'White power' flare-up in retirement haven reveals tensions

There has always been a low-boil tension between a much smaller cohort of Democrats and the Republican majority in The Villages retirement community in Florida

THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- There has always been a low-boil tension in The Villages retirement community between the Republican majority and the much smaller cohort of Democrats, but a veneer of good manners in “Florida's Friendliest Hometown" mostly prevailed on golf courses and at bridge tables.

Some residents say they've never seen anything like the politically inspired hostilities that have surfaced over the past several months.

“It's like a powder keg here," said resident Alan Stone. “And Trump is just stirring the pot."

“This has been brewing. Most people kind of agree not to discuss politics ... and it had been accepted that with things being so divisive, you don’t get into it,” said Catherine Hardy, chair of the Sumter County Democratic Party.

The Villages' population of more than 120,000 residents — among the fastest growing areas in the U.S. in the past decade — is about 98% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There are more than twice as many registered Republicans as registered Democrats in Sumter County, where most of The Villages is located.

The Trump parade occurred June 14 in the planned community immediately after a vigil was held by an African American philanthropic group to honor Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. Most of the attendees at the vigil had left by the start of the Trump parade, although a white woman wearing “Black Lives Matter" on her shirt shouted profanities at the Trump supporters as they drove by in golf carts. A man driving by in a golf car responded by shouting, “White Power," a racist slogan associated with white supremacists.

“Most people, up until now, even if people felt that way, it was socially unacceptable to voice it," Hardy said of the man's remark. "The difference is under Trump, you can spew that hatred. What has changed is now it’s more acceptable."

The flare-up at the Trump parade doesn’t represent the vast majority of residents of The Villages, although with the election year, there are some people, “who are exercised" and are becoming more vocal in expressing their views, said John Calandro, chairman of the Sumter County Republican Party.

Because of the coronavirus, more residents than usual are staying at home and watching the news, rather than going to the retirement haven’s famous happy hours and dances in its town squares, he said.

Some residents worry that the tensions of the past few months may make retirees think twice about moving to The Villages, whose founders have been longtime donors to Republicans and GOP presidential candidates. The Villages is often a popular campaign stop for GOP national and statewide candidates.

“I don't think The Villages wants this kind of publicity," Stone said. “People are saying, ‘What the hell is going on in The Villages?'"

But Calandro said any dissension among residents is overblown.

Calandro said when he plays golf with his Democratic friends, the biggest fights they get into aren't about politics — they're about who gets to take an extra putt on the green without being penalized.

“We aren't having arguments on every street corner here," Calandro said. “The Villages is still The Villages. We worked all of our lives to live here, and it’s a great place to live.”

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