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Sitting at a desk in his office, which is in a strip mall on Collins Avenue, Dave Samson thrusts his large head forward. The palms of his hands press on his desktop, supporting the weight of his squat torso. He wears a white polo shirt. What is left of his hair seems to be electrically charged, springing outward in unruly gray-white strands. His voice adopts the bemused and chintz-laden cadences of W.C. Fields, leavened with an edge of hard-boiled Chicago bravado. “This will be the jooo-uhl of North Dade County,” says the 83-year-old mayor of Sunny Isles Beach, referring to his city near the Broward County border. His full Edward G. Robinson lips take on a pink-purple hue as they pucker around the word “jewel,” and he extends his short right arm forward, jabbing an index finger down repeatedly on the wood of his desk. “The jooo-uhlof North Dade County,” he repeats, thumping away.
Before him, resting to his right on an artist's easel, is an emblem of what he hopes will be his legacy: a five-by-one-and-a-half-foot painting that shows condominium high-rises jutting up like white corrugated game pieces on land before a teal sea. Indeed the luxury towers give an angular geometric beauty to the painting; they are everything the old two-story motels that once gave Sunny Isles Beach its signature charm are not.
Samson's city lies between Haulover Cut and Golden Beach along a 1.7 mile stretch of coastline no wider than a half-mile at some points. To the east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the west the Intracoastal Waterway. With a population of 13,871, it is the thirtieth and most recent of Miami-Dade County's enclaves to incorporate as a city. Three years old this past June, it has been experiencing an identity crisis practically since its first day as a municipality. Elderly residents vie with young renters for power. Old-style delis compete with classy restaurants. Big buildings contrast with small, quirky tourist hotels. Indeed several more towers are slated to go up, and developers are targeting the purchase of the remaining open land.
About ten years ago, when Sunny Isles Beach dwellers began pondering incorporation, they wanted better services and a government that would enforce zoning regulations and control development. Samson pledged to deliver just that. But today an ever-growing group of critics contends he has reneged on his promises, caved in to developers' wishes at the expense of small-business owners, and annihilated the area's former identity. They say Samson, who walks with the aid of a three-wheel walker, is a corrupt megalomaniac whose tenure as mayor is casting a shadow over the city.
Since Samson's election three years ago, only weeks after the city's residents voted for incorporation, he has managed to make enemies of many former friends and supporters in Sunny Isles Beach, where 34 percent of the population is over 70 years of age. Samson-baiting and Samson-sniping have become a sort of recreational sport. Among other seniors former FBI agent, now private dick W. Donald Stewart, age 75, has been particularly vocal, appearing at public meetings and writing letters to the local press. He has criticized Samson on subjects ranging from poor public park development to outright corruption. Stewart's efforts have triggered a State Attorney's Office (SAO) investigation of Samson's activities.
A trio of younger residents, angered by the deaf ear they claim Samson has turned toward their concerns, say they are preparing to launch a recall effort. Nadine Litterman, John Wiggins, and Richard Davis, all tenants at Century Towers, an eighteen-story complex that accounts for a large segment of the city's renters, argue that Samson participated in the creation of a zoning code that doesn't meet federal standards. Furthermore they say Samson has been unfair, forcing small businesses to comply with the code, while routinely (with commission support) granting variances to big developers. “We seem to have uncontrolled growth on the beach, and it is a genuine embarrassment to have him as our most visible leader,” says Wiggins.
Samson declined to respond to his critics' claims and refused comment on the SAO probe. Although he spoke with New Timeson June 22 for about an hour about his biography, a week later he balked at answering further questions after learning his critics had been contacted. Sunny Isles Beach Commissioner Danny Iglesias disputes the claims of Samson's detractors. He says development is being carefully planned and controlled in the new city. “Samson is the most hard-working gentleman and has been involved in improving the community for many years,” Iglesias opines. “You look at where this place was three years ago and where it is now. We were like a stepchild to the county and now things are booming.”
Born in Chicago, Samson has been in the business of building businesses and dealing with famous and infamous personalities almost as far back as he can remember. He says he pumped gas for Al Capone, delivered Maria Shriver to grammar school, and has known every one of the Kennedys except their patriarch, Joseph.
Samson is the son of owners of a mom-and-pop grocery store. His college education was cut short when his father became ill during the Great Depression and young Samson joined his mother in running the family store. His father eventually recovered and bought a bankrupt gas station in Cicero, Capone headquarters since the 1920s. “I knew Al Capone.” Samson boasts. Then he yells, “Don't print that!”