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  •   Race Is a Walk For Many Incumbents

    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R)
    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) has no competition in her campaign for reelection. (Andrew Itkoff — For The Washington Post)
    By Marc Fisher
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, October 27, 1998; Page A1

    HOLLYWOOD, Fla. Red, white and blue bunting ripples in the sultry tropical wind. Police honor guards stand tall as a high school marching band pulses by. Searchlights ply the night sky. Energetic young women move through the crowd handing out fliers.

    The setting, just days before the election, is perfect for an old-fashioned political rally. But despite fireworks, speeches, a couple of thousand citizens and TV cameras galore, not a single candidate is here.

    These Floridians have come out on this misty weeknight to celebrate a 99-day countdown until South Florida plays host to football's Super Bowl. And they describe their priorities with perfect clarity: "The Super Bowl only comes maybe a couple of times in your life," said Ana Suarez, 26, an office assistant. "They always have elections."

    Actually, when it comes to Congress, they don't. This year, 18 of Florida's 23 House members face no major party opponent. Fourteen of the incumbents won't even appear on the ballot because they were declared winners when no one not even minor party challengers bothered to run against them.

    Across the nation, nearly 100 members of Congress have won a free ticket back to Washington this year more than in any election since 1958 and five times as many as in 1996. But nowhere has the Soviet-style, single-candidate phenomenon taken root as firmly as in Florida, where only one House seat is considered competitive, that of Rep. Corrine Brown (D). What's going on here? Does anyone care?

    A 300-mile journey through seven Florida districts with no congressional race this fall finds a government and its citizens in disconnect: people who don't know who their representative is, but like the job he's doing; people who don't like their representative, but are in no hurry to toss the lawmaker out; and, more than anything else, people who just don't see why they should pay attention to any of that stuff.

    "Q" is a spanking new glass-and-steel sports club in Plantation, one of the suburbs that stretch west from the old cities of Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood into what was once the Everglades. It's an affluent area, with sprawling red-roofed houses and educated, professional residents. In many parts of the country, this is the kind of place politicians flock to, looking to maximize their harvest of people who almost certainly vote.

    But this is South Florida, where most people are from somewhere else, where entire suburbs are built at a rate of about one every season. Some local elections have drawn barely 10 percent of registered voters in recent years.

    Ask 60 people here who their representative is, and don't be shocked when just seven know the answer. "I have no idea," said Betsy Sheehy, 33, a stylist for movie productions. "The only congressman I'm familiar with is Connie Morella," the Maryland Republican. "I'm from Bethesda. Back home, everybody knows that kind of stuff. But down here, people just aren't into it."

    "Q" teems with young professionals on a weekday afternoon; one TV is tuned to the breaking news of a Middle East peace agreement, but 11 others the ones people are watching are fixed on Roseanne's talk show. Sheehy is stretching with her friend Lisa Keene, a nursing student whose statistics professor last week asked his class to identify their House member. Of the 30 students, two got it right. Keene was not one of them.

    "My professor said it was really sad," she said, "and I guess he's right. But I don't follow politics. I don't have to."

    Sheehy and Keene had no idea that Peter Deutsch is their congressman; they also did not know that no one is opposing Deutsch this fall. "That's scary," Keene said. "That breaks my heart," Sheehy added. Then she laughed. "Well, not really."

    Deutsch isn't exactly broken up about it either. "We have a permanent incumbency in America now," said the third-term Democrat. "I'm as much a beneficiary of it as anyone else, but it is anti-democratic. The reality of American politics is there's a threshold amount of money you need without which you can't win." And Deutsch's war chest of more than $1.5 million scared off any challenger.

    In Deutsch's suburban district, "There is no center, no place to go to talk to people," the congressman said. "There's no downtown, no coherent community. Florida may be the cutting edge of that phenomenon, but that's what America is increasingly looking like." The only way to garner attention in such an environment is television, and in a populous place like South Florida, that means $1.5 million in campaign TV time and production costs.

    Even then, the ads don't necessarily break through. At Hollywood Christian School, several hundred people turn out for a mid-afternoon football game. People will leave work early to support their children, but they don't see why they should show that kind of commitment to politics.

    "With kids and work, I'm trying to make a living," said lithographer Tony Lopez, 44. "I don't have time for politicians talking trash about each other. I'm breaking my back to send my kids to private school so they can get away from that kind of stuff."

    "Realistically, it's just not possible to beat an incumbent," said Beverly Kennedy, a Fort Lauderdale financial adviser and radio talk show host. Kennedy knows. The Republican has tried three times, never hitting 40 percent in her challenges against Deutsch and Rep. Robert Wexler, who represents parts of Palm Beach and Broward counties. This year, Kennedy decided to stop beating her head against the wall. She hopes instead that Jeb Bush will be elected governor and appoint her to a nice job in the state capital.

