Forty candidates court senior citizens' votes

June 29, 1994|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Sun Staff Writer

Even the most ardent fan of local politics would have come away stuffed yesterday at the candidates' forum at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia.

Those who stayed the whole two hours and 30 minutes witnessed a political marathon shared by nearly 40 candidates and their surrogates in every race from governor to school board to party central committee member. It didn't matter that candidates outnumbered the hosts, the Senior Advocates, by nearly two to one. Seniors vote and the candidates know it.

Twice as many candidates might have shown up had they known about the forum. Several appeared at the door saying they had only learned about it yesterday morning. Each was given three minutes to make a pitch.

The most common theme was identity: "Let me tell you who I am and how close we are. I have a relative -- mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother -- who is a senior citizen. Your concerns are my concerns."

They talked about what they have done or will do for seniors in the way of long-term health care and crime prevention.

Many held up their literature and asked the seniors to pick some up at the end of the forum along with pens, pencils and refrigerator magnets emblazoned with the candidate's name.

Candidates taking a break in the proceedings peered covetously into adjoining rooms where twice as many seniors seemed to be enjoying other activities. One adjoining room was filled with seniors taking an aerobics class. Another was filled with bridge players.

Striking up conversation was risky, however. A congressman's surrogate, when asked what office he was running for, said he was not a candidate and proudly announced he was representing the candidate.

"Tell me this then," the senior citizen said. "Why does the congressman take six months to answer my letter?" The surrogate recovered quickly, writing down the senior's name and promising a quick response next time.

Later, when a candidate introduced himself as a candidate for County Council, he was asked, "Which county?"

The question was not as far off the mark as it might seem. All the legislative districts -- congressional, state, and County Council -- have been redrawn. In the instance of the County Council, they have been renumbered as well.

Many candidates spent the first 90 seconds of their allotted three minutes talking about the new boundaries in their districts. Some brought large maps, others had small icons printed on their campaign literature.

The already-small crowd of senior citizens dwindled from about 20 to about eight as the day wore on and many candidates who spoke early left also, leaving those who spoke last in a room less than half-filled -- something the candidates accepted with good humor.

"You're not going to remember me or any other of the 55 candidates," County Councilman Darrel Drown, R-2nd, said 90 minutes into the program. "But I want you to know that I plan to work to provide the services you want, efficiently and effectively."

Mr. Drown's "speech" was the shortest of the day, lasting less than 15 seconds. The talk by George Layman, his Democratic opponent in the newly created First District, was the second-shortest.

"I was worried that no one would still be here," Mr. Layman said. "Every time a speaker left, a senior left also." Mr. Layman ran through his resume briefly and told of his endorsements.

Fifteen minutes later, Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray, D-3rd, told the remnant audience: "I figured that by the time I got up to speak I would be a senior." He gave one of the few political oratories of the day, saying he is Democrat because he believes in people. "Call me up [for help with a problem] and I'm there," he said.

Kathryn Mann, Mr. Gray's opponent in the September primary race for the new Second District, also joked with the remaining seniors. "If you got lost on a shopping spree or had a dinner you didn't like, you're probably not going to vote for me," she said.

Ms. Mann, who is assistant village manager in Columbia's Long Reach village and has organized many senior outings.

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