My mission seemed straightforward: Identify the handful of Democrats — eight of them, at last count — allegedly living among the beachfront castles of this extra tiny, extra wealthy town. Then track them down, one by one, and find out what it's like to stake a claim inside a mighty stronghold of the opposition, surrounded and outnumbered by Republicans.
But the Democrats of Belleair Shore, I soon discovered, are not easily found. Some seem like phantoms, living elsewhere much of the year, like so many others in this town, or constantly jetting around the globe on business. Those who can be found at home are sometimes reluctant to even answer a knock at their front door.
Some of their more conservative neighbors have a hard time fathoming that so many Democrats are numbered among the town's 83 registered voters.
"There's eight?" says the mayor's wife, Robin Robertson, smiling amiably. "I thought we had one."
Her surprise is understandable. Actually laying eyes on the town's Democrats is tricky.
Repeatedly, I found myself knocking on the front door of a hushed mansion where the only sound was the burbling of a miniature waterfall in the front drive.
Still, I kept up the search, hoping for glimpses into the upper reaches of the political divide — a window into the power dynamics of an America walled off from the rest of us.
• • •
Belleair Shore — no "s," please — is not like other towns.
Located at the end of the Belleair Beach Causeway, between Belleair Beach and Indian Rocks Beach, it occupies slightly less than a mile of the sand that runs along the west side of Gulf Boulevard. Not the east side of the street, mind you. Only the west, where residents can watch the sun melting over the Gulf of Mexico every evening.
Their privacy is carefully guarded. No businesses are allowed within the town limits, no restaurants, no gas stations, no apartment buildings or condo complexes. Instead, there are only 55 single-family houses, most of which make the word "house" seem modest. Some look more like Venetian palazzos. Nearly every property is walled and gated, protected from the rush of traffic on Gulf Boulevard. Near the south end of town, there's a vacant lot on the market. A handwritten sign out front says:
120 ft x 227 ft
Some maps of Belleair Shore indicate a town hall at 12th Street. In reality, there is no hall, just a small, enclosed bulletin board attached to a fence on a parking lot. The other day, the board displayed announcements for two code violation hearings and the agenda of a canceled city commission meeting.
That afternoon, a St. Petersburg Times photographer and I were walking up and down the sidewalk on Gulf Boulevard, making another attempt at snagging a stray Democrat or two. We were thrilled when we approached the house of an 86-year-old man we knew was among the eight and saw that the front door was wide open. Someone had to be home.
For days, I had been phoning this man's house. His wife assured me her husband would be happy to talk with me. When he didn't call, I wasn't sure what to think. Now, seeing the open door, I thought I'd give it one last try.
I walked up to the doorway, calling out. I couldn't see anyone, but the front hall was crowded with an odd variety of items — a wheelbarrow, a suitcase, a box for a circular saw. Were they cleaning out their garage?
"Hello!" I called out again, staying on the outside of the door. "Anyone home?"
From the bowels of the house came an elderly woman's voice. Clearly, this was the wife. When she appeared in the distance, I reminded her of our phone conversations. She disappeared, and then her husband emerged from the back, studying me as he approached. He gave a half-shake of his head.
"I'm really quite busy, as you can see," he said slowly. "And I don't want to enter into it."
As the photographer and I walked away, the door closed behind us.
• • •
It was hard not to feel a little dejected after the velvet refusal in the old couple's doorway. Still, the photographer and I soldiered on. By now, we were hoping to talk to almost any resident of Belleair Shore, ready to accept whatever tidbit came our way.
At that moment, a man stepped to the end of his driveway to pick up his Belleair Bee. He smiled warily as we said hello. When he realized we weren't trying to sell him anything, he introduced himself as Belleair Shore's mayor, John Robertson.
Though we had no appointment, the mayor graciously agreed to talk with us inside his house. I asked him about "town hall" inside the bulletin board, and he laughed and explained that the real seat of Belleair Shore's government was located on his kitchen counter, where he keeps a phone and an old fax machine he bought during his first term 10 years ago.
He was showing us the civic facilities when his wife rushed in to complain that she'd had no chance to tidy up before the paparazzi descended on her kitchen.
"Can I do the dishes in the sink first?" she said, putting away the offending plates. "You're not allowed to look."
We did as we were told and returned to the living room with her husband, who explained Belleair Shore's history and how the town has worked so hard to protect its privacy. He wanted us to know, definitively, that John Travolta does not live in Belleair Shore, even though a woman down the street insists she spied the movie star at the house four doors up.
When the conversation turned to politics, the mayor shared his wife's mild surprise at the number of Democrats in town. They meant no criticism; they simply weren't aware. Robertson wasn't sure who might be a Democrat. Part of this, he explained, is that Belleair Shore's elections are nonpartisan. Residents don't generally make a big deal of their party affiliations.
Robertson expressed respect for Barack Obama, describing the Illinois senator as "very honorable." Still, as a longtime Republican, he said he'll be voting for John McCain. The Arizona senator, he said, wasn't necessarily his first choice. But in general, Republican candidates espouse values more in keeping with his own.
"I'm obviously in favor of lower taxes," he said.
• • •
My hunt for the phantom Democrats went on.
