THE VILLAGES — It's happy hour on a steamy summer evening and the band is playing covers of Jimmy Buffett, Pat Benatar and Aerosmith.
Couples sway to the music. Others shuffle in an uneven line dance.
As the sun goes down at the Villages, a 55-and-up retirement community, a crowd slathered in sunscreen ambles about, tossing back vodka and gin-and-tonics (easy on the tonic).
"Most everyone worked 40 to 45 years to get here," says Mike Mittal, a 69-year-old retired corporate pilot from Cincinnati who moved to town four years ago. "And they just want to have fun now."
Their playground is a 5-square-mile area about 90 miles northeast of Tampa Bay that once was rolling cow pasture and ripe watermelon fields. Disneyland for Adults or the Bubble is what residents call it now. The grandkids call it Seniors Gone Wild.
This new twist on retirement living promises robust sales for years to come, but the most important feature about the Villages transcends Florida real estate.
Drawing retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, this planned community is one of the most critical — and dependable — voting blocs in the nation. The development's 61,000 registered voters reside in a battleground region Republicans need to dominate if they are to defeat President Barack Obama in November.
Twice as many Republicans as Democrats live here. Independents tilt rightward, too. With a turnout averaging 80 percent, it has become a fixed stop on the campaign trail for Mitt Romney, who has visited twice in the past year.
One man is credited with molding this constituency.
The creator of the Villages, H. Gary Morse, inherited his father's development business and turned it into one of the most lucrative residential projects in the United States, ushering him into the ranks of the world's richest. Morse and his family have contributed $1.8 million to the cause of removing Obama from the White House.
His biggest contribution, however, will be the Villages vote on Election Day. Now 75, Morse controls just about every facet of life here. And that includes politics, say Democrats like Joseph Flynn, a 69-year-old retired insurance executive from Connecticut.
"You don't know you're being controlled, but you really are," Flynn said. "And Morse is the one who controls you. He wants that control . . . to influence what he can, including the next president."
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Morse seems to be everywhere in the Villages — and nowhere.
He not only sold the project's 40,000 homes, but he owns the mortgage company that financed many of them. He owns part of the bank, too. And the hospital, the water and sewer utility, the TV and radio stations, newspaper, monthly magazine, country clubs and commercial center that has lured a T.G.I. Friday's, Panera Bread Bakery Cafe, Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and IZOD.
"There isn't anything that makes money here that he doesn't get a piece of," said Flynn.
Yet like dozens of other residents and merchants interviewed, Flynn said he has never met or even seen the man.
Morse didn't return phone calls, and his staffers won't disclose which of the several offices he works at in the Villages. His spokesman, Gary Lester, would not comment. The top lobbyist for the Villages, former state GOP chairman Al Cardenas, hung up on a reporter asking about Morse.
"Gary keeps to himself," said Gary Davis, president of the Republican Club of Sumter Landing, one of three GOP clubs in the Villages. (There are two Democratic clubs.)
Those who say they have seen Morse walk amid the golf carts say he often sports a cowboy hat and boots. They say he seems down-to-earth.
"He's like a 'regular Joe.' He really blends in," said Kaye Johnson, who works at a Caribbean-themed apparel shop.
She didn't know about his private dining club. The entrance is unmarked, tucked behind one of the retail buildings at the Lake Sumter Landing Market Square. But climb the stairs to the second floor, and a sign welcomes the initiated: the Angler's Retreat Fish Camp. A lushly carpeted dining room, it's decorated like a Michigan hunting lodge. A bartender stocking shelves behind the cherry wood bar says Morse eats here with his family and select members.
"You must be asked to join," the bartender says, before telling the reporter to leave.
Morse moved to Florida from Michigan in 1983 to work with his dad. They sold Central Florida homes with a special pitch: free golf.
The community was a hit with Northern retirees, and sales reached $40 million by 1987, according to a book about the Villages, Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias.
By 1992, the development had about 3,500 acres. Morse lined up further expansion by getting the project approved as a special taxing district. The designation let Morse float tax-free municipal bonds that could be paid back by fees charged to residents.
Morse has since established 12 special taxing districts, which between November 1993 and October 2004 issued a total of $426 million in bond principal — all of it tax exempt, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Of that debt, about $300 million has yet to be paid back.
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To say Morse is fabulously wealthy might be an understatement.
Last year, the holding company of the Villages Ltd. generated at least $550 million in revenue.
Property records show Morse and his wife, Renee, own a home in the Villages worth more than $1 million. Morse owns four corporate jets and a 147-foot luxury yacht called Cracker Bay, which can accommodate up to 12 guests in five suites and nine crew.
As his fortune has grown, so has his mastery of the political process.
With the Villages stretching across more than 20,000 acres and three counties (and expected to contain 56,508 homes by 2018), what local officials decide can have huge ramifications for his bottom line.
