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

How is Neisen Kasdin handling the mayor's job differently from the way you did?

I think he's doing a good job. I've watched him duel with Dermer and Shapiro. I think he handles himself very well. He's been in government a long time. He came up through the whole committee system. Whenever we were kind of locked up, I'd give him a signal, and invariably he'd come up with some answer that was acceptable to the commission. I think he's a very good mayor. Now he needs to show the community the kinds of leadership that go beyond running a good meeting.

Neisen and I are different in many ways. He's in a position now, if he's looking for a political career, it's ahead of him. He has to be more concerned about alienating people. He moves in different directions when he's trying to take a position -- two steps forward, one step back, then making sure the group he just moved against isn't too offended. Everyone in public office follows that ritual to some extent. But the situation he's facing now, with lawsuits and potential damages, someone in the city has to step forward -- the mayor, the manager, or a commissioner -- and take some steps that will be unpopular, which would be to compromise with the developers.

Now as before, Gelber's political scope extends beyond Miami Beach. As a Jewish liberal, he is clearly more a creature of South Florida's past than its future (or even its present), but his reputation still carries weight. A measure of Gelber's prominence within the larger landscape: When Bruce Kaplan resigned from the Miami-Dade County Commission, Gelber says three commissioners approached him about filling the vacancy until the next election.

Gelber admits he was initially receptive to the idea. But once it became clear that the commission would fill Kaplan's seat via a special election and not appointment by commission vote, he didn't pursue the opportunity. Still, there is no doubt he is a politician with cachet off the Beach, and he continues to keep an eye on the political landscape countywide.

What are your thoughts about single-member voting districts? How have they worked -- for the school board, the county, the City of Miami -- and could they work in Miami Beach?

Well, I think the Beach is too small. The only purpose of districts would be to give some minority representation. During the early debates we had about Hispanic representation, that was brought up. At one point, four years ago, we were considering that. But I was hopeful it would turn out the way it did. Now you don't hear anyone talking about it. We've got two excellent Hispanics on the commission.

What about on the other side of the intracoastal?
It hasn't turned out as bad as I thought it would. The county commission doesn't seem to have broken up into purely district interests. I think the reason for that is that the people who hold the seat have aspirations to go beyond where they are, so they don't want to be identified as provincial politicians. And the school board, which I was really concerned about, so far I haven't seen, other than a few little indications, of it turning so conservative that I would be distressed about it. But that could still happen.

What about the City of Miami?
The City of Miami is in a class of its own. Miami has made virtually no progress. It's still a kill-or-be-killed political city. The civility that ordinarily goes with government, which elected officials try to maintain, I don't think has ever been in the City of Miami. It's a cutthroat political town and it doesn't seem to make much difference who's in charge.

What about strong mayors? How have they worked in Miami and Miami-Dade, and could they work in Miami Beach?

Well, it depends on who you get in there. Penelas has done a good job, but Suarez and Carollo are examples of the problems with the idea. I'm a believer in friction in government, but those two created more than the necessary friction. This is hostility between the commission and the manager.

Some of it exists at the county, I expect, but I don't know if it's reached a point where it's a negative influence on things. I think the fact that they're wary of each other, and a little distrustful, is healthy. If Penelas had complete control of that commission and they all wagged their tails properly, then there would be no watchdog.

Structurally at least, you were a "weak mayor." How would you describe your leadership style, even though your leadership role wasn't as potent as that of all these new executive mayors?

I have always viewed myself a low-key person, always willing to wait out a situation rather than wade into a situation -- wait out, wade into, that's sort of alliteration. Anyway, rather than immediately take on the hand-to-hand combat, I was always willing to take a gain incrementally rather than have the complete ball of wax. I viewed myself as a strong mayor without having to use the kind of bludgeon that strong mayors do. I felt I could accomplish what had to be done without running roughshod and winning by a 4-3 vote. I'd rather win by 6-1. And I had circumscribed goals. I had to stabilize the city, kind of mitigate the atmosphere of corruption, and I did that as soon as I got in.

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