Punch-Out in Palm Beach
Carol Roberts, 64, is an avid collector of stuffed and ceramic
penguins and donkeys. Subtlety has never been her style in
decor--or in politics. Last week the former Democratic mayor of
West Palm Beach used her spitfire stratagems to boost Al Gore.
Wearing a tiny butterfly pin to mock the infamous ballot, she
faced the cameras and vowed to count every last vote. Why wait
for court approval? Why should the battle for the Constitution
wait for a judge? "What happens? Do we go to jail?" she asked the
lawyer for the board of canvassers. "Because I'm ready to go to
This is how Roberts got her spotlight. As a county commissioner,
she sits on the canvassing board, a job that most find dull but
she enjoys because she likes to be in the action on election
night. For her, the unending election night was heaven--and Palm
Beach the red-hot center of paradise. After a sample of ballots
were hand counted for an excruciating 17 hours and Gore picked up
extra votes, Roberts did the math in her head: if he got 19 more
votes from recounting only 1% of the ballots, he might get 1,900
more votes in a full recount. That would change the election
She waited until the canvassing board reconvened in front of
live TV cameras to make her move. She called quickly for a vote,
cutting off debate. When Charles Burton, the county judge who
chairs the board, suggested they wait for legal opinions from
secretary of state Katherine Harris, Roberts said, "I'm not
asking for an opinion, I'm asking for a vote." Burton later
accused Roberts of "bushwhacking" him. He'd thought they were on
friendly terms, having taken smoking breaks with Roberts during
their marathon counting sessions.
By commandeering the proceedings in Palm Beach, Roberts has
become for Democrats what Harris has become for Republicans.
Says county commissioner Mary McCarty, a Republican: "She's the
Joan of Arc of the Democratic Committee right now." Other names
haven't been so lofty--if they are at all printable. "You are
such a Democratic hack," wrote a woman in one of 3,000 e-mails
sent to Roberts. "People are laughing at you all over the U.S.
You are an old, old hag."
Roberts knows rough-and-tumble politics well, fighting for a
district made up mostly of elderly and Jewish voters, residents
of the Century Village retirement community. A die-hard Dem, she
has served 14 years on the Republican-dominated county
commission. She has withstood criticism before, like the time she
cast a vote to break a tie, allowing a zoning change that favored
her dentist son. She first chose to run for public office as a
young mother after reading that an incumbent city commissioner
had no opponent. Kids in tow, she went down and filed to run
against him. She won. But she also knows bitter defeat. She lost
another election by a single vote.
Last week armed sheriff's deputies guarded Roberts after she
received threatening phone calls at home. Republicans have pushed
her to recuse herself from the board, accusing her of physically
bending, twisting and manipulating ballots in favor of Gore. She
has hired a lawyer and denies the charges.
Roberts insists she is a patriot--a freedom fighter, not a
lapdog--even though she has a Gore-Lieberman bumper sticker on her
car. "The freedom that we have to be able to speak our minds--and
the vote is part of speaking our minds--is what makes us a great
country," she says. Privately, however, she has told friends that
the current uproar probably means she will have to give up her
dream of being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
That prospect won't quiet her, though. Says her friend Anita
Mitchell-Bridgeman, a Republican lobbyist: "Carol doesn't know
how to follow a script." And forget subtlety. "You don't have to
wonder where she's coming from because she tells you."
--By Timothy Roche/Palm Beach