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.

Was last year's charter amendment requiring a referendum to increase the zoning density of waterfront property the landmark event it's been made out to be?

I thought the referendum crystallized the sentiments of the people. But in the election, they ran against an ogre named Thomas Kramer. There was no way anybody was going to support him. I distanced myself [from the "no" campaign] by saying that I was opposed to the amendment but that I didn't support Kramer's group and their campaign tactics.

Still, people on the "yes" side criticized you. What were your reasons for opposing the amendment?

I'm as strong an advocate as they are for quality of life and all the other cliches, and I would just as soon have a small building over here than a large building [he gestures toward the 20 Venetian Way site]. I felt, from the legal point of view, that the amendment would put us in a bad situation, and no matter what was resolved we were going to have to pay a heavy price, either in legal costs and judgments or in what was eventually built. I opposed the referendum primarily because the city attorney declared that it was unconstitutional. Of course, I also voted against it as a voter; I felt that there was a complete lack of understanding on the part of voters of the history of developer lawsuits in South Pointe. That's why we had to make [the Portofino Agreement] with Thomas Kramer. The Portofino Agreement was the best we could do.

And by voting for the amendment the voters effectively killed that agreement.

Right, but they did it because they only looked at the result [of the agreement], at all the tall buildings Portofino was going to put up. I knew that people would be critical of me, and expected they would prevail in the referendum, which they did. But when you're in public office the game shouldn't be played according to the best scenario for the officeholder. I had people who were supporters of mine who said, "I'm not going to ever support you again because you came out against it." I said, "Well, you don't understand the legal ramifications."

Do you fully understand the legal ramifications?
As far as I know, [the referendum] might turn out to be the wisest thing that ever happened to the city, even though I don't think the people who supported it were necessarily wise. They were emotional, or they were taking advantage and benefiting politically by it, pretending that they were big populists. But I don't know whether or not this is going to damage the city. I can sit back and figure out that A-B-C-D is going to happen. [New York developer] Ian Bruce Eichner is going to sue, Kramer is going to sue, we're going to lose most of the judgments based on the kind of state we are. But then they turn around and they work out another compromise that could be damn better than [the Portofino Agreement] we originally worked out.

Among those who are vehemently opposing development on the Miami Beach City Commission, who is sincere and who is posturing?

It's difficult to say. Let's take Martin Shapiro. He's well-liked by his fellow commissioners, although most of them take positions totally contrary to his. He's for the most part civil, he's willing to laugh at himself. I think he's posturing in a political sense by opposing most things that involve expenditures of money. But some of it I think he's very sincere about. He really believes in small community, small government, the Beach as a kind of oversize bedroom community.

Is that constructive?
I think as a commissioner he probably has a role. It doesn't hurt to have one guy on a commission who stands up and opposes almost everything, even though it's a little wearisome to listen to his speeches to the audience. But with elected officials, you have to assume some of that. I think he'd be tragedy as a mayor of a city like this, but as a city commissioner I think there's a role for someone like that.

What about the person who led the referendum drive, David Dermer?
Dermer is a young, ambitious man. Nothing wrong with being young and ambitious. I'm just concerned that Dermer is so ambitious, I don't know who he's willing to tie himself with to be successful. But I don't think that's his biggest problem. I think he and Shapiro are willing to be absolutely reckless in placing the city in precarious positions as far as lawsuits. It's a kind of heroic posture to be fighting for the city against developers and not willing to give an inch. Politically that's a pretty positive thing. So I have some reservations about him, but I also have hopes for him.

What about the two other new commissioners, Jose Smith and Simón Cruz?
Well, I think the city was so fortunate, number one, in electing Hispanics at all, and second, in electing two quality individuals, regardless of whatever their [ethnicity] is. We're just lucky to get two high-quality people like that. I hope they stay in government. This is probably the best commission we've had. It's better than the commission I had, with these two guys.

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.

And I let the word out to the city manager that everybody was at risk here. I had a very good relationship with the state attorney, and I wouldn't hesitate in turning anything over to her office. It would be no problem.

How are Jose Garcia-Pedrosa and [current Miami Beach City Manager] Sergio Rodriguez different, and how have they handled the manager's job in Miami Beach?

