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Gray Vote No Longer Reliably Red
In a Florida Retirement Community, Residents Are Uncharacteristically Split

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

SUN CITY CENTER, Fla. -- The sign over the woodworking shop says "Sawdust Engineers," and there was a time when the men now bent over the tools used to put on ties or make sales calls, building their pensions so they could one day leave the rat race for this warm world of unbroken sunshine.

"Retirement is the best!" says Jerry Decker, 73, one of the Sawdust Engineers tinkering in the wood shop at this over-55 retirement community of 19,000 residents outside Tampa.

But the tranquillity of palm trees and wine gatherings that sustained Decker's dreams all those years in the snow has been upended by the financial crisis. Even here in paradise, nothing is for sure anymore.

"Who isn't afraid of getting a 'Dear John' letter from GM saying your pension is in danger?" he asks. "You look at all these companies and what they are doing. We worked so hard to put them first, and it's just not right for them to be reneging."

The other men share the outrage, spitting out the names of corporations and their golden parachutes and lavish indulgences.

"I wasn't invited to the AIG spa weekend, were you?" one asks aloud. "You didn't get the manicure?" another asks.

"If we ran a household like they ran their company, you'd be bankrupt in five months."

The Sawdust Engineers should be an easy sweep for Republican presidential nominee John McCain. All five are Korean War veterans and registered Republicans. George W. Bush nailed every one of their votes. But three weeks before the election, only three of them are supporting McCain.

Sun City Center is in the hard-fought electoral quadrant in Florida known as the I-4 corridor, home to 43 percent of the state's voters. The Republican Party has always counted on the retirees here to deliver in bulk, but this year a more severe calculation is at play. To win Florida, McCain needs to capture a bigger slice of older voters than President Bush won in 2004 to offset the high numbers of young voters supporting Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.

"I'm ready for a change," says Ed Bearer, a retired public school teacher from Delaware who recently received a letter saying his wife's medical expenses may no longer be covered under his pension plan. "McCain turns me off. I can't explain it," he says. He's voting for Obama.

That leaves Jerry Decker. Last week, during the second presidential debate, Decker kept waiting for McCain to come out swinging. "What he should have said was 'We're going to prosecute AIG to the fullest extent,' " Decker says. Instead, only vague promises to clean up corruption.

It's easy to see why Decker wants more heat from a candidate when his own steady discipline is compared with the reckless indulgence of Wall Street. For years, Decker brown-bagged his lunch, even when he went over to the corporate tower as a director of human resources for Formica Corp. His wife, Jeannie, was his barber. The Deckers had one son and the family lived fully but frugally: They were the ones on the side of the ski mountain with their lunch and cans of soda packed from home. Jeannie watched the budget, and for more than two decades she gave her husband $25 each Friday for his weekly spending money.

"It wasn't a sacrifice," Decker says. "We had a game plan to spend our retirement together."

But the game plan for many of the couple's friends at Sun City Center has been jeopardized by the financial meltdown. Decker hears the stories in the wood shop. Guys who took their company's advice and converted their pensions to 401(k) plans only to watch their holdings diminish by half when the market plunged. Jeannie tells him that some of the women are skipping their weekly trips to the beauty parlor and letting their hair go gray. More people their age are bagging groceries at the nearby Publix supermarket, and foreclosure signs, once unthinkable, are popping up in the trim Bermuda grass.

"I still believe in our country," Decker says. "But Jeannie and I don't have time to rebound. When you are 72 and 73, you don't have time to recoup."

'A Nice Legacy for Our Kids?'

The storefronts at the strip plazas serving Sun City Center say it all: pulmonary clinics, laser surgery, Beltone hearing aids, oxygen tank rentals, a Bob Evans and numerous pharmacies. Retirees zip around in golf carts, many of them outlandishly customized, including one that looks like a giant sombrero, complete with fringe. But spare these folks the Florida retiree jokes -- they've heard them all. Giving a tour of the aquatic facility, information director John Bowker mentions that four seniors have died in the Jacuzzi. "The most common sound around here is an ambulance," he says.

