The retirement community that was a microcosm of the Florida special election

Members of the sprawling Kings Point retirement complex lament the waning influence of condo communities on local elections

The sprawling Kings Point retirement community in Tamarac, Fla., about 15 miles northwest of Fort Lauderdale, has long been viewed as something of a campaign pilgrimage site for aspiring Democratic presidential candidates. The predominantly Jewish condominium complex, situated in deep-blue Broward County, is home to some 9,000 residents who represent a coveted swing vote, not least because, for decades, they have turned out in dependably large numbers.

In 2000, Al Gore made overtures to the Jewish community at Kings Point alongside former Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), his Orthodox Jewish running mate. The following cycle, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and other high-profile Democratic surrogates were on the ground in Tamarac, stumping for John Kerry. In 2008, Barack Obama courted the Kings Point community when his pro-Israel bona fides were in question among some Jewish voters in South Florida, and as a vice-presidential candidate in 2012, Joe Biden made sure he had paid a visit to the gated retirement complex, which is so vast it covers three voting precincts.

Len Ronik, a former longtime president of the Kings Point community who helped coordinate several campaign events, looks back on such political happenings with a mix of pride and amusement, chuckling at one memorable visit from Hillary Clinton some years ago. “We came off the stage, and I’m walking with my arms around Hillary,” said the 89-year-old retired plumber. “My wife, sitting in the front row, says, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘We’re talking about sex. I told her I could be better than Bill.’ She says, ‘Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Why do you ask me stupid questions?’”

“Not courting the vote in Kings Point in a special election occurs at your own peril,” Mitch Ceasar, the former longtime chairman of the Broward Democratic Party who founded the first Democratic club in Tamarac more than 40 years ago, said. “Kings Point, historically, has a clear pattern of turning out.”

The special election to succeed the late Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) — which is likely headed for a recount after Tuesday’s results showed a virtual tie between Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness and healthcare executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick — presented candidates with a similar opportunity to shore up pivotal support from the Kings Point community. Yet an abiding — and not so stupid — question was whether Jewish voters in Kings Point would coalesce around any of the 11 House contenders jockeying for the seat. In a low-turnout primary battle with no clear frontrunner, even a few hundred ballots or less could easily have made the difference.

“Not courting the vote in Kings Point in a special election occurs at your own peril,” Mitch Ceasar, the former longtime chairman of the Broward Democratic Party who founded the first Democratic club in Tamarac more than 40 years ago, said in an interview with Jewish Insider last week at his office in Plantation, just a few days before the primary. “Kings Point, historically, has a clear pattern of turning out.”

Hastings, who died in April at 84, developed a warm relationship with the Kings Point community, which came under his purview in 2012 after the last round of redistricting. The 15-term congressman wrote a monthly column in the eponymously named Kings Point newspaper, sprinkled Yiddish phrases throughout his speeches to Jewish constituents — some of whom speak the language — and was an outspoken pro-Israel advocate. Unlike Hastings, none of the top contenders in the race had especially strong connections with Kings Point going into the election.

Len Ronik, 89, retired plumber and former longtime president of the Kings Point community (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Florida’s 20th Congressional District, which encompasses a number of African-American and Caribbean enclaves in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, is predominantly Black, and each of the candidates largely relied on a strategy of engaging their respective bases. But as in past elections, the sizable and politically active Jewish voting bloc in Kings Point — not to be mistaken with a similarly named retirement community in Delray Beach, the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary short — was in some ways uniquely, if precariously, positioned to push one candidate into first place.

While recent demographic changes have resulted in a dwindling population of Jewish residents within Kings Point, which broke ground in 1983, the special House primary this week in South Florida was a chance for the community to demonstrate its wherewithal at a moment when so-called “condo commands,” once a potent force in South Florida politics, have begun to lose their influence in elections across the state.

