Gelber Unbound

He managed to leave office without being indicted, which may explain why Miami Beach's former mayor feels free to unload on development, corruption, and the bad boys across the bay

As the sun set on Sunset Island No. 2, the back yard of developer Craig Robins teemed with political luminaries. Dress ranged from severe gray suits to more casual ensembles. But all the big names were in photo-op uniform. Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and Commissioner Simon Cruz. Former Commissioner Abe Resnick. State Rep. Kendrick Meek. Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barreto.

The high-powered crowd had gathered in Robins's yard on June 16 to see and be seen with the guest of honor, the nation's most recognizable gun-control advocate, James Brady. The former press secretary to Ronald Reagan, shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley, was in town to begin a campaign in support of the ballot initiative that would close Florida's "gun-show loophole" for firearm sales.

Three speeches preceded a few words by Brady. Mayors Penelas and Kasdin showed they have both come a long way as orators (though Penelas's ardor still seemed forced, and Kasdin still tended to drone). But it was the retiree among this trio who stole the show. Seymour Gelber -- who as of three days earlier had become the state chairman of the campaign -- used his brief speech as an opportunity to throw down the gauntlet before his true adversary: Charlton Heston.

The narrow-shouldered, 78-year-old ex-judge, in a white shirt and signature bow tie, took the microphone and launched a verbal preemptive strike against the movie-star president of the National Rifle Association. "Children are killing each other, and being killed," Gelber lamented in his high-pitched rasp. "No personality, whatever its charisma, can change this fact. We cannot allow a deep, resonant voice or a Mount Rushmore profile to seduce Florida. Playing the role of Moses doesn't invest you with some special quality," Gelber continued. "I was around in Moses's time" -- here a few chortles arose from the crowd -- "and I can tell you that Charlton Heston isn't going to lead us anywhere."

Seymour Gelber himself is finished with elected leadership roles. But as his enthusiasm for the anti-gun-show initiative illustrates, the former juvenile court judge, three-term Miami Beach mayor, and grandfather of four has not yet closed the book on his public life. He entered Miami Beach City Hall in 1991 with a mandate to eradicate the rampant corruption of the Alex Daoud era. He did that, but new crises arose on his watch. He left in 1997 as the city was entering a period of anti-development activism and developer litigation. While overseeing this transformation, he remained wry, self-deprecating, and aboveboard -- if sometimes cranky.

It's fair to say, in fact, that Seymour Gelber is everything the typical Miami-Dade politician is not. Morally and ethically beyond reproach, he is also largely devoid of political ambition, describing his time as mayor as a "fun adventure" upon which he embarked in his seventies. In office he was a consensus-builder, not a grandstander; he let other commissioners support their pet issues while he tried to establish an atmosphere of decorum where there had once been chaos.

Although officially retired from politics, Gelber is not far removed from the fray. In addition to heading the gun-control campaign (which seeks to bring the sale of weapons at gun shows under the same restrictions as those at shops), he has applied for a seat on the governor's Judicial Nominating Committee, advocated the creation of a law school at Florida International University, become that university's first Executive in Residence at the College of Urban and Public Affairs, and he remains an adviser and confidant to politicos in and out of Miami Beach.

In a series of interviews with New Times, Gelber addressed issues ranging from controversial former Miami Beach/Miami City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, the current Beach commission, and South Florida's re-emergence as the nation's corruption capital.

Gelber doesn't wear the bow tie to breakfast in his Belle Isle condo on the Venetian Causeway. A crisp, olive-green, long-sleeved guayabera and a pair of dark slacks are his uniform now. If anything, the outfit makes the bald and sharp-featured man look even more frail.

Breakfast today consists of bagels, sablefish and lox, cream cheese, and sliced tomatoes. As the repast winds down to sips of pink grapefruit juice and coffee, Gelber shows that he still has a taste for politics, Miami Beach-style. When he left office, he explains, he imposed on himself a six-month moratorium on commenting too directly on the city commission. This interview took place a few weeks before that restraint ended, but his pointed observations had already begun to surface.

Development issues are still in the forefront in Miami Beach. That lot in front of your building [20 Venetian Way, where the commission recently blocked an application by developer Victor Labruzzo to build a 21-story condominium] is a pretty contentious piece of real estate, like many others in town.

The city's got a lot of problems with development in general. I think we're going to get into a cycle of lawsuits now.

It's already begun.
And don't forget that this is a property state. All the laws, statutes, and court decisions favor property owners. That's going to hurt the city in any lawsuit. The city has to maintain the pro-quality-of-life approach, which I think they all stand for. While they're doing that, they have to realize what's going on with their legal responsibilities. And that's what's going on right now with the city. You have commissioners [David] Dermer and [Martin] Shapiro waving the quality-of-life flag, and they're not worried about the lawsuits, because [the consequences] are not here now. It takes time. Meanwhile, politically they're in great shape.

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