Oh, they're completely different. The commissioners like Sergio, but Jose is a force. He comes in and he's a power. I thought the most significant thing he did was restructure all the department heads. He just about cleaned out all the department heads and brought in all new people, and he brought in a better quality department head than had previously existed. When Jose was there, he was all over his staff. And in the communities, Jose, I guess it was a failing maybe, but he didn't go around trying to placate people. He'd just as soon upset people rather than placate them. Sergio, on the other hand, is a go-slow guy. And Sergio used to advise Jose, "You're jumping too fast. This won't work." And Jose would tell me that, and I'd say, "I agree with Sergio. You are." But Sergio is a more contemplative guy who will work slowly, who will be much more available to citizens in a true sense.

How is your relationship with Garcia-Pedrosa these days?
Oh, mine's very good, and close. He calls me asking for advice. Mostly he wants me to tell him he's doing great, I think. I always thought that he was an excellent manager. He made a mistake going over to the City of Miami, but I think he did a good job there.

So you thought going to Miami was the wrong move for him?
I think most people did.

Why did he do it?
He's got a flame inside and he listens to that flame. It was a challenge to him. Don't forget, this isn't a guy who became city manager because he needed a job. He was a highly successful lawyer. So he felt he had received recognition for excellence over at the City of Miami Beach. And I think he had some concerns in the back of his mind about how well he was going to function with Kasdin.

Whatever else he has in mind for his future, it might have been better established by being a success in Miami, which was in chaos. When he came to Miami Beach, we already were out of the morass. [Roger] Carlton had done a lot in terms of budget and turning the city around financially. So Jose did a good job over there in Miami, but he didn't get plaudits for it.

There are still plenty of people on the Beach who grumble about the way he wielded his power.

Oh, I don't think that a manager who is universally admired is much of a manager. I mean, how can you be? You've got to make decisions. It's easy for the mayor to swing with the waves and come out a likable fellow. [He smiles a little.]

Even though you view yourself as having been a strong mayor, you weren't an activist mayor. You weren't pushing a particular agenda.

I was there six years and I never went to a department head and said, "Do this or do that." I gave the city manager complete authority. I would go to the city manager twice a week and sometimes give him hell about a particular department head, but I never directly contacted them. I wrote some very interesting tart notes to the manager about these guys. But a strong mayor doesn't bother with those little niceties of the city manager's authority. Neither Suarez nor Carollo let that bother him. That creates, I think, more problems than solutions.

Today Gelber is dressed somewhere well south of casual. His blue Big Ben jumpsuit and Mickey Mouse slippers indicate he's not going anywhere near FIU today, as he had planned. His shiny aluminum cane suggests the explanation.

"I was gardening yesterday, in my son's garden," he recounts, walking with considerable difficulty to his steel-and-wicker rocking chair, his chair. "And I paid for it. My artificial hip is acting up." He explains that it usually takes a few days for his ersatz joints (he has two of them) to calm down once he's overexerted himself. His visit to FIU will have to wait until later in the week.

As an Executive in Residence, he has a small, concrete-walled space in the offices of the College of Urban and Public Affairs at FIU's North Campus. "It's not a chair," Gelber stresses. "Chairs are endowed, and mean big bucks. Mine is more like a seat." Thus far his duties have included guest-lecturing in government classes, advising the dean of the college, and serving on a few committees at the university. Next year he'll have his own course on government and politics. It's not yet finalized but he's hoping for something at the graduate level so he can deal with "serious students."

Hobbled as he is, Gelber plans to spend much of today working on the memoir he's writing for his grandchildren. "I have a strong sense of family history," he says. The project began as a scrapbook full of faded documents marking his parents' third-class steerage from Austria to New York City, sepia photographs ("I always thought that was me on the horse with the cowboy hat, but I just found out that's my brother," he says of one little boy pictured), and birth certificates. He's been researching and compiling it all into a narrative and has gotten as far as the late Forties, when the entire family moved to Miami Beach. With them came former Army Sgt. Seymour Gelber, who had served in the Army of Occupation in Japan.

The next section will cover his legal career: his graduation from the University of Miami Law School in 1953, his time as a prosecutor under State Attorney Richard Gerstein, and his fifteen-year tenure as a juvenile court judge. He left the bench in 1989, two years before he became mayor.

As he fills his memoir with his own experiences, recent political events in Miami-Dade give him plenty of fodder for his next section, on his late-in-life political career.

With all the recent indictments of politicians, people in the private sector are discussing a concerted effort to stamp out corruption in government. Is this just a lot of talk?