This cycle, the community fell short of exerting its political muscle as Jewish voters in Kings Point splintered, somewhat predictably, among several of the leading candidates in the deeply divided field. But the lack of unity also underscores shifting dynamics within the community itself that seem to have played a role in diminishing what was once a more potent political force. 

“When we came down, Kings Point was 98% Jewish,” Mike Stern, an 87-year-old retired civil servant from Brooklyn who moved to South Florida more than a quarter of a century ago, mused in an interview with JI last week at Rob’s Bageland, a popular diner in Tamarac where local political candidates often host meet-and-greets with community members.

Mitch Ceasar, the former longtime chairman of the Broward Democratic Party who founded the first Democratic club in Tamarac more than 40 years ago (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

“The only non-Jews were Italians married to Jews,” said Helene Herman, 73, who moved to Kings Point approximately eight years ago from Queens, stopping by the diner one recent morning on her way to Hebrew class. “Seriously.”

“You could say it was back to the ghetto,” Ronik, the former Kings Point president who arrived from New York 27 years ago, said bluntly. “It was predominantly all Jewish. At that time, the vote was probably about 95% Jewish Democratic.”

Now, longtime Kings Point community members pin the Jewish population at about 60% as Jewish retirees from New York and Jersey settle elsewhere in South Florida — and middle-class Black and Latino residents make their way to Tamarac and its environs, wooed in part by what one resident attributed to a drop in real estate prices precipitated by the 2007-08 housing bust.

“Broward County is changing — it’s becoming more diverse, it’s becoming increasingly Latin, and, in a sense, it’s slowly becoming North Miami-Dade County,” said Charles Zelden, a professor of history at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. “Liberal Jewish voters or liberal elderly retirees who would have moved down to Kings Point are now moving to Palm Beach County and further north. When those homes are being replaced, they’re not being replaced by the same elderly voters.”

For the most part, Jewish community members embraced such changes in conversations with JI. “What I like is that Kings Point has accepted the differences,” said Sibby Heyer, 90, who moved to the retirement complex nearly 30 years ago. But even as Democratic voter participation has held steady in recent years at around 73%, according to unofficial resident historians, growing partisan divisions have nonetheless unsettled the otherwise deep-blue status quo.

“I had somebody tell me, ‘Well, I don’t have to wear a mask in the clubhouse because I play mahjong, and if you play mahjong or cards you don’t have to wear a mask,’” Herman said, lamenting what she described as a politicization of pandemic safety protocols by some residents. “Yes, you do have to wear a mask if you’re playing mahjong.”

Mike Stern, 87, a 26-year resident of Kings Point and former president of the Kings Point Democratic Club (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Moreover, the political makeup of the community has ever so slightly shifted rightward, at least substantially enough that there is now — much to the chagrin of many Democratic residents — a small but vocal Republican club in Kings Point. It was formed a few years ago. “They had a meeting which they advertised as ‘Jexit,’” said Burt Scholl, 89, a former vice president of the Kings Point Democratic Club, referring to a political effort encouraging Jews to leave the Democratic Party. “I was livid. I think I complained to the management and the management said something about the First Amendment and ‘you can’t do anything.’”

“The condo influence is starting to fade here in Florida,” said Richard Stark, who chairs the Broward County Democratic Party Jewish Caucus and is a former state representative in the Florida legislature. “That generation, you had the big condos here and they controlled thousands and thousands of votes. They could easily swing an election.”

Needless to say, that wasn’t the case in Tuesday’s special congressional primary. The top vote-getter in Kings Point, Barbara Sharief, a moderate Broward County commissioner who cast herself as a strong supporter of Israel, came in third district-wide behind Cherfilus-McCormick, who now trails Holness by a margin of just 12 votes, thin enough to trigger an automatic recount from which Sharief will be excluded. Whoever prevails will be the prohibitive favorite in the Jan. 11 general election because the district is heavily Democratic.