Karen Krauss, Sumter County's supervisor of elections, remembers voting for and against Morse's various requests for expansion of the project when she served on the commission in the 1990s.
"I like what Gary's done, and the Villages have provided a lot of jobs here," Krauss said. "But if I had my druthers, I would have preferred the land had stayed pristine."
Morse grew frustrated by the Sumter board's occasional limitations of his expansion requests, said former County Commissioner Jim Roberts. After the board required that Morse meet a series of conditions to expand, such as helping pay for roads, Morse pushed to pass a ballot referendum changing how board members were elected.
Instead of having voters in individual districts elect board members in Sumter, commissioners after 2004 were elected by the entire county. That meant the Villages, where 65 percent of the county's voters reside, controlled who would get elected to the board.
Two years later, Roberts and another commissioner who had opposed Morse were voted out of office.
Since then, Roberts said, the hold the Villages has on Sumter has tightened. Even though the county seat is 30 miles south in Bushnell, most government buildings — the tax collector, the supervisor of elections — have migrated to the Villages.
Morse's sights are set beyond Central Florida, too. Since 1999, Morse and his family have given at least $6.3 million to state and federal races. He was a Ranger for George W. Bush's 2004 presidential campaign, meaning he helped raise at least $200,000. He has frequently let politicians fly aboard his jets. Jeb Bush and his two sons flew on one of the jets to the 2002 Rose Bowl, reimbursing Morse for the cost of a commercial airline ticket.
This March, Morse and his family contributed $80,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election committee and is a member of Romney's Florida finance team. He and his family have contributed $1.8 million to Romney and Romney-aligned groups in the most-recent presidential cycle.
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For Flynn and other Democrats who live in the Villages, Morse's politics sometimes upset their otherwise pleasant lives.
The newspaper Morse owns, The Villages Daily Sun, runs conservative columnists like Ann Coulter and Oliver North, but no liberal counterpoint or bad news about Morse or the Villages, Flynn says. Curt Hills, assistant managing editor at the Daily Sun, didn't return phone calls.
When Democratic candidates drop by to campaign, local reporters don't usually cover them. Meanwhile they lavish front page coverage on top Republicans who visit.
Throughout the day, Fox News provides updates on the TV station, the Villages News Network (VNN). Every half hour, those bulletins can be heard on the streets as they are piped into the speakers attached to the street poles that ring the Villages' two market squares. (The rest of the time the speakers ooze nostalgic rock from the likes of Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf and the Beach Boys, plus an occasional ad for a local vascular vein center).
Flynn cites several examples of what he calls "participation suppression." There's no door-to-door campaigning allowed in the Villages. Yard signs are verboten. Candidates can only hand out leaflets at federal mail dropoff areas.
Democrats say they feel marginalized because, when they hand out fliers at the market square, they are relegated to a corner with no shade, Flynn said. Republicans set up down the street in prime office space. When Florida's governor came to the Villages to sign the state budget last year, Flynn said Democrats were told they couldn't protest and then told by sheriff's deputies to leave.
Yet when U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, spoke at the Villages, tea party hecklers lined the street in protest as deputies looked on. Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek was denied a venue when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010.
"The majority of registered Democrats here are in the closet," said Diane Davisson, a 67-year-old resident and Democrat. "They don't want any confrontations with their neighbors."
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Dianne Dorman owns a thriving boutique of glitzy women's clothing across from the Harley-Davidson store that just opened.
"Everyone is in happy land," Dorman said. "They spend their time eating, drinking and shopping. The Villages is their bubble, and it's not bursting."
Dorman and Pat Theros, a sales assistant in her shop, say the dating scene is hot. Widowed women move here looking for a mate and will rent an apartment until they find someone, Theros said. One reason why line dancing is so popular is it's a way for people to dance if they don't have a partner and want to lure future suitors.
"It's a lively group," Dorman said, laughing. "Maybe it's because of the Viagra."
Bartenders say business is brisk and they are busy most nights hurrying to keep up with orders.
While it's often portrayed as a wealthy enclave, the Villages is decidedly middle class, where drink specials can still determine the way a night will go. Homes may sell for more than $1 million, but they can also sell for around $100,000. Professionals from all fields are here, including teachers and those who had blue-collar jobs that paid well despite not requiring a college degree.
Many see their good fortune in terms of self-reliance, applying their own experience to the wider public debate about the role of government.
Republican Bill Buyrum, a retired lawyer from Indianapolis, said people like him are able to afford to live here because of the responsible way they've lived.
"It was workers who saved their money, planned for the future, and didn't have this attitude that government should be a chaperone all their lives," Buyrum said.
That's delusional thinking, say Democrats.
"Everyone here is so self-absorbed," says Larry Shipley, the president of the Democratic Club. "But it's not even that. They want to behave like people they aren't, while they support people they want to be."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3401 or [email protected]