    "Unfortunately, we have a very ignorant public," Kennedy said. "Maybe 30 percent of people try to keep up with what's going on. We've had some really good people run, but it doesn't matter. They'll all be reelected perpetually."

    A Democrat who tested the waters this year is John Rayson, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and state legislator who decided against challenging Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R), who is sailing into his 10th term uncontested.

    "On paper, it looks winnable," Rayson said, noting that Shaw's district, unlike most in Florida, is almost evenly balanced between Democrats and Republicans. "But people are pretty satisfied with the way things are. Taxes haven't been much of an issue, crime is down. The way the media emphasizes the salacious aspects of politics, people don't believe a word you say. The money, the mistrust, the long-term unchallenged incumbents it all contributes to a decay of the democratic process. My daughter would say, 'It stinks, don't go there.'"

    So Rayson didn't. He plans to wait "until Shaw is older, loses some energy."

    If political lethargy rules the day in the younger, newer parts of South Florida, the region's older communities retain a reputation for activism of New Deal ferocity. The hundreds of thousands of retirees who flock here still vote, still come out to hear elected officials.

    At Century Village in Deerfield Beach, the sign on Amadeo Trinchitella's office door says, "Recreation Committee Chairman Trinchi." But the 80-year-old ex-restaurateur from the Bronx runs far more than the swimming pools and mah-jongg tables. Trinchi is the boss of Century Village, and he delivers.

    Trinchi, a gravel-voiced, balding man, uses a walker now, but after 18 years at Century Village, he wields nearly absolute political power. He pulls out computer printouts to prove his point: Century Village votes monolithically 96 percent for one Democrat, 97 for another.

    "Fifteen thousand people in this development, with all the amenities, card games, 14 heated pools, classes," Trinchi explained. "They come down here, they have no work, so they withdraw. They don't have to pay attention to politics, because Trinchi and a few other people do it for them, so they can withdraw and enjoy life."

    Next weekend, Trinchi will stage a rally for Democrat Buddy MacKay in the hot governor's race against Bush but he knows the only thing that still drives his voters is nostalgia. "We play the old songs, the ones they grew up on, we remind them about the Depression and that gets them thinking about Social Security," he said. "It works. I try to get my sons interested in politics forget it. Different generation, different interests."

    At Century Village's medical clinic, president Barry Chapnick, 51, says the responsibility for the lack of choice on the ballot lies with his generation and its indifference to politics. "My father never cared about making money," Chapnick said. "He was happy with what he had because he knew things could be a lot worse. So his generation looked to politics as the way to make sure things didn't get worse again. I never had it bad, so people in my generation always want more, and the way to get more was through business, not politics."

    In recent years, the main path to that younger, less involved generation has been identity politics, and the 1992 redistricting of Florida was designed to permit both parties to take advantage of ethnic block voting. The resulting map, a jumble of contorted shapes, included three majority-black districts and two majority-Hispanic districts, as well as majority-white districts that took on bizarre boundaries to ensure that one party or the other would be the heavy favorite.

    "It's unbelievable," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R), the Cuban-born ex-schoolteacher whose district is more than two-thirds Hispanic. "I represent the white part of Coconut Grove," a neighborhood of Miami, "but the few blocks of the Grove that are black, I don't represent. They carved out the black neighborhoods and gave them to" Rep. Carrie P. Meek (D), who is black.

    Ros-Lehtinen is unhappy with racial gerrymandering, but defends another type of collusion that political analysts say contributes to Florida's dormant congressional races. Despite political differences, many Florida House members work closely together and don't encourage members of their party to challenge incumbents.

    "We're all together on that flight every week," Ros-Lehtinen said of her colleagues. "We do events together, regardless of party. Our constituents don't see us bickering and fighting and that helps all of us politically."

    "It's an unspoken conspiracy by both parties to protect their incumbents," said Jim Kane, editor of the nonpartisan Florida Voter magazine. "It's wrong, and it feeds this phenomenal public complacency."

    At the Little Havana Activities Center in Miami, many elderly Cubans who spend their morning dancing to songs of their island childhood are not eager for anyone to challenge Ros-Lehtinen. As long as she speaks to them in their native language and promises to keep fighting Fidel Castro, they are satisfied.

    But Juan Francisco Carvajal, the 62-year-old crooner in the dance band, laments the lack of competition. "Otherwise, how are we different from Cuba, where the only choice is Fidel?" he said. "But I understand why they don't run. No use running against someone certain to win."

    "I'm not looking for challengers," Ros-Lehtinen said. "If people are happy with me, what's wrong with that?" This is Ros-Lehtinen's third consecutive non-election, but she still raises money ("A million dollars keeps people out, which is, of course, our intention"). Laughing, she added, "Unless that picture of me kissing Castro comes out, I think I'm pretty safe."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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