Sharief’s support from the Kings Point community was hardly a show of force. The 49-year-old pediatric home healthcare executive, who personally loaned her campaign nearly $800,000, pulled in just 495 votes across the community’s three precincts, according to the website of the Broward supervisor of elections. By contrast, Holness garnered 309 votes and Cherfilus-McCormick came in with 241. Those numbers are likely incomplete because vote-by-mail results are only partially reported.

Still, the anemic tally suggests that voters in Kings Point were — like the rest of the district — relatively disengaged from the race, which never assumed a national profile as other recent special elections in Democratic districts in Ohio and Louisiana did. That’s not to suggest that the candidates were equally withdrawn. Most of the leading contenders, by varying degrees, pursued support from Kings Point voters. Holness, 64, was a steady presence in the community throughout the election, which appealed to Herman, who voted for him. “I feel that he is more ecumenical in his approach,” she said of the Jamaican-born county commissioner, who has positioned himself as the candidate most equipped to advance Hastings’s legacy in the House. “We need candidates who are ecumenical.” 

Sherfilus-McCormick, who at 42 is mounting her third bid for the seat, positioned herself as a sort of pro-Israel progressive, including such policy proposals as Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and universal basic income in her platform. She established her main campaign office close to the Jewish community in Tamarac “because she knows how important the voters of Kings Point are in this election,” said her spokesperson, Jeffrey Romeu. Still, the Haitian-American CEO of Trinity Home Healthcare, who spent millions of dollars of her own money on advertising throughout the district, performed better elsewhere on Election Day. “We were very happy about the performance in Palm Beach,” Romeu told JI on Wednesday.

Sharief, who is Black and Muslim, claims to have aggressively courted the Jewish vote. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Kings Point,” Sharief told JI last week at a campaign stop outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center on Sistrunk Boulevard, where voters trickled in at a glacial pace during early voting. “We knocked door to door there. We did all the buildings.”

Barbara Sharief campaigning outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center on Sistrunk Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale during early voting (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

Her pro-Israel message resonated in particular with some voters who questioned the authenticity of other candidates’ Middle East foreign policy views. Sharon Jacobs, a 75-year-old resident of Kings Point, said she appreciated that Sharief had been to Israel two years ago on an AIPAC-affiliated African-American leadership tour. “She also believed in the Iron Dome,” Jacobs added. “Only one of the others didn’t support it. The others said they supported it. But who knows?”

That one candidate was Omari Hardy, a progressive state representative who caused a stir when, in an interview with JI just weeks before the election, he came out against legislation that would provide $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. He also favors conditioning aid to the Jewish state and voiced his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

“Time will tell,” Ronik said. “We don’t know. Once they’re in office and we see when push comes to shove, when there’s an issue on BDS, we’ll see how they stand up. Remember, there’s another election in one year, so if you don’t toe the mark the right way, you’re out.”

“That was the end of him,” said Ronik, who voted for state Rep. Bobby DuBose, the outgoing leader of the Democratic House minority caucus. “This was the kiss of death.” Hardy’s support for BDS, along with his stance on the Iron Dome, garnered an attack ad from Democratic Majority for Israel in the final days of the race. The 31-year-old lawmaker from Palm Beach County came in sixth with just under 6% of the vote. 

Ronik expressed hope that whoever wins will uphold Hastings’s firm commitment to the Jewish state, a view echoed by a number of Kings Point community members who spoke with JI. But the longtime resident suggested that he would be taking a wait-and-see approach. “Time will tell,” he said. “We don’t know. Once they’re in office and we see when push comes to shove, when there’s an issue on BDS, we’ll see how they stand up. Remember, there’s another election in one year, so if you don’t toe the mark the right way, you’re out.”

Because the election is so close, experts have speculated that Hastings’s incoming replacement could face a primary challenge in the 2022 midterms.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), who served Kings Point before Hastings, described the condo’s Jewish residents as “smart, sophisticated voters who take a hard look at all of the candidates before deciding who deserves their vote.”

