Palm Beach, where all politics are local – and civilized.
THE ANCIENT ATHENIANS BELIEVED that democracy worked for less than 50,000 citizens – the number of people that could fit on a hillside and still have their voices heard. With its less than 10,000 year-round residents, our little island of Palm Beach could fit quintuple-fold into the Athenian model – mercifully doing so with not a toga in sight. And while we have nothing that could pass for a hill, or even a stump, we do have the old Paramount Theater, where all three mayoral candidates gathered to answer questions before the Palm Beach Town Council Election. The crowd, as the Palm Beach Daily News estimated, was “about 50 people” strong, this information appearing under the banner headline, “Three push for top job.”
For me at least, the race for Palm Beach’s “top job” couldn’t have come at a better time. 2008 was the year that we all became intensely aware of everything political, in part because there was just so much to enjoy – debates, op-eds, situation rooms, crossfires, even holograms, running 24/7 on at least three cable news channels, countless blogs, and – last but not least – newspapers. And I certainly wasn’t immune to this democratic hullaballoo.
By November, I’d become like a teenager hopped up on Pepsi-Cola and Skittles. But all good things must come to an end. Election night. California called. Jubilation in the streets. Next, the inauguration. More jubilation. The end of an era. The palpable anti-climax. After a two years sugar rush of utterly riveting election coverage, I was starved for any electoral fix. And so, when I arrived home two weeks ago, I began following the Palm Beach Town Council race with the kind of intensity usually reserved for US Open Finals and Monster Truck Rallies.
Just as anywhere, all politics are local. The election at hand revolved around several island-based issues, such as developing a water source independent from West Palm Beach’s. As an entity, water is very important, but was there some water-supply revolutionary movement across the bridge that I didn’t know about? If so, what would Andrew Lloyd Webber sound like? If fears about the water-supply revolutionary movements across the bridge should prove to be founded, then the third rail of Palm Beach politics, in the words of one telephone solicitation, of “keeping our island safe in these troubled times” might be the most important issue of all.
By far, my favorite talking point was that of beach erosion. Palm Beach seems to be losing more of its eponymous beaches, so every few years and for many millions of dollars, the army corps of engineers dredges up more sand, places it on barges, and redistributes it across our shoreline. The only kink in this seemingly simple solution is that the ocean, being tempestuous in nature, tends to make rather quick work – hurricanes, mostly – of washing this very expensive sand back out to sea. We Palm Beachers tend to sound like Captain Ahab obsessing over his whale whenever we try to resolve our sand-preserving differences. Dredge more. Build less. Plant mangroves. Preserve the reefs. Abandon the island, relocate west, start the world’s most affluent ashram. Though I myself am of the relatively centrist Mangrove camp – smack-dab between the pro-Reefers and the “Dredge, Baby, Dredge” movements – I suppose that in the end, the question of beach erosion does allow those running for office to use wonderful, election-winning lingo such as “breakwaters,” “revetments,” and “groins.”
To be sure, I have no idea how the mayoral candidates differ on any of these issues, save to say that they all seem to enjoy expressing themselves through the use of extended sports metaphors. One Saturday alone, I received six very large, rather expensive-looking pamphlets, one with text and accompanying graphics about “political footballs… and the incumbent that [sic.] throws them.” – how Super Bowl appropriate! – while another, ominously sent to me by the “Friends of the Police,” decried the football-thrower’s political attacks on the Palm Beach Police Department. Naturally, Mayoral Candidate #3 described the knock-down, drag out fights between Mayoral Candidates #1 and #2 with his flyer, entering the ring with – what else? – a pair of boxing gloves on the front. The sports metaphors continued over the phone when, the day before the election, a Baseball Hall of Famer called to tell me that Mayoral Candidate #3 was already in talks about the island’s water management, and how Mayoral Candidate #1 had “struck out” and “needed to be sent to the bench.”
For those who prefer a more purist, sports-free rhetoric, columns in the Palm Beach Daily News were rich with emotional vigor, including such phrases as “We, the people of South Palm Beach,” and “In these tough economic times.” And, as though they wanted to avert another 2000 electoral disaster, I also received a handy Voter Guide, showing me not only how to vote, but whom I should vote for. By Election Day, this Voter’s Guide was the subject of a front page article in the Palm Beach Daily News, with one candidate saying that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in Palm Beach.
Even if we aren’t immune to the political mudslinging, Palm Beach is still Palm Beach, and the election has not only been local, it’s also been quite social. The island’s patricians and patricianettes had been sending me invitations to meet the candidates, the events being held at such hoity-toity locales as Mar-a-Lago, the old Merriweather-Post mansion that a man who goes by the moniker “Donald Trump” – a made up name if I’ve ever heard one – recently converted into a country club. And, when I couldn’t attend these cocktail receptions, I received notes from the candidates expressing regret that they hadn’t been able to meet me personally. These notes seemed to be hand-written, on very nice cardstock. At times like these, I like to think of Miss Emily Post smiling down from heaven.
My parents, who weren’t that worked up about the national elections, called, texted, and e-mailed me to “rock the vote,” (or “early bird special” the vote, as the case may be) my father even leaving me the keys to his car so I could drive to the polling station. And so, I drove his Jaguar convertible to the fire station on South Ocean Boulevard and voted for the first time in a local election. Several of the candidates – standing the mandated 100 feet from the polling station – were there to shake my hand. Being roughly 40 years younger than the youngest person working the registration lists, exercising my democratic rights did take quite a long time. And while I wish I could say that it had been a satisfying, over-and-done-with experience, such was not the case. With 3,471 people having cast their ballots, and with results tallied in 7 of 7 precincts, a funny thing happened. Neither Candidate #1, nor #2, nor #3 won a clear majority.
And so, the entire island headed back to the polls for a runoff. The results? The incumbent won – by just three votes – which meant that the canvassing board had to forego brunch at the Breakers, re-test the voting machines, and then re-run the ballots. Apparently, even with all its wealth and civility, Palm Beach can’t shake its part in the larger American political tradition – that of the disputed election.