At one house, a few blocks down the street from the mayor's, I made other futile attempts. The voter records show this house as the address for one of the elusive eight. But other records suggest that this man actually lives in St. Petersburg. So I knocked on the doors at both houses, left scrawled notes, sent letters asking if someone would help me find the guy.
One afternoon, while I was out reporting, a woman called from the Belleair Shore address. She had received my letter, she said. The man I was looking for was long gone.
"He hasn't lived here in 20 years."
According to the voter rolls, three of the town's registered Democrats reside at the same address on the north end of town, in the mansion with the miniature waterfall. I went by a couple times, hoping to find someone home, but no luck. From online searches, I learned that one appears to be a neurologist with an address in Minneapolis.
I found a local man who was listed as an agent for one of the neurologist's companies. When I called the agent, he confirmed that he knew all three of the Democrats listed at the house. But in that conversation, and several that followed, he deflected my attempts to learn more about the three men and to reach them. The neurologist always seemed to be traveling.
"He's out of the country again," the agent told me, growing increasingly irritated. "I gave him your message. He will call when he can."
I let it go.
• • •
I had better luck finding Belleair Shore's Democrats far from Florida.
I tracked down Don Wilhelm at his summer home in Detroit Lakes, Minn. A 76-year-old retiree, he was out of breath when his wife called him to the phone.
"I was just out working in the garage," he explained. "Moving boxes, stuff I shouldn't be doing."
Wilhelm made his living owning several car dealerships in North Dakota and California. He and his wife come to Belleair Shore during the winter months and are in love with the place. He raved about how quiet the town is, how safe, the fabulous restaurants nearby.
Although he's a registered Democrat, he told me his wife tends to be a bit more unpredictable.
"She's an independent in more ways than one, if you know what I mean."
Wilhelm is a free-range Democrat, voting not by party but by whichever candidate wins him over. He has mixed feelings about both of the current presidential prospects. He's concerned about McCain's age and worries that he won't have enough pep to finish two terms.
"One thing about McCain — " he said.
His wife, standing nearby, finished the thought for him.
"He's honest," I heard her say.
" — he's honest and fair and square."
Our interview was like a relay race. I would begin with a question, then hand the baton to Wilhelm, and, then, whenever he hesitated in search of the right word, his wife would jump in.
Wilhelm had doubts about Obama's readiness. But he was high on the young senator's smarts and his charisma.
"This kid has got a lot of ability,'' said Wilhelm. ''I feel he's really a mover and a shaker. I think he's — "
“John F. Kennedy," said his wife.
" — the John F. Kennedy of this year."
• • •
The Wilhelms were wonderful, no question. But my most stirring interview was with Melanie Robertson.
Melanie and her husband, John — no relation to the mayor — are new American citizens. Both grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and moved to Florida in 2000 with their three teenagers. As owners of a company that builds catamarans, they wanted to be closer to a Clearwater firm that buys their boats and uses them for chartered voyages in the Caribbean. Troubled by the increase in violent crime in post-apartheid South Africa, they also were eager to raise their kids someplace safe.
Of all the Democrats in Belleair Shore, Melanie Robertson was the easiest to find. When I called to tell her what I was working on, she laughed.
"Yes," said the 52-year-old woman, speaking in a cheery South African accent, "we're here among the capitalists."
She and her husband have built a good life on the fruits of capitalism. Their home in Belleair Shore is beautiful, with a living room framed by massive picture windows looking out toward the gulf. Interviewing Robertson in that room, it was hard not to keep staring out at the waves.
When I began my hunt, I had expected to hear accounts of beleaguered liberals perpetually girding themselves against the acid scorn of their Republican neighbors. I'd wondered if Belleair Shore's eight Democrats might have banded together in solidarity, perhaps even trading tight-lipped smiles of support at cocktail parties.
These theories turned out to be ludicrous.
Like everyone else I spoke with, Robertson didn't know the other Democrats. With so many residents out of town most of the year, she knew little about most of her neighbors. The only political mockery she endures is some lighthearted teasing from her Republican husband.
"We have a divided house," she said, laughing again. "He calls me a commie pinko."
Her husband supports McCain, but she quietly confided that she and the children are lobbying to change his mind. She has strong opinions about the candidates. She's a fan of Hillary Clinton's strength and intelligence and was disappointed to see the demise of the New York senator's campaign. She also admires Obama and says she'll have no hesitation voting for him in November.
Still, she worries about his chances. Having grown up among the shifting racial politics of South Africa, she knows firsthand the persistence of fear and subliminal bias.
"I've got a horrible feeling that when America has to vote, they're going to shy away from voting for a black man," she said. "I don't think race ever goes away."
Melanie Robertson was not passing judgment on the United States. On the contrary, she and her husband have fallen head over heels for their adopted country.
"I love America. I enjoy the people. I enjoy the freedom."
Most exciting of all, to Robertson, will be her chance to vote in her first election. She and her husband became citizens just this past February. The idea of voting — of taking part in America's most sacred ritual — makes her beam.
"This election has been the most exciting of all," she said. "It's great to feel that we can pay our taxes and vote."
Wait. Did she just say she was excited about paying taxes?
"It's not worth staying in a country if you can't contribute."
Thomas French can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8486.