The Villages' Democrats Find Second-Rate Citizenry In A Billionaire's Republican Kingdom

11/06/2012 07:31 am ET | Updated Nov 06, 2012

THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- When Francis and Frances Durr returned home from a trip to Disney World with their grandchildren in mid-October, they found a pile of mail waiting for them. The Durrs live in a sprawling retirement community in Central Florida that's often called its own kind of Disney World -- one for retirees, a magic kingdom of pristine golf courses, perennial softball games and daily two-for-one happy hours.

The Villages, as the 80,000-strong community is called, also happens to be a tightly controlled universe, and one of the letters awaiting the Durrs came from a representative of the developer. The letter dealt with a sign sitting in the Durrs' front window -- specifically, a sign advocating for the reelection of President Barack Obama.

In part, it said: "The Villages has received complaints stating that you have a political sign in the window of your home. This is in violation of the Restrictions, Section 2.15 ... 'No sign of any kind shall be displayed to public view on a Homesite or any dedicated or reserved area without the prior written consent of the Developer.'"

Francis Durr was taken aback. As in other communities with covenants, residents of The Villages agree to adhere to many restrictions when they buy their homes. Some neighborhoods have banned lawn ornaments, window air-conditioning units are not allowed and certain signage is prohibited, all in the name of maintaining high "aesthetic qualities." But several of Durr's neighbors had placed political signs in their windows ahead of the election, and his seemed no larger than theirs. The only difference was that most of his neighbors' signs supported Obama's Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Reading on, Durr was stunned when he came to this:

"The purpose of this letter is to notify you of the complaints and that you immediately remove the signs. Should you fail to comply with the terms of the Restrictions, The Villages, and each homeowner within your neighborhood, will be entitled to file suit."

Durr checked around to see if the Romney signs were still posted in other homes, and indeed they were. He asked his neighbors if they'd needed special permits to hang them. They hadn't. Several of them seemed upset by the letter. One Republican asked Durr if the Democrat was now going to turn him in because of his Romney sign.

"Why would I turn someone in for spite?" Francis Durr, 66, told The Huffington Post. "I won't. I don’t think it's right. He's a Romney fan, I'm an Obama fan. That’s how it should lay. There's too much hatred already."

The Durrs moved to The Villages from Delaware two and a half years ago. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Francis was in the garage tinkering with a hat he was creating for an upcoming Parrothead festival the couple is going to in the Florida Keys. Like other garages in The Villages, the Durrs' is home to a flashy, customized golf cart -- this one painted deep purple with metal trim. The couple has a joint business card in retirement. It features a parrot and says, "Loving the Lifestyle."

The Durrs aren't exactly flaming leftists. He was a unionized pipefitter, with a pension that helped make Florida retirement a reality, and she worked in the payroll department of a pharmaceutical company for 25 years before being laid off. They consider themselves union-supporting Democrats. They have two grown sons who served in the military, one of whom is now a proud Tea Party member. Outside their home they fly an American flag and a flag to honor American prisoners of war. An Obama sign is about as far as they'll go in flaunting their politics.

As Frances, 60, said, "Everyone can have their opinion -- I won't push it down your throat and you shouldn't push it down mine."

But The Villages is a place where many older residents have hardened political beliefs and a lot of time on their hands. The Durrs' left-leaning status makes them a minority in the community, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by a factor of two-to-one, according to elections data.

Their liberal bent also sets them apart from The Villages' powerful but little-seen developer, billionaire H. Gary Morse, 75, a major GOP donor and Romney supporter who essentially runs the community. In addition to selling its more than 40,000 homes, Morse and his family control many of the development's governing bodies and either own or hold a stake in a host of its businesses, including The Villages' right-leaning daily newspaper and radio station. Although many residents refer to The Villages as Morse's "kingdom," he rarely makes public appearances or comments. His spokesman did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Given Democrats' marginalized status in the community, and Morse's well-known political influence in Florida and beyond, the Durrs' letter quickly made the rounds among local Democrats, many of whom believe Morse's politics have a way of bleeding into everyday life at The Villages. Although the community is majority Republican, left-leaning residents say it's Morse who truly fosters its conservative culture.

A development official told Francis Durr that the legal threat over his sign was standard protocol and stemmed from a resident's complaint, not the developer's, and a Republican neighbor later told the Durrs that he, too, received a notice about his Romney sign. It's hard to know whether Democrats received such letters disproportionately. But it says a lot about their community that they assumed they did. A retired Democratic lawyer even dashed off a letter to the developer, claiming the Durrs had been targeted by another resident because of their support for Obama and accusing the development of "selective enforcement."

