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Yet despite the millions going to the Democratic National Committee, the local Democratic party is perpetually strapped for funds and constantly in debt. Though Geller maintains the story was erroneous and planted by political rivals, the Miami Heraldreported in 1998 that the local DEC owed $4000 in unpaid rent and had lost its headquarters in Coral Gables. (Ray Zeller, president of the Dante Fascell Democratic Club, complains the DEC has changed offices five or six times in as many years. Geller insists they have only moved twice, with one month “between offices.”) These days the party operates out of one cramped room, open by appointment only, in a building on Biscayne Boulevard.
It hasn't helped matters that for four years Geller has been at war with the most powerful unions in town. In 1996 AFL-CIO labor leader Cindy Hall was part of a coalition to unseat Geller as chair. Hall claims Geller boasted he didn't need organized labor. She and her coalition lost the party elections, and when Geller emerged victorious, he found the AFL-CIO labor council would no longer contribute to the party or allow the DEC to meet in certain labor-owned offices. Geller denies he disparaged labor and points to support from other unions, including the International Longshoremen's Association.
“It's pretty hard to follow when [the DEC says] they don't need you but they want your money,” says Hall, who has urged Geller to resign and pleads, “Let the party pull itself together.”
Yet the party's financial irregularities go beyond the lack of support for a key labor constituency. For three years, from 1997 until late this past June, the DEC owed the county nearly $4000 in fines for filing delinquent campaign reports. By appealing to the Florida Elections Commission, the chapter whittled down the sum from more than $20,000; the penalty was finally paid, in part with money the DEC raised selling five tables at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.
Geller responds rather testily to the criticism. This is a volunteer position, after all, he says, and he has to earn a living and have a personal life. He notes that many DEC members don't even contribute the $200 per year they are supposed to bring in themselves.
““Well, Joe can't raise money,'” he groans, mimicking the complaints. “Gee, I have to raise [all the money], too?” he asks. “I give thousands. There are plenty of times when a phone bill has to be paid and I just write a check. Sometimes I wouldn't even put it through the DEC council.”
It's hard to raise money for local parties, he argues, when the donor pool already has been tapped. Local Democrats often are last in line at the till for state and national fundraisers like the Jefferson-Jackson dinner nor can they attract celebrity guest speakers of their own. “Of course you can't raise any money,” he explains. “You're in competition. They're bringing in the president, the vice president, a member of the cabinet, and a senator from up north, a congressman, and the governor. And what do we have?”
Democratic fundraiser Sylvan “Sonny” Holtzman, who raised money for late two-term Gov. Lawton Chiles, disagrees. He suggests all the money available for politics here in South Florida should serve as an incentive for the local parties to be among the strongest in the nation. Donors would give to the county party if they knew the funds were targeted for specific goals, he adds. But the chaotic finances have deterred would-be donors.
Geller's solution has been to beg for handouts from the state and the national parties. “We can't compete [for Democratic dollars] without some kind of revenue sharing,” he says. “If we got one percent of what [the state and national Democratic organizations] raised here, God, what we could do in terms of professional staff.”
That's not good enough for some of his critics, who note that for his upcoming election, Geller has raised, by his own estimate, about $111,000. At the same time, the DEC has raised about $50,000 for the party, he admits.
In contrast to the Democrats, the Miami-Dade Republican Party chairwoman contends it has no problem raising funds locally. Executive committee chairwoman Mary Ellen Miller says Republicans hold regular breakfasts, charging just $10 to $15 a head, at which grassroots activists can mingle with their elected officials. And unlike the Democrats, county Republicans host an annual fundraising dinner, the Lincoln-Dade, exclusively for themselves.
It's a recent Saturday evening at a palatial home in Miami Shores. An afternoon meeting of the Miami-Dade Gore Steering Committee has given way to an outdoor reception. A sumptuous spread of fruit and cheese is laid out over several tables on a tree-shaded patio near a small pond.
America Schroh, president of the Dominican-American Democratic Council, declines the offer of caviar from a young waiter as she explains how difficult it has been for the 128 members of her club to get involved with the Miami-Dade DEC. It took several years, in fact, just to get the DEC to register the club. (Geller says the process is still under way.) She's only here tonight, she confides, because she demanded the right to be present.