Anatomy of a Defeat

Betty Sime had Key Biscayne's first mayoral election so deep in her pocket that several of her closest friends didn't even bother to vote. "I had people the day of the election calling me up, saying, `Well, we're not going to be at the election party tonight, but we wanted to congratulate you on winning,'" Sime recalls, shifting forward on a chair in the living room of her cedar-and-glass house overlooking Biscayne Bay. "And I had supporters who gave me parties and donated money and didn't vote that day!" Sime throws up her arms, lets out an abbreviated laugh of dismay, and sinks back in the chair. An expression of calm tinged with frustration settles across the soft features of her face as she gazes out beyond her two German shepherds lumbering around the pool deck. "It's always the kiss of death when you think you've got it made."

If so, the Grim Reaper of the Polls enjoyed some heavy petting with Sime this past September 3. While she luxuriated in confidence and her friends prematurely saluted victory, other voters slipped in and out of the polling booths. At about 9:00 p.m., the final tally was announced and the champagne went flat in the Sime camp: She had lost by 60 votes, 1236 to 1176. "It was one of the true real surprises in politics in the last couple of years," says Philip Hamersmith, a South Florida political strategist. "No matter what anybody says, it was a complete surprise."

Hamersmith would find few dissenters on Key Biscayne, where residents are still trying to figure out why Sime lost. She was the island's most visible and determined civic activist, the 53-year-old leader of its successful incorporation movement, a foe of encroaching development, a 21-year resident, a household name. Her opponent, Rafael Conte, was a 66-year-old airline executive who had sat quietly on the island's ad hoc citizens' council and said little. He was the quintessential dark horse. In fact some residents, wanting to stem a landslide victory and preserve the island's cultivated neighborliness, checked Conte's name on the mayoral ballot out of politeness. But in conversations from the docks of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club to the breakfast counter at Vernon's Pharmacy, residents posit several reasons for Sime's fall at the polls, not the least of which was her triumph in the incorporation battle that made the election possible in the first place.

Sime (pronounced simm) emerged on the nascent Key Biscayne political scene at the same time the island's relationship with the Metro-Dade Commission began to sour, and murmurs about incorporation became talk. She marks the start of war with the commission in October 1987, when the county uprooted a hammock of native trees along Crandon Boulevard to build a pedestrian underpass to the International Tennis Center, site of the Lipton International Players Championships. Sime led public meetings and a demonstration against the tree removals. At one point, she and several other indignant residents actually faced off against a bulldozer on the median. Public outcry forced the county to replace the trees and the state legislature to declare Crandon Boulevard a historic road.

"It was the most open, flagrant lack of communication between the county and the people out here, because no one ever really understood they were going to bulldoze trees," Sime recalls. "They had done a lot of things, but this was such an overt lack of caring about what the people thought."

The controversy precipitated the election, on November 17, 1987, of the Key Biscayne Council, nine residents who would serve as a liaison between the island and the county. "In essence it was a lobbying group, but it was a legally elected body and had more influence than any other group on the island," says Sime, who emerged as the council's chairwoman. "It was very necessary, since we had nobody to really speak for residents on the island."

Sime quickly became synonymous with the council's efforts to check development and other threats to Key Biscayne's delicate environmental and social equilibrium. The citizens' group scuffled with the county over plans to build a 12,000-seat stadium at the tennis center and a lavish 33,000-square-foot clubhouse that included a hair salon, a restaurant, and an aerobics studio. They fought bitterly against two hotel-and-condominium projects that would have added more than 2700 new dwelling units to the island of lush subtropical vegetation and white-sand beaches. "We're not antidevelopment, we just want reasonable development so it doesn't destroy what we have out here," Sime explains.

But the council had limited success getting through to the county commissioners and affecting the projects. "We'd speak and speak and speak and they'd ignore us, they'd interrupt us when we were talking," says Sime, her voice rising in frustration at the memory of countless commission meetings. "It was like talking to a blank wall. We felt naively that if we had this elected group and we went before the commission and explained why we didn't want this excessive development, that they would listen. But we were wrong."

The council did manage to force the county to downsize the Lipton clubhouse to one-third of its proposed size, but was unable to reduce or block the stadium, or make any headway in negotiations with the county and the hotel-condo development companies, Hemmeter Development Continental and VMS Realty Partners.

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