"We enjoy living here because of the amenities. It's nice," said Joe Flynn, a former director of a club for Villages Democrats. "But its also very difficult dealing with the culture and being treated really almost as a second-rate citizen. Once it's determined you are a Democrat, you're not shunned, but people look at you a little differently and they treat you a little differently. There's no question about that."

To many Democrats, the incident seemed like more confirmation that the community's moniker, "America's Friendliest Hometown," applies primarily to those who vote Republican.

A GOP STRONGHOLD

During the past two decades, tens of thousands of retirees like the Durrs have flocked to The Villages, an age-restricted community without equal in the U.S., as HuffPost's Ben Hallman reported earlier this year. With child visitors allowed to stay only temporarily, the mostly over-55 crowd has a stunning array of amenities to occupy their golden years: 10 championship golf courses, dozens of recreation centers and a pair of manufactured town squares with restaurants, movie theaters, nightly music and line dancing (a third downtown is currently being developed).

With a median home sale price under $200,000, and low monthly amenity fees compared to similar communities, The Villages offers middle- and working-class people the reality of a Florida retirement, and a cozy one at that. As a local deejay for the developer-controlled radio station recently remarked on-air, "It doesn't matter what day it is when you're in The Villages."

The Villages were the brainchild of Morse's father, Harold Schwartz. Breaking ground with a modest development for mobile homes in the 1970s, father and son eventually grew The Villages into a massive, self-contained retirement mecca where, in Schwartz's words, "people's dreams can come true." Since Schwartz passed away in 2003, Morse has continued to expand the community with new subdivisions and commercial zones, building a family fortune that Bloomberg estimates to be $2.5 billion.

Despite Morse's reportedly shy nature -- many residents say they've never seen him in person and wouldn't recognize him even if they did -- the developer has been happy to insert himself into local and national politics, and to push conservative values through The Villages' media outlets.

"If ever there was a Wizard of Oz, he's the one," said Andrew Blechman, author of the book Leisureville, which chronicled The Villages, Morse and America's age-segregated communities. "You'd think Morse would be content being a successful businessman, but he's not. He has strong ideological leanings."

The Morse family and their holdings have sent at least $1.7 million to Restore Our Future, the main Romney-allied super PAC. Morse serves as a finance co-chair for the Romney campaign's operations in Florida, a crucial swing state. When Romney assembled with a cadre of Republican bigwigs on a yacht in Tampa Bay during the Republican National Convention in August, the 150-foot vessel reportedly belonged to Morse. Christened the "Cracker Bay," the yacht flew the merchant flag of hte Cayman Islands, according to a report by ABC News, which noted that Romney himself has held investments in the well-known international tax haven. (Morse also bundled campaign contributions for George W. Bush and John McCain, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Morse hasn't simply used his own checkbook to bolster Romney's campaign -- he's tried to use his employees' as well. In a letter he sent to workers at The Villages this summer, reported in July by Salon, Morse urged them not only to support Romney but also to donate money to his campaign, up to $2,500 per person, or $5,000 per couple, the maximum allowed by campaign finance law.

"Electing Mitt will change the direction of our country, putting us back on a path of opportunity, growth and prosperity," Morse said in his appeal. "The Villages has been built by a lot of people with different skills all pitching in. Today, I am asking all of you to, once again, 'pitch in' by making a contribution to the Romney for President campaign."

Morse's letter suggested the contributions would be rounded up by management, a situation that would likely make many employees squirm, given that the developer would know who donated and who didn't: "We will gather all of these forms and contributions and present them to Mitt and Ann ... letting them know that 'The Villages family' is 'all in.'"

One anonymous employee posted on the liberal Daily Kos about his displeasure at being compelled to give money to Romney. Salaries depend on the job, but this worker said his part-time hours had recently been cut, putting him on track to make a mere $10,000 for the year. He was taking up a second job to make ends meet. "My employer is graciously letting me know that, while any amount will be appreciated, it can't exceed more than 1/4 of what he's paying me for the entire year," he wrote. "Sure, boss! Whatever you say!"

The letter also revolted many Democratic residents in The Villages. Aside from the pressure it put on working-class employees at the development, it was another reminder that much of the money generated through The Villages' growth -- including home purchases -- ultimately ends up in GOP coffers via Morse.

