry-Edwards office, inside the converted Lady of America fitness center, where people are warned to watch their step on the bouncy aerobics floor.

"They're so passionate," says Lale Mamaux, the campaign's local press secretary. "We run out of signs, they make their own signs. They are really informed, and they have all the time to do this."

Elayne Maidy, 76, spent nearly 20 years as property manager for a Silver Spring apartment building. Now she stands in her tennis shoes at the front desk, tapping her coral acrylic nails, peering over her rhinestone-studded reading glasses at people who come through the door every few minutes.

"We're out of buttons again," she says. "Want a sticker? How about a sign? You could put it in your car."

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