Once a solid hub of conservative retirees from the Midwest, Sun City Center has in recent years been set upon by newcomers who make for a less cohesive voting group -- "liberal Northeasterners," says Dee Williams, president of the Sun City Center Republican Club since 1991. In other words, blue-staters.

The influx of Democrats and McCain's tepid style of campaigning have Williams concerned enough to shoot off SOS e-mails to the Florida Republican Party warning that her turf cannot be taken for granted. "McCain is not bringing passion," says Williams, 80, sitting in her living room of blue sofas. "He has to convey to the public that what we are doing with the bailout, we had to do."

In her Missouri twang, Williams makes a direct appeal to her candidate: "You better get off your duff and show some fire. Send Sarah [Palin] and her husband to Michigan. If you are going to give up Michigan and you lose Florida, you lose."

The same morning Jerry Decker and the Sawdust Engineers are tinkering in their wood shop, a group of women called the Weavers are at their looms elsewhere in the activities center expressing ambivalence about McCain.

"He's flat, he's old, he doesn't seem enthused," says Jane Bolder, 69, a registered independent who twice voted for Bush because of his tax policies. Voting for McCain, she says, would be a no-brainer if he had picked Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as a running mate instead of Alaska's Gov. Palin. "I can't imagine sending Palin, with her cliches, et cetera, to negotiate or meet with leaders of other countries," she says.

Obama has struggled to capture older white voters, and Bolder epitomizes their hesitance about him. "He has pizazz, but he has a lot of plans to spend a lot of money," she says. "The health plan is more geared toward government control. He wants to raise capital gains taxes. Where is the money going to come from to pay for health care?"

Outside, the aqua aerobics class is full tilt with women in water wings dancing to Abba's "Mamma Mia" while golf carts are nosed up to the state-of-the-art gym. The computer room is packed. Bridge starts at 2. To write off this population as a monolithic voting bloc is a mistake: Ages here range from 55 (known as the "babies") to 95. They TiVo, they download, and most important, they are inveterate consumers of information.

The one common experience that sears the majority here is the Great Depression. The tanked economy has transcended their usual single-issue focus on health care or Social Security. They are worried, even mournful, about the country that is being passed on to their children and grandchildren. The surface anger is directed at reckless corporations and lack of oversight, but the deeper emotions eventually come out.

"Our debt is in the trillions," Decker says. "Is this a nice legacy for our kids? We're worried about our granddaughter, the kind of medical care she'll have. Will there be a Social Security for her? Will there be pensions?"

It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and the Deckers are having their ritual glass of wine when Jerry leaps up from a chair in the living room and points out the sliding glass door. "Look at that gator!" he shouts. "He's on the sixth fairway!" A 10-foot alligator is walking toward the lake.

The couple steps outside. "Oh, look, he's gonna stop and see Betty," Jeannie says.

The alligator pauses at lake's edge next to a white bird. "Isn't that majestic?" Jerry says, in awe.

The Deckers find everything about Sun City Center pretty majestic. They moved here from Delaware in 2005, and it was a long time coming. After they married in 1960, they put a plan together: save as much as possible so they could enjoy retirement. Jeannie was a registered nurse and Jerry worked for various corporations. Now they swim, fish in the Gulf of Mexico, line-dance, hit the Ringling Museum of Art and even ride the log flume at Busch Gardens.

Both voted for Bush but felt somewhat duped when no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. "Being an old Army guy, I remember saying to Jeannie, 'I hope he's right, but we gotta support him 100 percent,' " Decker says. "Turns out the weapons weren't so mass after all."

The Deckers favor abortion rights and stem cell research, but restoring financial solvency is what matters most to them.

"McCain has that built-in integrity because of what he went through as a POW," Jerry says. "But I wish he would have gotten on the bandwagon on the other issues -- the golden parachutes -- and come out swinging."

And yet he is not ready to commit to Obama.

"First of all, his presence and rhetoric are marvelous," Jerry says. "But once you get beyond that, what is there? I'm concerned with his associations in the past, the minister and ACORN." Decker is referring to Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who cursed the nation from the pulpit, and the candidate's work with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now that critics say pressured banks into lending money to unqualified low-income home buyers.

Meanwhile, a widow friend of the Deckers just learned that her husband's benefits plan with a Big Three automaker is dropping her medical coverage.