"He's a very secretive person," Roger Cooper, a Villages resident, said of Morse, "despite the fact that he's very lavish with retransmitting the money we pay for our houses to the Republican Party."

Morse's political power isn't just financial, however. As the Tampa Bay Times has noted, Republican candidates now rely on The Villages to deliver votes, and the community has become a requisite stop for GOP pols, including vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who made the community one of his first stops after Romney named him as his running mate. Like other communities geared toward seniors, the voter participation rate in The Villages is astronomically high, at about 80 percent, compared to 57 percent for the general population. Of the residents who voted in 2008, roughly 66 percent cast their ballots for John McCain.

"It's definitely a draw -- most of my friends are Republicans," 72-year-old resident Art DeGraaf recently said of The Villages' conservative vibe, as he sat in his golf cart, listening to a live band cover "Lay Down Sally" during two-for-one beers.

DeGraaf, who used to own an excavating business, had a Romney sticker on his golf cart and said he isn't a fan of the president's. "I don't think he's honest. I think he's creating too large a government. Romney is for the entrepreneur." As for liberals, he said, "There aren't that many in The Villages that I see. When I do, it turns me off."

A SMALL MEDIA EMPIRE

If Villages transplants aren't already disposed to conservative values, they'll get a good dose of them through the Morse family's small media empire. Fox News Radio is pumped daily out of speakers in town squares by the community radio station, WVLG-AM 640, making for an odd blend of sunny Villages-themed dispatches and distinctly right-leaning political news reports. A driver listening to Villages radio can step out of his car in one of the town squares and hear the same broadcast without missing a beat. In talking to HuffPost, several liberal residents likened the public speakers to Orwellian propaganda.

The community newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, is a marvel among modern print papers, a robust, ad-filled local daily that feels heftier than many major metro papers do these days. And with a target audience of thousands of senior citizens who actually still read the hard copy, the Daily Sun carries considerable influence within the community.

To the chagrin of Democrats, the paper also has a distinctly conservative flavor. Behind dispatches on local charity golf tournaments lie a bevy of Republican-friendly columnists, and not of the mild David Brooks variety. Right-wing firebrands Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin appear regularly on the op-ed page, and the centrist Richard Cohen is about as far as the dial swings to the left. More than one resident complained to HuffPost that the paper has printed right-wing missives while underreporting the community's golf-cart accidents.

Some see a conservative spin in the paper's hard news as well. For instance, a recent talk by Fox Business personality John Stossel at a local "Hands Off My Health Care Rally" warranted a positive above-the-fold front-page story (headline: "A Simple Remedy"), while a visit from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) with Villages Democrats landed as a mere photograph in the paper's local section. The morning after this year's third and final presidential debate, when many conservatives bemoaned how closely Romney had aligned his foreign policy with Obama's, the Daily Sun ran a front-page wire account of the debate with the surprising headline, "CANDIDATES WORLDS APART."

Marsha Shearer, a local Democrat, said she once tried to get a piece of local Obama-related news into the paper. Before the 2008 election, Shearer was selected as one of 10 Democrats to get a private audience with the president at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Despite the easy local hook for a major national story, Shearer said she couldn't get the Daily Sun to cover it.

"I had friends calling in, 'When's it going to be in the paper?' Everyone was so excited for me," Shearer recalled. She said she was told by an editor that the encounter wasn't newsworthy. Larry Croom, the paper's executive editorial manager, did not respond to interview requests from The Huffington Post.

A Miami Herald reporter spilled 700 words on Shearer's backstage time with Obama, while her community paper ultimately took a pass. Although no story was printed, Shearer said a photo of her with the leader of the free world ran in the paper four years later, in a recurring feature in which residents pose for photographs with celebrities of varying recognizability. It's called "Brush with Fame."

Of course, it can be hard to tell how much of The Villages' Republicanism emanates from Morse's vision, and how much sprouts organically from its residents. A prime example is the community's lone Barnes & Noble. A recent flyer advertising upcoming guests highlights just three authors: former Republican presidential candidate and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Iran-Contra figure and conservative commentator Oliver North, and Fox News Channel's "Red Eye" host Greg Gutfeld.

Are the bookstore's visiting authors conservative by decree, or are they conservative because conservatives are more likely to sell books in The Villages? As one liberal resident said, "It would be wonderful to get someone like Chris Hayes to come here."

Asked if he'd ever thought to swing through The Villages on a book tour, the MSNBC host and author told HuffPost in an email, "I've actually never heard of the Villages, but I'd consider it, I guess."

