After three decades as a forum where Republican and Democratic candidates could debate and judicial candidates and school board hopefuls could meet the public, the nonpartisan Palm Beach County Voters Coalition is disbanding.
Voters Coalition endorsements were prized by candidates from both parties, and its annual fundraising dinner was an A-list affair for politicians and judges. But attendance was dwindling to a few dozen people at monthly Voters Coalition meetings at the South County Civic Center west of Delray Beach.
Longtime leader Harold Ostrow, 85, said the Voters Coalition was unable to attract younger leaders who would maintain the group’s nonpartisan vision. He said some people, whom he declined to name, expressed interest in leading the Voters Coalition, but they tended to be identified with one party or another.
“We disbanded because we didn’t want it to become another Democratic club or another Republican club,” said Ostrow. “We weren’t comfortable that people would be objective….We wanted to protect the legacy of the Voters Coalition.”
Ostrow said the Voters’ Coalition board voted “overwhelmingly” to disband, but he declined to give more detail.
A statement released Wednesday evening said Ostrow needs to attend to his wife’s health and “various problems have severely restricted (co-leader) Bob Newmark’s activities.”
The statement added that increasing partisanship had made things difficult for the group.
“Faced with the extreme polarization of the political parties, the extreme divisiveness that currently exists and the diametrically opposed philosophical views of the function of government, a nonpartisan view is most difficult to maintain. Therefore, the Board of Directors of the nonpartisan Voters Coalition voted to terminate the organization at this time,” the statement said.
Based in the heavily Democratic southern portion of Palm Beach County, most of the Voters Coalition’s membership and leadership, including Ostrow, were Democrats. But the group endorsed both Republicans and Democrats in local races and speakers at Voters Coalition meetings tended to put aside partisan talking points. Because of the group’s nonpartisan status, it regularly attracted judges and judicial candidates to its events.
“I’m sad to see them go from the standpoint that I know a lot of people who were originally involved in it worked very hard to be nonpartisan,” said Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Gary Nikolits, a Republican who was endorsed by the Voters Coalition every time he ran except in 2008.
“It’s always an endorsement you wanted to have,” Nikolits said. “It was by far the best endorsement interview that was conducted. They were very thorough. They didn’t pull any punches. There were no softballs.”
The Voters Coalition supported the creation of an independent inspector general for Palm Beach County government after a series of scandals sent several elected officials to prison. The group was unsuccessful in advocating an elected countywide executive and in opposing term limits for county commissioners, which voters approved in a 2002 referendum.
Ostrow said the Voters Coalition was originally a women’s group, but he got involved in 1983 when it opened its membership to men. The organization tried to combat apathy and get politicians to put voters’ needs ahead of partisanship, Ostrow said. But he said politicians and voters have grown increasingly partisan.
“The times have changed,” Ostrow said. “The polarization is so severe today that nonpartisan doesn’t appeal to most of the public. They’re busy taking sides.”