Politics at retirement community skews toward Republican Party

Posted: Tuesday, October 24, 2000

LADY LAKE, Fla. -- Driving past the strip malls and farmland of central Florida, there is no mistaking when you've arrived at The Villages.

Golf carts zip around commandeered by gray-haired drivers. At dusk, the town square is filled with seniors enjoying 2-for-1 happy hour specials and dancing to a band in the gazebo. The community's cheerleading squad is made up of women on Social Security.

The Villages is a Fantasyland for retirees, equal parts Disney World and an AARP convention. With Social Security and prescription drug benefits front and center this election season, the 22,000 residents of this fast-growing community are intently following the political campaign.

Life is good at The Villages, where the biggest decision each day is whether to play 18 holes of golf or get a massage at the wellness center. So most residents are interested in maintaining what they already have. They're interested in lower taxes and protecting Social Security, veterans' and Medicare benefits.

''They may not be politically active but they care about voting,'' said Mike Francis, president of one of the two Republican clubs at The Villages.

The politics here skews toward the GOP with Republicans outnumbering Democrats about 2-to-1 among new residents.

''We're a senior population and certainly we're concerned about what seniors are concerned about elsewhere -- Social Security, Medicare, prescription drugs,'' said Frank Topping, a resident who serves on The Villages' development district board. ''(We're) also concerned about bringing integrity back to the White House and I think many people are disillusioned about the leadership we've had in the past.''

Unlike South Florida's retirement communities -- where leaders of condominium associations, known as condo commandos, can guarantee politicians thousands of votes -- residents don't vote as a block at The Villages, located about 45 miles northwest of Orlando.

But they do vote in large numbers.

More than 80 percent of the registered voters cast ballots each election, making the place a potent stop for politicians. The residents are rather homogenous, overwhelmingly white, with large numbers from the Midwest.

''I don't think you can win Florida without coming to The Villages,'' said state Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, perhaps overstating the case but not by much. ''They're going to expect people to come here.''

Indeed, Florida Republican Senate candidate Bill McCollum made The Villages the last stop on a recent three-day bus tour through north and central Florida. McCollum expressed his support for protecting veterans' benefits and Social Security, two issues that resonated with the 200 residents who came to hear him speak.

While retirement communities are a dime a dozen in Florida, a state where almost a fifth of the residents are over age 65, none is perhaps more all-encompassing than The Villages. It's the fourth-largest master planned community in the state.

The community has its own television station and daily newspaper. The Spanish mission-style town square offers a movie theater with eight screens, two restaurants, a bakery, a microbrewery, a tavern and a dining and music hall with live entertainment.

There are five golf courses, three country clubs, 11 swimming pools, 20 tennis courts, a medical center and two bowling centers, including one designed to look like the Alamo. There are businesses for lawyers, insurance agents and stock brokers. The place regularly attracts celebrity visitors such as golfer Nancy Lopez and former auto executive Lee Iacocca.

The Villages is a place where people don't care what others did in their previous lives, residents say. Former CEOs play tennis with former cab drivers.

The area started out as a manufactured home community but was purchased in 1983 by the Harold Schwartz family, which turned it into a retirement community. With 12,000 houses, The Villages is only a third finished.

The only thing missing is a cemetery.

''They could call it 'Beyond The Villages,''' joked Beverly Bowblis, a retired private school administrator and teacher from Houston.

End advance for Thursday, Oct. 19

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