People are beating their breasts, and they'll have marches against corruption, and that's okay. It'll arouse the community. I think we have to look at corruption in structural terms, in the infrastructure of how government works. My philosophy is that in order to have decent government, you have to have friction. There has to be an uncomfortable feeling in everyone who's in office, that "Someone else is looking at me." Otherwise people get too comfortable and sometimes slide into doing things for one another.

What about the City of Miami, the election, vote fraud, and rotating mayors and city managers? What really stands out in your mind as signs that people were too comfortable?

I don't think the City of Miami has operated differently for 20, 30 years. It's always been a very close-knit operation, with a certain power structure inside and outside of government, and it was there long before Hispanics took over. It's embedded in the city. It's so encrusted you'd have to first set off an atom bomb to blow everything up.

The City of Miami Beach has a long reputation of being a corrupt city. I've been here 50 years now, going back to the days when the commissioners were owned by the [mob] syndicate and the hotels. They didn't have any codes of ethics or lobbying or anything, and they were a very comfortable group. Nobody bothered them, and the community accepted it.

Whose responsibility is it to break up that kind of cozy situation?
It has to be done by the officeholders themselves, and the only way that could happen would be if groups like the Chamber of Commerce and the Non-Group and Mesa Redonda -- if they put enough pressure on the elected people.

You were a prosecutor. What about the role of the State Attorney's Office in rooting out corruption?

One of the basic things that has been overlooked is how the government operates internally. To fight corruption, you go to the roots, not who's going to root it out. Beefing up the prosecutor's office and the police, sure, that's okay. But the more significant way to fight corruption is internally, to build up forces within the city, checks and balances. You have to start digging right into the heart of government, and not just sit back and say, "We're going to refer this to that State Attorney."

The State Attorney has done a decent job, but that's defensive. You have to go on the offensive. Leadership can create an environment that, if you commit a corrupt act, the likelihood is high that you will be detected and arrested. That will is not there in most governmental operations.

And this is the responsibility of elected officials? Who do you think could assume this kind of role countywide?

There are people like Jimmy Morales and Katy Sorenson and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Betty Ferguson on the county commission. There are some high-quality county commissioners who would be more than adequate at doing something like that. But you need not only elected officials but the managers, too. That's my response on corruption. Nobody has asked me, though. [He laughs.]

You've had this sort of pent up for a while.
Well, I've been thinking about it, waiting to see what they're going to do.

What about this area's tendency to re-elect the indicted?
Well, [jailed former Miami City Commissioner Humberto] Hernandez might run this afternoon and get elected again because of some personal feelings his supporters have. That generally doesn't happen in the political field. The voters don't have a bond with the officeholder in 90 percent of the cases. With [Raul] Martinez they did. With Hernandez they did. But I can tell you that here on the Beach, I thought I was fairly popular, but I didn't have any bond. Nobody would say, "I'm gonna vote for Gelber no matter what." I mean, if the first thing came out that I beat my wife Edith or something, I'm gone. And that's good. Penelas is very popular right now, but if something happens next week, he's gone.

You don't sense he has that same level of loyalty?
No, no, I don't think so. Maybe he'll develop it, but I think you develop that by being a kind of pothole mayor or commissioner, dealing with people on a one-to-one basis. People call and say, "There's a bunch of water out in front of my house," and somebody comes. It's not by making great pronouncements.

So if you weren't able to get that kind of unconditional support, why did you run for mayor in the first place -- and so late in life?

Running for mayor of Miami Beach was not some big goal I had. I thought that being a judge was really a higher calling. I really didn't want to get involved in politics here, because the city had a reputation for very dirty politics. Although I had lived here for 50 years, I never felt the job was worthy of me. But in 1991 I had a long discussion with myself and I decided, since I wasn't risking my career or my name, that I could run. The very fact that I had nothing to lose, that I wasn't looking to develop a political career ahead of me, would make this a fun adventure for me. And it was.

What would be your own greatest criticism of your tenure as mayor?
I felt that I failed to become involved seriously with the plight of children, which really had motivated my career as a juvenile court judge. I never worked especially hard at developing programs for children in Miami Beach. I also just about ignored the homeless. Those are two areas where I could have done a lot more. Of course, as I said, I didn't come in with a program, and I never viewed that as negative, but some might say that it was.

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