"Doggone it, this was the agreement at the start, that we'll take care of you," Jerry says. "You didn't mind working for 35, 40 years because you say to your wife, 'Honey, we are gonna get all of these things in retirement.' "

The Deckers are better positioned than most. Eighteen months ago, when Jerry noticed the country's debt shooting up and the glut of overpriced houses, he pulled their money from the stock market and invested in certificates of deposit and long-term annuities, a move that preserved their retirement savings.

Their glass of wine finished, they watch "NASCAR Now" as they do every weekday at 5 and then "Pardon the Interruption." Jeannie makes a shrimp salad for dinner while the Florida sky turns pink.

By 6:30 the next morning they are headed out for their three-mile walk. The moon bounces off campaign signs in the cool grass. Back home they eat breakfast and Jerry becomes engrossed in an article in the morning paper about Hobson's choice and the 2008 presidential election. "It means you have a choice between two undesirable options," Jerry tells Jeannie. "That defines our dilemma perfectly."

It's 'Scary What's Going On'

As the Deckers clear away their breakfast dishes, Dee Williams is in another part of Sun City Center preparing to canvass for McCain. Armed with printouts of addresses of registered Republicans, the president of the local Republican Club hops in her golf cart and hits the gas.

"If Obama becomes president, I'm scared of the march down the road to socialism," Williams says. Not that she has been that thrilled with Bush. "He didn't know what a veto pen was. He didn't have the guts to stop the spending habits."

McCain is the only hope. She parks the golf cart in front of a peach-colored house with flamingos carved into the burglar bars. "I just love cul-de-sacs," Williams says. A woman tentatively opens the door.

"I'm Dee Williams, your precinct chairman," she says, handing the woman a McCain-Palin packet.

"It's kinda scary what's going on," the woman says.

Williams offers encouragement. "Yes, we have to get out the vote," she says.

Back in the golf cart, she recounts McCain's appearance the night before at a campaign stop in Minnesota where he reassured a voter that Obama is not an Arab and that there is no reason to fear him.

"Why didn't he say, 'There's no reason to be scared of him, but be scared of his policies'? " Williams says. "My daughter Kim called and said, 'I think this man is going into dementia.' "

Williams is disappointed that Palin bypassed Sun City Center on a recent swing through the Tampa Bay area for a rally at a public park in a neighboring county.

"Our people are too old to show up at some park and sit on the ground," Williams says. "You can't take our vote for granted. These people here are darned independent."

She rings the bell of a house with a Jaguar in the garage and flowering jasmine wrapped around a lamppost. The woman who answers the door makes a grave forecast for the Republican Party:

"I'm for these guys, but I don't think they'll win."

Trying to Decide

With his $25 allowance in his wallet, Jerry Decker takes the golf cart up to Home Depot. He whirs along the smooth roads, waving to friends, adjusting his baseball cap. Retirees used to move to Sun City Center and pay cash for their houses. Now mortgages are common; more than two dozen homes are in foreclosure.

When Jerry was a boy in the 1930s, his father told him that the bank had come for their furniture because of a missed payment of $2.50, and the lesson stuck with him: Don't rely on the government and don't rely on credit.

What he wants is a commander who will address the country and talk honestly. He and his wife will watch the third and final presidential debate and try to make up their minds. More pieces of the puzzle.

"Jeannie said it best," Jerry says. "She said, 'No one has stood up and said: I made a mistake.' "

He parks the golf cart outside Home Depot and inside he grabs some weedkiller before catching sight of a display of Eco-Smart light bulbs on sale. He looks at the box and checks the sign. "Six forty-five, that's a pretty good price," he says.

At the register, he greets the cashier. "Hello, young lady, can you keep me under $10?"

She smiles. "No, it's $12.97."

When he gets home, Jeanne is setting out their Saturday lunch: half a tuna sandwich each and sliced peaches. "Honey, I brought you a present," he calls, coming through the garage door. "And these were on sale."

Jeannie studies the light bulbs.

The purchase leaves Jerry with $12.03 for the week, but that's his business. "I'll make it," he says. "Oh, sure."

Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

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