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The Recounter

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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 jail."

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 outcome.

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


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Cover Date: November 27, 2000

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