The Case of the Invisible Candidate

, The 107th District state House race provides a mystery worthy of Dashiell Hammett

In the campaign papers he filed in July Klayman listed as his address an apartment in the Skylake area of North Dade. (Under state law, a candidate doesn't have to live in the district he runs in; if he wins the election, he is required move to there within six months.) The Skylake home actually belonged to his mother, Hana Klajman, but no one answered repeated phone calls. A visit to a Democratic fundraiser and candidate forum in North Dade was hardly any more fruitful. "Never heard of him," everyone said.

A Skylake resident said Hana Klajman's son Isaac wasn't a very friendly sort, and that she thought he worked "as a school crossing guard on Miami Beach." This didn't jibe with the financial-disclosure form he'd filled out. On that document, which is required of all candidates, he listed "self-employed tourism activities" as his job. Total earnings in 1993: $5000. His past career included a short stint as a substitute school bus driver in 1990 (he was let go almost immediately, according to county personnel records, because he failed the training). He disclosed ownership of a Miami Beach co-op apartment valued at $23,000, plus $2500 in a First Nationwide bank account, held jointly with his mother.

Despite his seemingly limited income Klayman had made a $2000 personal loan to his own campaign, spending $1743 of it on his filing fee. The candidate was still nowhere to be found, but some details, at least, had emerged from the murk.

There would be more -- and better -- to come. On June 28 Andres Rivero had met with Henry "Kiki" Berger at Kampai Japanese restaurant on South Bayshore Drive. At five-feet-seven and 280 pounds, Berger was another heavy man, with an equally weighty reputation as one of the savviest political operatives in Dade. He was also, in his own words, a "very good friend" of Al Gutman and had advised Gutman on every one of his campaigns, often without pay. He was a corporate officer in at least one real estate firm in which Gutman was listed as the registered agent. Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, a former Gutman staffer asserted, "Kiki and Gutman act as one."

The Gutman-Berger camp had been criticized repeatedly in the Miami Herald for allegedly engaging in dirty campaign tactics, including the use of decoy candidates. The Herald also published stories asserting that Gutman used his office to push for legislation and state funding that could benefit friends and cronies, Berger included. A 1990 controversy involved $320,000 in state funds awarded over a three-year period to the National Association for Crime Prevention (thanks to lobbying by then-Rep. Gutman). The nonprofit group was singled out by the Herald for wasting money and using little of its bankroll to carry out promised programs. The organization's secretary was Kiki Berger, who received a payment of nearly $12,000. The Dade State Attorney's Office also explored allegations that equipment donated to the group by the City of Miami -- including 24 old squad cars and several radios -- was used to round up voters for Gutman-backed candidates; owing to insufficient evidence, says one county prosecutor, no charges were ever pressed. Both Berger and Gutman repeatedly denied engaging in any unethical or illegal conduct.

Eyewitnesses gave differing accounts of the June 28 meeting, but this much seemed clear: Kiki Berger had been accompanied by attorney David Dermer (a former candidate for the Miami Beach Commission); Rivero, too, brought along a friend, Alan Rolnick. Also reportedly at the meeting was Dade County Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Geller. (According to Berger, Geller had in fact arranged the meeting. But when asked about his role, Geller would only say after a long pause, "I wouldn't have any comment on that.")

One account of the meeting goes as follows:
"Alberto and I, we like you and we don't want to see you hurt," Berger allegedly told Rivero, recommending that the candidate consider seeking another seat, such as the District 111 spot held by Republican Carlos Valdes, the man who admitted defacing a condominium building in a dispute with its condo association. "There's a [political] machine in this district," Berger is said to have continued. "It's my machine, but I'm neutral on this race. Alberto and I are not going to get involved. But Bruno [Barreiro] knows how to run the machine."

If Rivero remained in the race, Berger reportedly said, "They're going to go after you. They're going to put pressure on you and pressure on your family. They're going to say that you're a communist because you went to Harvard. And they're going to put a Jewish Democrat in the primary against you."

Rivero refused to say anything about the Kampai meeting except to confirm that it took place.

Berger was more expansive. He recalled the conversation and confirmed some details of the eyewitness account while disputing others. He was especially adamant about one point: Regarding suspicions that he might have had a role in mounting the Klayman campaign, he said, "Who? That's ridiculous. It's not true."

The way Berger saw it, his discussion with Rivero was simply an effort to help his "good friend" Joseph Geller by sharing his political wisdom with an up-and-coming Hispanic Democrat. Despite his long association with the Republican Gutman, he said he was a registered Democrat; and like Geller he wanted to see more Hispanic Democrats in the legislature. He remembered mentioning the political machine in the district and saying he and Gutman would remain neutral. At no point in the conversation did he make any threats, veiled or otherwise, he insisted; he was only offering a history lesson about what a rough district the 107th has been. What he was altruistically reminding the newcomer was that "every Democrat who runs there has a hard time. What if a Jewish Democrat runs against you? They'll knock you out." Berger said he raised the issue only to warn Rivero how vulnerable he was.

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