A place where seniors pack political power

Stronghold: Politicians flock to Leisure World, a heavily Democratic retirement community.

January 05, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- Few places in Maryland demonstrate the power of the vote more convincingly than the 610-acre chunk of Montgomery County known as Precinct 13-54.

Politicians flock to it, hugging voters, dancing with them. They'll even endure an impolitic remark about their weight if it cements their relationship.

Pollsters and reporters track it, gauging who's hot and who's not.

The allure of Precinct 13-54 is this: Election year after election year, it is thought by election officials to have the highest voter turnout in the state -- 80 percent, compared with 58 percent in a high-interest year statewide. Even in a ho-hum primary year -- like 1998 -- the precinct's turnout is almost 50 percent.

For the residents of this precinct -- the retirement community known as Leisure World -- voting is a sacred duty, Franklin D. Roosevelt is a god, and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes is an activity to attend.

"There is no end to the voters at Leisure World," says U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, who counts the residents among her constituents. "They all sense their duty and they follow the issues. And if you're talking about feedback, they're not bashful."

Just ask County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who while campaigning for the job in 1994 stopped an elderly woman going into the polls to introduce himself and ask for her vote. As Duncan wrapped up his spiel, the small woman looked up at him towering over her and snapped: "I'm voting for you, you big, fat Irishman!"

The community of 7,000 has 5,500 registered voters, 60 percent of them Democrats. Many are retired federal employees or moved to the community to be close to their children, who work for the federal government. They are largely well-off, well-versed and well-traveled.

"Leisure World is the crossroads of Democratic politics in suburban Washington," says state Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, who sold his house two years ago and bought a condominium there. "A politician can reach a substantial number of voters with one stop."

But even a Republican such as Morella knows that Leisure World isn't a campaign stop, it is a destination. In the 1998 election, she stood for hours in a driving rain outside the polls there, chatting with voters as they stepped to and from shuttle buses.

Sarbanes, Maryland's senior senator, visited with residents twice last year and had lunch with them on Capitol Hill.

During the 1998 gubernatorial election, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Ellen R. Sauerbrey each visited three times. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Duncan, both considered candidates for the governor's job in 2002, have paid their dues this year. Another potential gubernatorial candidate, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, hasn't been to Leisure World, but residents figure it's only a matter of time.

Experts in senior issues say enclaves such as Leisure World will become more important politically as aging Baby Boomers move to retirement communities and become active in local affairs.

Patrick Burns, spokesman for the National Council of Senior Citizens, says that because they are more conscientious about voting, the political rule of thumb is "one senior is worth three Generation Xers."

Tim Fuller, executive director of the Gray Panthers, says that the proliferation of home computers means "people who are less mobile can be re-energized and mobilized, and the Leisure Worlds of the world become prime picking for political and social organizations."

At Leisure World, that organization is, not surprisingly, its 600-member Democratic Club.

"The fact that we are as big as we are and that we can get so many people together means we become very attractive to candidates and political people who want to come and explain why they do what they do," says Jack Besansky, former club president.

Besansky says that having lived through the Great Depression, a world war and the Roosevelt years, Leisure World residents take their role -- and their party -- very seriously. "The pride of being a Democrat runs very high here. We're involved. We feel important," he says.

They also give Democratic politicians a sense of security. "It would take a very significant effort with significant financial input for a Republican to win any of the state seats," says Teitelbaum. "We'd have to make a major goof."

Leisure World's involvement goes beyond the game of politics, says Marilyn Praisner, the County Council member whose district includes the retirement community.

"They have a somewhat old-fashioned appreciation of public service and what government is and can do to help people," she explains. "For example, they have a real understanding of the role of public education. They know how important it was for them and they want it preserved."

An anti-tax referendum two years ago that was seen as hurtful to education was rejected by 52 percent of voters countywide but by 69 percent of Leisure World voters.

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