The Case of the Invisible Candidate

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

Like many tips, this one came at the racetrack. But it wasn't about a horse.
At a Hialeah Race Course fundraiser for Gov. Lawton Chiles, a young lawyer in suspenders came over with a story to tell. "Looking for something interesting to write about?" said the hotshot. "Check into the Democratic primary race for the state House of Representatives in District 107. Andres Rivero is a really good candidate," he went on, explaining that the former assistant U.S. Attorney would be one of very few Hispanic Democrats in the legislature if he managed to get elected. "He's being opposed by a guy no one's ever seen. He won't show up at any candidate forums, he won't answer questions from anyone, no one has even seen a picture of him. His name is Isaac Klayman, and it looks like he's a plant to draw Jewish votes away from Rivero. The rumor is he's a 300-pound Lubavitcher.

"If you find him," the lawyer added, "you'll have yourself a real scoop."
How hard could it be to find a 300-pound Lubavitch Jew who's running for public office? Very hard, as it turned out. This is Dade County, after all, where the political hardball players have more moves than a Niekro knuckle ball, and backroom methods of manipulation that make G. Gordon Liddy look greener than the waters of Biscayne Bay.

The district the pols are fighting over is a real prize. It comprises South Beach, Key Biscayne, eastern Little Havana, the north Grove, Brickell, and the neighborhood known as The Roads, even waterfront areas of the Gables. It's based on District 105 A State Sen. Alberto Gutman's old House district -- before the 1992 redistricting. The incumbent is freshman Republican Rep. Bruno Barreiro, who succeeded Gutman after he ran for state senate. Republicans (mostly Hispanics) hold a slight edge among the 107th's 33,400 registered voters. Not many Democrats bother with the Democratic primary (only 3800 voted in '92). The ones who do are overwhelmingly Anglo; nearly half are Jews, according to political analysts. In the 107th, Jews count for a lot.

Some suggested that had Klayman been inserted into the race to divert votes from Rivero, it would be impossible to nail down blame. "Any number of people could have arranged a phony candidacy," one Democratic official hedged, suggesting that Bruno Barreiro and his supporters were likely suspects. That official was in the minority; few political experts, Democrat or Republican, suspected Barreiro of having a direct hand in arranging Klayman's candidacy. "He's too politically naive to think up something like this," opined one GOP legislator. Barreiro emphatically denied any knowledge of how Klayman entered the race, and said of the use of planted candidates, "I don't run that kind of campaign."

One name in particular did keep recurring whenever conversations turned to the Klayman campaign: Al Gutman. Over the years rumors and suspicious incidents trailed Gutman like a barking dog. He and his allies had a legacy of alleged campaign shenanigans that led one Gutman-hater to note that "they have a feudalistic sense that this is their district, and turning it over to Andres Rivero is unthinkable."

Certainly the Klayman mystery had Gutman's M.O. all over it.
Steven Leifman, who ran against Gutman in 1990 and Bruno Barreiro in 1992, scoffed, "An extremely well-qualified candidate, Andres Rivero, is facing a totally unknown, unqualified candidate with a Jewish last name. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what's going on here. It's outrageous."

Eladio Armesto III agreed, recalling a 1988 incident in which he stayed out of the Democratic primary after a Jewish candidate, Gary Alan Fried, filed for a spot. Two minutes after the filing deadline, Fried himself withdrew and asked state officials to refund his qualifying fee. (They did.) According to the Miami Herald Fried was the son-in-law of Gutman's close friend Alfredo Zayden, who has since died. Gutman, who faced no Democratic opposition that year, denied any improprieties. "They're doing the same thing they've always done," Armesto said of the Klayman candidacy. "They're experts at it."

In 1986 the fiancee of one of Gutman's business partners entered the Democratic primary against A.J. Daoud, Gutman's main rival. (Daoud is also the nephew of Alex Daoud, the now-imprisoned ex-mayor of Miami Beach.) Daoud won, but lost to Gutman in the general election. He said at the time that the primary race against Betty Malver had drained his resources.

