Anatomy of a Defeat

Still, in a November 1989 straw vote, Key Biscayne's voters reaffirmed the council's stand against runaway development. Although the county had already given builders the go-ahead, the island's voters registered their overwhelming disapproval of the VMS Realty development, slammed the Hemmeter project, which days later would receive county approval, and resolved to pursue legal action against the two projects until public services on the island were improved. The majority also voted down plans for the proposed stadium (which was eventually downsized to 7000 seats and is set for construction in 1992.)

More important, though, a majority of voters expressed their resentment of the county's seeming insensitivity, by urging the Key Biscayne Council to look into the possibility of secession. "It became clear that we had no other choice, that the county commission would not listen to us, and that we had no real power," says Sime, who had been elected to serve her second two-year term as council chairwoman. "Voters were sick and tired of the commission being hand-in-hand with the developers and not caring about the rest of us."

During the ensuing year, Sime and the council spearheaded the incorporation movement, which divided the island's residents in a debate that pitted those who feared higher taxes and deteriorated public services against those who were tired of the county's treatment of Key Biscayne and wanted self-determination. On November 6, 1990, by a 58-to-42 percent margin, residents voted to break from the county, making Key Biscayne only the second city to incorporate since the Metro charter was adopted in 1957. (Islandia, a largely uninhabited chain of islands south of Key Biscayne, incorporated in 1961.)

A charter for the brand-new municipality was approved by the island's voters this past June, creating a formidable island fortress of wealth, whiteness, and Republicanism. Key Biscayne's population of 8854 includes 4998 non-Hispanic whites, 3790 Hispanics, and 19 non-Hispanic blacks, more bleached than any other municipality except Bal Harbour. Its median house value of $312,500 is higher than that of Coral Gables, and 55 percent of all registered voters align themselves with the GOP, compared to 31 percent who side with the Democratic Party.

The village charter called for an unsalaried mayor, a six-member elected board of trustees, and a paid city manager appointed to administrate the government. Once the new administration was in place, the council would be dissolved. Fourteen candidates filed for the trustees' race, but only Sime and the council's treasurer, Rafael Conte, announced they would run for mayor. Sime's candidacy was no surprise and her positions regarding the issues were well known, but Conte was a mystery. A 21-year resident of the key, he was a top sales executive at Varig Brazilian Airlines, a Rutgers graduate, widower, and father of four. But he had maintained a very low profile in public and on the citizens group. "Conte was a very nice guy who, among the nine members of the council, was the least visible," says Eugene Stearns, who serves as the group's attorney. "He very rarely spoke in council meetings." Conte's resume boasted a solid career in administration, but he lacked the all-American appeal of Sime, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University, a former state-ranked tennis player, mother of several star athletes, and wife of one of the nation's foremost opthalmologists.

Both mayoral campaigns were conducted with a civility befitting Key Biscayne's genteel ambiance. "The candidates were very kind and said nice things about each other," says Dorothea Bailey, who campaigned for Sime. "It wasn't like Miami Beach!" The gentle approach also extended to the candidates' campaign literature. Sime carefully avoided any semblance of confrontation in her mailings, and Conte never mentioned his opponent in either of his two flyers. And neither candidate addressed any of the controversial issues facing the island, particularly the hotel projects or the Lipton stadium. In fact Sime says that at the last minute, she pulled a leaflet that directly contrasted the two candidates' positions regarding several issues.

But the campaigns differed in several ways that subtly mirrored a significant difference between Sime and Conte. Whereas Sime ran a busy campaign with a $7000 budget and more than 100 volunteers, Conte's effort was subdued, with a budget half the size and about a dozen volunteers. "That's my own personality, being low-key and trying not to make a ruckus," says Conte, a tall, soft-spoken, grandfatherly man. "She had more people helping her. If I had five, it was too many."

Part Two
And after more than a year of rancorous debate about incorporation, many residents were hoping to find in the September 3 vote the restoration of calm on their self-described Island Paradise. "People were looking for peace, tranquility, and he gave them that image," says Luis Lauredo, a newly elected trustee. "Conte ran a very low-key campaign in which he projected a style people were looking for."

As an established businessman, Conte also offered -- at least superficially -- the promise of a well-managed village, and restoration of an even political keel. "What I heard up and down the key was that Sime was a housewife who didn't have business experience, while Conte was more of a business type," says James Pavilack, a nineteen-year resident. "For the first time, people wanted someone with business experience." Never mind that Sime had led the citizen's council from its genesis, instigated the incorporation movement, and coordinated opposition to a number of different development issues. After all this is America, where, in the sea of political analysis, voters rarely wade in over their ankles.

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