Israel, he said, is one overwhelming concern. “This is a community many of whose residents have a very strong commitment to Israel because of their own personal experiences,” Deutch told JI in a recent interview. “Their personal experiences of surviving the Holocaust or as children of Holocaust survivors, their personal experiences around the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. They’re committed to supporting Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. In many instances, it comes from a very personal place.”

Despite outreach from candidates throughout the election, some Kings Point residents said they felt as if the engagement was largely superficial. “Kings Point is an afterthought,” said Stern, the retired civil servant from Brooklyn, who also voted for DuBose. He speculated, for instance, that state Sen. Perry Thurston, the only candidate in the race who represents the retirement complex, was “not relying on the Kings Point vote” as he built his coalition, though he did campaign in the community. 

Thurston suggested as much in an interview with JI last month. “I look at this election as who’s going to lead the Black community of Broward County and Palm Beach County,” he said, “and I think that my record would indicate that I’m the person who is more prepared.” He placed fourth with about 15% of the vote.

Sharon Jacobs, 75, a Kings Point resident who voted for Barbara Sharief (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

But while some Kings Point residents appear to miss the attention once heaped on them in past races, the complex has in many ways closed itself off to the outside world as recent political divisions between Democrats and Republicans have exposed internal tensions that some community members would prefer to keep private, according to residents who spoke with JI. 

Voters who congregated at Rob’s Bageland for interviews with JI last week did so largely because they feared inciting controversy by speaking with a reporter on Kings Point grounds. “The very fact that we’re meeting here and not on the Kings Point premises is, in itself, illustrative of what has happened,” said Scholl, the former public school administrator. “There was a time,” he told JI, “when there would have been no hesitation to allow” members of the press in Kings Point. 

Entering the community proved difficult. Several Democratic club members declined to escort JI into Kings Point, citing an administrative prohibition favoring political neutrality over party officers participating in any sort on-premises engagement with reporters.

Such cautious tactics would seem to reinforce the shtetl-like ethos of the Kings Point community, even at a moment when the Jewish population is dwindling. Despite that dynamic, the traditionally Jewish character of the complex remains, with a number of clubs devoted to such subjects as American-Israeli relations, Holocaust remembrance, Jewish studies, Yiddish conversation and Jewish social services. “The mahjong club is very strong,” said Julie Fishman, the current president of the Kings Point Democratic Club.

With that in mind, it seems likely Jewish voters in Kings Point could emerge yet again as an influential bloc in future elections with more obvious frontrunners. One possible template is the special House election in Cleveland this past August. Jewish community members — Democrats and Republicans alike — united behind Shontel Brown, a moderate pro-Israel Democrat facing off against Nina Turner, a progressive stalwart aligned with the far left, in a race that in some ways came to embody a growing schism within the Democratic Party.

Joe Kientzy, 68, a member of the board of directors of the Kings Point Democratic Club (Credit: Matthew Kassel)

But a similar dynamic in South Florida may require that Jewish voters in Kings Point overcome their own political differences, which one resident — who discreetly ushered JI into the community on the condition of anonymity — indicated was unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Guiding JI on a driven tour of the sprawling network of condominium communities, the resident described a “palpable” sense of unease that has taken hold in Kings Point as Democrats have found themselves at pains to contend with the emerging minority of outspoken Republican voters. “The big thing is the perception that the Democrats are anti-Israel,” she said with a sigh.

Lately, she has found solace elsewhere in Tamarac. “I’ve expanded my horizons and have a lot of friends outside of Kings Point,” she said, mostly at a local synagogue she attends on a regular basis.

While she enjoys spending time with her friends in Kings Point, particularly at one of the many outdoor pools, the anonymous resident sounded discouraged by what she characterized as a charged — and changing — political dynamic within the otherwise peaceful gated community.

“The only thing we have in common,” she said, “is we’re old.”

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