If liberal writers don’t pass through The Villages, it's probably because their publishers don't believe they can sell many books there. According to Barnes & Noble spokeswoman Mary Ellen Keating, The Villages location, like all others, keeps its door open to writers of all political stripes.

"It's not like we decide whether to take them or not," Keating said. As for The Villages store, "This is a store that’s very enthusiastic about authors in general. We can only offer [customers] what it is we're being offered by publishers."

A 'SNAKE IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN'

On a recent Tuesday morning, an unusual number golf carts with pro-Obama bumper stickers were parked outside the Tierra Del Sol country club. Inside, the Villages Democratic Club was holding its monthly breakfast, bringing together more than a hundred Villages liberals over an $8 all-you-can-eat buffet of eggs, bacon and french toast.

Several joked that they still amount to a "secret society," but Larry Shipley, the club's current president, said the club has grown to nearly a thousand members in the runup to the election, compared to what had been just a hundred members last year. Shipley said the Democrats' growth has a way of teasing more liberals out of the shadows.

"My goal was to get us to a critical mass, where people would be comfortable admitting they're a Democrat," Shipley said, wearing a blue Villages Democratic Club t-shirt, like many of the breakfast attendees.

Although The Villages has been a known conservative bastion for several years now, Shipley attributes much of the current political friction within the community to an intense dislike for Obama on the right, as well as the rise of the Tea Party here and around the country. Gary Davis, the head of a local Republican Party club, declined to be interviewed for this story, saying he'd been misquoted by reporters in the past.

"Over the last two months, we've averaged over a hundred new members," Shipley said. "The venom of some of the people on the right, the hatred, has actually helped our side. Quite honestly, we don't understand what all this hatred is about."

After some housekeeping talk and a brief speech during breakfast, Shipley led the roomful of retirees in a call-and-response chant of the Obama campaign's "fired up, ready to go!" line. Afterward, the residents were fired up and ready to talk about Gary Morse.

"I love The Villages, but I don't like the politics," one woman said. "The builder, he's donated $1.7 million [to Romney's super PAC]. He has a right to do whatever he wants. But don't indoctrinate me with the newspaper, with the radio and with the movie theater."

The Villages' two movie theaters are a sore subject for some Democrats. For weeks, one of the theaters showed "2016: Obama's America," the documentary from conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza that a Washington Post critic called a "slick infomercial" bound to "irritate the president’s supporters while mobilizing his detractors." The other theater has been showing Runaway Slave, a bit of Tea Party fare featuring Glenn Beck and Andrew Breitbart, among others, and backed by the conservative non-profit FreedomWorks. The film, which hasn't gained much traction at mainstream theaters, suggests that a welfare state is holding back African-Americans and other minorities.

"When I see a Romney sticker, fine," said another resident at the breakfast. "But when I have an Obama sticker on my golf cart, people find the necessity to say nasty comments."

Nothing reveals The Villages' political imbalance quite like the community's golf carts. With some 50,000 carts among its citizenry, The Villages bills itself as a "golf cart community," and many residents show their political affiliations through placards and bumper stickers, which are not forbidden on vehicles under the community's rules. In the weeks ahead of the election, the vast majority of this signage comes in the form of Romney-Ryan placards or "Mitt" bumper stickers, which look far more prominent on diminutive golf carts than they do on cars.

Although there are only twice as many Republicans as Democrats in The Villages, according to voter records, there seems to be about five times as much pro-Romney paraphernalia on carts there. Democrats said this is because many of their like-minded neighbors are afraid to reveal themselves, fearing social repercussions. It doesn't help that rumors have swirled of pro-Obama carts being vandalized or serving as depositories for dog droppings.

Susan Hausner, an active Democrat in The Villages, penned a letter to the Tampa Bay Times in which she said the atmosphere Morse has fostered has led "'family values' party members to do things like key cars that have Obama bumper stickers and put dog waste on golf carts with Obama signs. Our car was keyed, and I am furious. But it makes me vow to work even harder to get President Barack Obama re-elected."

One Democrat at the breakfast described the political atmosphere as "the only snake in the garden of Eden."

"It's not that we want to be the dominant party," said another club member. "That isn't it. We just want to be able to live our own lives and not be ridiculed, made fun of, and told to move out. I had somebody in a card game tell me, 'What do you even live here for?' We're allowed to like it here too."

Indeed, three Villages women told HuffPost they won't wear Obama pins to their weekly card games, lest they be ostracized. Hausner said a friend of hers pleaded with her to remove her pin as they headed to their mahjong game. "She said, 'Take that off! You'll get killed!'"

