Courting the plum precinct

Campaigning: Politicians swarm to Leisure World, where 8,000 retirees make up a large and accessible group - and most of them vote.

September 25, 2002|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - Leisure World resident Frances E. Brown, 85, has voted all her adult life except for the 1960 election - a miss not caused by apathy but because she simply couldn't warm to either Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy.

Her dedication is typical in the Montgomery County retirement community, population 8,000, which forms the state's largest precinct - and possibly its most committed. Consequently, it attracts political candidates in swarms.

Sometimes, hopefuls for the same office find themselves campaigning 10 yards apart at the Giant grocery store, where the parking lot hums with motorized carts.

On election days, so much campaign activity occurs inside the gates that elderly voters face navigating a sometimes frenzied path past the gaggles of candidates and their sign-waving volunteers to get inside the clubhouse to vote.

"Candidates are literally elbow to elbow on both sides, and the middle becomes sort of like a gantlet running from the parking lot to the clubhouse," said Democratic state Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, 71, who lives in Leisure World. "There were some visitors from Bulgaria here during the last primary [on Sept. 10], and I told them, `This is what an American primary looks like.'"

It is Leisure World's size and its impressive voter turnout that so often lures politicos inside the community's gates. Because many residents don't work, they are accessible prey.

More than 84 percent of the community's 6,000 registered voters cast ballots in the 2000 presidential election, compared with 75 percent in the state as a whole. "Many of them neither walk nor drive very well, but they vote," said Naomi S. Rovner, a retired journalist who is program chairwoman of the community's Democratic Club.

During this month's primary, the scene was more hectic than usual, as congressional candidates Christopher Van Hollen Jr., Mark K. Shriver and Ira Shapiro all chose to spend the last day of their campaigns near Leisure World's polling place at the clubhouse.

"We spent all of election day up here, from 8 o'clock until just before the polls closed," said Van Hollen, who won the primary. "I'm still recovering from the sunburn."

At one point, the hubbub stirred up yellow jackets, causing even more commotion. "Somebody fell into a low shrub and all the Shriver people got stung," Rovner said.

By the time Brown, a Democrat, was ready to vote, she said she didn't need to shake any more hands or read any more campaign literature. So she cut a quick back route from her garden apartment through the administration building to the clubhouse to avoid having to dodge candidates like a football player evading tacklers.

Brown explained: "I'm an informed voter."

Personal touch

At Leisure World, most of them are.

It's a place where residents expect to size up candidates in person over iced tea and potato salad, rather than through television ads.

"I really like getting to know them personally," said Alice Bulkeley, one of 100 Leisure World Democrats who showed up on a recent evening to hear gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Van Hollen and other candidates.

Bulkeley is a widow whose husband, a vice admiral, had a destroyer commissioned in his name last year. Many residents are retired federal employees or moved to the community to be close to children working for the federal government.

"Many people who live there fought in wars," said Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas Gansler, who visits frequently. "The amount of expertise and past accomplishment in those rooms is amazing."

The community tends to vote Democratic. In 2000, congressional candidate Terry Lierman defeated Republican Rep. Constance A. Morella at Leisure World even though she prevailed overall. Morella is facing Van Hollen in the Nov. 5 election.

Besides its high turnout rate, Leisure World is inviting to campaigning candidates for another reason: "It runs counter to every other precinct which gets crowds in the morning and the evening," Gansler said. "At Leisure World, they vote in a stream all day."

Recently at the clubhouse, where on non-election days residents play cards and have meetings, a candidates' dinner featured hot dogs, watermelon and red-white-and-blue napkins.

Townsend told the crowd that her running mate, Adm. Charles R. Larson, had visited the community five times in the past six weeks. "So do we think you are important? You are important. You are great!"

The lieutenant governor focused her comments on the need to reduce prescription drug costs for seniors and to protect Social Security.

True to form, Brown, a retired library aide not shy about expressing her political views, approached Townsend during the evening to offer her thoughts on the campaign. Specifically, Brown complimented Townsend for more aggressively attacking the record of Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., her Republican opponent.

"I told her I was happy she was coming out fighting," Brown said.

To the point

County Executive Douglas M. Duncan has also courted voters at Leisure World and knows they can be blunt.

Campaigning for the job in 1994, he 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!"

Elections officials have weighed breaking up the community into two precincts to make it easier to manage the voting, but community sentiment runs against it.

"We want to keep it one precinct," said Lillis Caulton, the precinct chairwoman. "We all vote in one clubhouse and people like that because everybody gets to see everybody. It's kind of a social thing."

Sun staff writer Candus Thomson contributed to this article.

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