By Michael E. Miller
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The weight of the moment is getting to Martin Shapiro. The wiry 63-year-old sits uncomfortably in his dark gray suit before the 100-odd residents, candidates, and press seated in rows of aluminum chairs within the whitewashed walls of the public Normandy Isle Golf Course clubhouse. He waits his turn to make his opening comments at this candidates' forum, the first official public appearance of his on-again, off-again, on-again campaign for mayor of Miami Beach. Precluded from running again for his city commission seat because of term limits, Shapiro must win the mayor's seat to stay in office. Two other candidates, Mike Calhoun and Leslie Martinez-Botet, sit on the fringes and are just that -- fringe candidates unlikely to be factors in the November 2 mayoral race.
Shapiro's real rival is the bullet-shaped, 44-year-old incumbent. "Neisen Kasdin has been a total failure as the mayor of Miami Beach," Shapiro declares, his dark eyes flashing like chipped obsidian as he launches his first salvo of the night.
Martin Shapiro has long fancied himself the watchdog of the public's money. His ten-year career on the Miami Beach City Commission has been marked by a tendency to be the lone dissenting vote, often against what he sees as profligate city budgets or unnecessarily generous pacts with private developers. On this early October night, the watchdog becomes an attack dog.
"He [Kasdin] supported a 13.5 percent increase in sales tax on everything except groceries and medicine," Shapiro recounts, referring to Kasdin's support of the penny sales tax. His voice is forceful but constricted. Despite a sprinkling of hisses from the crowd, Shapiro forges ahead. "He voted for an $8.6 million increase in city spending in this year's budget. He voted for an $85 million bond issue. I want to ask you, whose side is he on?"
As Shapiro sits down, visibly trembling from an adrenaline surge, about half of those assembled applaud. His stage fright, which exacerbates his Bob Newhart-esque stammer, is a bit puzzling, given his years of public service, the fact that he's a lawyer, and his tendency to play to the audience from his seat on the dais during commission meetings at city hall. That he would take the fight directly to Kasdin (also an attorney), who won the mayorship two years ago, after term limits ended his six-year run as a commissioner, is no surprise. Shapiro is trying to pull off an unlikely come-from-behind victory in this race, and he knows it. After having declared his candidacy for mayor early this year, he withdrew in May and instead entered the race for state representative for House District 106. Then in September, with less than two months to go before the November elections, he re-entered the mayor's race. In the meantime Kasdin had been plugging away at his campaign all year, and as of October 1, he had amassed a war chest of some $190,000. Shapiro's tally on October 19: $29,900.
Shapiro works that small-money image: He is "Not for Sale," according to the campaign slogan that began appearing on posters and newspaper ads mere days after his aggressive gambit at the nineteenth hole. With his campaign beginning in earnest so close to election day, he's stressing what he sees as his clear advantage in this race: his reputation as an independent voice for the people of Miami Beach. This is clear as he maintains his attack on Kasdin throughout the 30-minute question-and-answer session. He paints Kasdin as overfriendly with private developers, including Thomas Kramer, from whom Kasdin and two other candidates accepted illegal contributions in their 1993 city commission races. He also alleges a cozy relationship between the mayor and "certain lobbyists."
"Not for Sale" is a reputation Shapiro has nurtured during his long public service, first in Bay Harbor Islands, then in his adopted hometown of Miami Beach. Especially during his latest four-year commission term, Marty Shapiro consistently has positioned himself as an outsider who just happens to be sitting with those dirty old politicians. His frequent lone vote against big budgets and development deals has enabled him to strike the pugnacious posture of an anti-incumbency candidate, even though he's been on the commission longer than any of his colleagues.
Shapiro's general contrariness, anti-development votes, and power base among the aging but still influential bloc of dwellers from "condo canyon" could add up to a surprise victory over Kasdin's combination of moderation and big-bucks South Beach backers.
Yet Mr. Not for Sale has some vending problems of his own. Shapiro has tiptoed around a conflict of interest or two: Court and city legislative records prove that, at least once, Shapiro's legal representation of a condominium association conflicted with his duties as a commissioner. On one occasion he voted on an agenda item that had a direct financial impact on his private legal client. Shapiro's votes against a controversial proposed high-rise on Collins Avenue are also questionable. Although none of those votes took place while he was on a neighboring condo's payroll as its lawyer, his consistently negative stance against the Collins project coincided with his work for the condo.
And even given Shapiro's late start in fundraising, his railing against "Kasdin's political machine" and its money rings a bit hollow. There is in fact a significant "Anyone but Kasdin" machine, and it's cranking up to swell Shapiro's coffers. Among those backing Shapiro: developer R. Donahue "Don" Peebles, a former Kasdin supporter who has declared he will raise money for Shapiro this time around. He began to do so weeks before the commission voted for a zoning change that would favorably hike the building density for one of Peebles's properties. Shapiro voted for it, despite his rabid anti-development rhetoric. That he would do so on behalf of a major campaign donor suggests he's more willing to play politics as usual than his ads would like you to believe.