Voters over the age of 65 are more likely to show up on election day than any other group — 69.7 percent turned out in the 2012 election, according to the Census Bureau. Now, after a dozen or more presidential votes, area residents talk about their early experiences at the ballot box.
Leisure World resident Belle Dreyfuss said her political exposure began at the dinner table in the 1940s. While World War II was raging, her parents would discuss the fact that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were not able to come to the United States.
“I admired [President Franklin] Roosevelt, but I was a little disillusioned after finding out that his administration would not let in Jews that needed to get out of Europe,” she said.
Dreyfuss has voted in 15 elections dating back to 1956 and said the first time was very exciting, particularly because she had been prevented from voting in 1952, because she had just moved from the District of Columbia to Maryland.
“I was so disappointed in ’52 because I couldn’t vote because of the registration limits,” she said. “At that time you had to live in the state a year and six months in order to register.”
Dreyfuss said she has been involved in Democratic politics for years, including time on the reelection campaign of President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 along with that of Democratic Sen. Joseph Tydings of Maryland.
“It felt very exciting,” she said. “My husband and I used to get a babysitter and go to the Democratic headquarters in Montgomery County.”
Now 88, Dreyfuss bemoans the increasing influence of money in politics and said she is frustrated with the lack of communication between the parties.
“I’m sad that they’re not willing to talk to each other and compromise to get anything done,” she said. “And I’m very upset at the way Republicans have treated [President Barack] Obama, even before he was inaugurated.”
Leisure World resident Paul Bessel became involved in politics even before he was old enough to vote. As a 15-year-old in Queens, N.Y., he campaigned for Johnson in 1964.
“I went up and down the street and talked to people coming home from work about why they should vote for Johnson instead of Barry Goldwater,” he said, referring to the Republican presidential candidate. “I felt like I had such great responsibility. I actually felt like I had the power to change people’s minds that were waiting in the bus line.”
Bessel said his neighborhood ended up voting overwhelmingly for Johnson in the election. But it was an earlier president who inspired hope in the 1960s teenager: John F. Kennedy.
“He was a role model to me, and I think to people of my generation he was just the complete package of what people wanted,” he said.
Bessel said it was Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 that became a factor in his decision to take an interest in politics.
“I was in junior high school and they made an announcement over the PA system, and I clearly remember thinking, what was going to happen to the country now?” he said. “But he had already announced we were going to land a man on the moon and do so many other things.”
Since then, Bessel has not missed an election and has taken an active role in local politics, serving on the Montgomery County Charter Review Commission and staying active in local Democratic clubs. He acknowledged that today’s youth face a political system that has been come increasingly nasty in tone — something he hopes does not send the wrong message.
“Back when I was involved, we would never say a bad word about the other side,” he said. “We would say we disagreed with their position, but we would never call someone a dummy. I hope kids nowadays aren’t being turned off by that.”
For 76-year-old Rockville resident Zahavit Kandel, her political interest began when she was growing up in Israel and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion attended a book fair where she was working. In her first election in 1974, she voted for the party of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“He was a leader and I found him to be a very honest person,” she said. “He was my hero. I admire him a lot.”
Kandel has lived in the United States for 50 years, and holds both American and Israeli citizenship. She has voted in every U.S. election since 1992 and says she has never seen an uglier election than this year’s.
“The quality that they’re missing is to be a mensch,” she said.