"I'm thinking of moving," said one resident. "I do not like it here like most people, because I can't take the atmosphere. I feel like I'm surrounded by enemies."

"I'm not moving! I'm staying here and I'm going to open my big mouth," her friend shot back.

"But we're such a small percentage. It's nine hundred to a hundred thousand," the woman responded.

"It's not 900. There are a lot of more of us!"

It wasn't long after club members settled their bills that The Villages' heated politics were on full display. As attendees filtered out, an older woman at the restaurant door, spotting so many blue shirts, apparently antagonized the Democrats by making a derisive comment about the liberal MSNBC hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews.

The woman, Jean Deyoe, is a Villages resident volunteering with the local Rotary club, which was having its own meeting at the restaurant. Talking with HuffPost, the feisty Deyoe stood by her comment that Maddow and Matthews are "idiots," and she said she doesn't care much for the current president.

"I'm tired of him flying around in my airplane and not paying for it," Deyoe said. "I really, really resent it. And he's been doing it for four years." As for how many Democrats she thinks are in The Villages, "You can probably get a count for how many came to breakfast," she said with a chuckle.

Outside, some Democrats briefly considered reporting Deyoe to restaurant management. But given that she wasn't a Villages employee, and this was clearly a matter of free speech, they decided to let it lie, breaking up and heading to their pro-Obama cars and golf carts.

'A WONDERFUL DREAM'

Although The Villages continues to break ground on new homes, at some point in the near future Morse's small kingdom will stop growing and reach a stasis known as "build-out." Projections peg the final population at a little over 100,000 residents, or about 20,000 more than now, according to the homeowners association. Unless every one of those new residents happens to vote Democratic, it's unlikely The Villages will ever achieve political equilibrium.

For now, the community's latent Democrats say they would settle for anything less than marginalization. To that end, the more outspoken activists are making their political leanings known, regardless of what that could mean at the weekly pinochle game. On a recent afternoon, it meant donning blue Democratic t-shirts and heading to one of the town squares during a boisterous outdoor happy hour. The "blue crew," as they called themselves, set up a folding table and handed out pro-Obama literature, although community rules forbid them from approaching people unsolicited. (The local Republican club, by contrast, has rented its own spacious office near the town square.)

These recent outings have proved a mixed bag. Many closeted Democratic retirees have approached the group and quietly voiced their appreciation, though a few conservative jokesters have come to the table and said they'd like to apply for food stamps.

"Well, it's nice to see a change of pace," said an elderly woman strolling by.

"Oh God," a man of about 60 muttered disapprovingly, not even breaking stride as he passed.

After some pamphleteering, several members of the blue crew dined at a nearby Thai resident, where, over the course of an hour, their t-shirts lured a half-dozen liberals over to the table, all of whom remarked at how surprised they were at such a scene. One woman said that she was a Democrat but was "afraid to let it be known." Another said she recently had a dream that she lived on a fanciful "Democratic block" of The Villages.

"It was such a wonderful dream," she said earnestly.

In a sign of the challenges that lie ahead for the community's liberals, a snowbird from Columbus, Ohio, stopped by and said he'd already voted early for Obama. But when offered an Obama sign to put in his window in The Villages, the man balked.

"I wouldn't want you to waste it," he said with an apologetic smile.

As for their right to brandish Obama signs in their windows, Villages Democrats have grown more aggressive on that front, too.

In her letter to the developer on behalf of the Durrs, Marti Green, a retired lawyer and Villages resident, noted that the community was virtually slathered with Romney signs. If the development wouldn't order all political signs to be taken down, the threat to sue the Durrs over their Obama signs would be considered "harassment of Obama supporters by The Villages."

"Rest assured ... that if anyone commences litigation, the Durrs will aggressively
pursue their legal and constitutional rights, including seeking damages against The Villages and yourself for violation of their freedom of speech, harassment, and malicious prosecution," Green wrote. She has not received a response from the developer.

Still, the Durrs took their Obama sign out of their front window and moved it to the backyard, where they affixed it to a rocking chair. Francis Durr did, however, keep a small sign in the front window, an American flag with a small picture of Obama in the lower corner. He figured it's unlikely anyone will raise a stink about it since it features Old Glory.

"I'm thick-skinned," Francis said. "I'm not going to be intimidated by anybody."

Besides, he added, the political hostility couldn't possibly last beyond the election.

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