Though he has publicly denied all such accusations, Gutman's name was also linked to campaigns that were notable for more blatant tactics. He and consultant Armando Gutierrez (a friend of Barreiro), served as advisors in Bruce Kaplan's nasty 1993 campaign for Metro commissioner against Conchy Bretos.

Asked specifically about Isaac Klayman's candidacy Gutman declared, "I don't answer to these sorts of ridiculous suspicions. I haven't gotten involved in that [District 107] race at all. When [his critics] have evidence, they can come talk to me."

Was there at least a vague connection between Gutman and the shadow candidate, as there had been in Daoud's and Armesto's campaigns? It would be difficult to find out without tracking down the elusive Isaac Klayman. After all, as his opponent Andres Rivero said, "This candidate is a mystery to me. I just don't understand why he's not doing any personal campaigning." Indeed, Klayman wasn't making any public appearances and declined virtually all interviews. To top it off, his roadside signs listed the wrong district number. If the candidacy turned out to be a setup, Rivero added, "it would be the lowest, sleaziest trick around."

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.

One meeting and two accounts that were as disconcertingly divergent as a thunderstorm on a sunny day.

Meanwhile Isaac Klayman was coming into slightly better focus. A source who claimed to be acquainted with Klayman's run suggested that a set of written questions be faxed to the candidate via PR consultant Randall Hilliard. Could it be that Hilliard A who worked as a paid advisor to Gutman during his 1990 state House race and who was hired by millionaire Jonathan Tisch, CEO of the Loews Hotel firm, to lobby the City of Miami Beach for a convention hotel agreement -- had taken on Isaac Klayman as a client?

Hilliard declined to comment about his role in the Klayman effort. But the faxed questions were answered in writing and they showed a remarkably shrewd grasp of populist political rhetoric. Asked about his political experience, Klayman replied: "I have never run for political office nor have I been involved in traditional party politics. The only experience I have is working with people to achieve results. In my opinion, this is the highest qualification to hold public office.... State government would work better if there were fewer lawyers and more people with backgrounds like mine."

He also offered a clear (albeit improbable) explanation for his virtually invisible campaign. He had not responded to any questions from endorsing organizations, he asserted, because "I am uninterested in being beholden to any special-interest group. I am going to take the message of my campaign directly to the special interest who matters the most -- people."

Hardly had the fax paper cooled when -- virtually out of the blue -- the brass ring swung into view. An intermediary arranged a phone interview with the elusive candidate himself.

Halting and heavily accented, his speech curiously lacked the crisp authority of his written replies to questions. But speak he did. Why is he running for office? "I've always been a service type of people; this would be a good position to do some good," he said.

He was less articulate when asked about the "tourism activities" he had listed on campaign-filing documents: "We help the tourists coming here, a lot of promotions...." And his clients? "A number of hotels.... We helped get the tourists."

When asked if he had any plans for campaigning he replied, "I've seen a certain number of people." He planned to make his first public appearance very soon, though he wouldn't say where.

The $2000 campaign loan was mentioned. (Failure by a candidate to report campaign contributions would constitute a misdemeanor criminal violation of Florida election law, according to a spokesman at the State Attorney's Office.) "It came out of the savings account A the cash in the bank," Klayman said. And why would he draw out such a large portion of the $2500 account he shared with his mother? "I think I would do a lot of good in the position. They say good things are worth the money."

Klayman denied ever meeting with Kiki Berger, Alberto Gutman, or any of their representatives. He said "a friend" recommended that he go to publicist Hilliard for assistance. And he dismissed allegations that he was put into the primary by Republicans: "I have no control over what people think or say.... If your name is on the public list, they'll attack you."

And finally Klayman addressed the burning issue of the day: Was he really a 300-pound Lubavitcher? Yes and no. His weight was steady A about 300 pounds A as was his attendance at the Shul of Bal Harbour. But he didn't consider himself to be a member of the Lubavitch religious community.

Perhaps his religious affiliation had a role in shaping his visionary platform, which voters would now be able to ponder as the September 8 primary approached. His main goal, Klayman stated, was to bring more "activities" to senior citizens. "Since the Beach has been taken over by young people it's very difficult for them," he said.

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