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Forget about anthrax jitters or terrorist sleeper cells. To hear outgoing Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin tell it, there's a more imminent threat, one set to rear its head with the local election this Tuesday, November 6. "The fate of the Beach hangs on Elaine Bloom beating David Dermer in the mayoral race and Saul Gross winning a commission seat," Kasdin declares urgently. "If both of them lose, it will be a step back into the dark ages for Miami Beach, a return to the politics of pandering and out-and-out corruption."
Strong words, but Kasdin is just getting warmed up when it comes to long-time rival Dermer: "He doesn't give a damn about the Beach. He'd sell out this community in a heartbeat if he could fool the public." As for Bloom, "whatever flaws she may have" -- for Kulchur, her calculated discovery of gay rights certainly comes to mind -- "she also has a substantial record of doing great things for this community: preservation, culture, support for diversity."
There are two other candidates for Miami Beach mayor: Commissioner Nancy Liebman and political unknown Oscar Hernandez (whose last-minute entry and spaced-out public ramblings have made more than a few people question his true motives). Neither factor into Kasdin's formulations: "The polling data I've seen shows it's a race between Bloom and Dermer." Thus, while he says he's considered her both a like-minded ally and a friend, "Liebman is third consistently and therefore out of it."
These are bluntly striking statements from a public official who's largely played the role of an above-the-fray statesman, keeping his two mayoral terms of bitter sparring with Commissioner Dermer behind closed doors; watching a Beach commission meeting on TV with the sound turned off, Kasdin often appears like a kindergarten teacher tirelessly attempting to corral his unruly flock. And the crisis he warns of -- a decade's worth of economic benefits and cultural flowering in danger of being undone -- is hard to grasp from a surface reading of Beach politics. In fact the very phrase "Beach politics" is a strange concept to many locals, who are more preoccupied with the spectacle of surf and sin that has defined South Beach internationally. Fewer than 9000 of the city's 88,000 residents voted in the last mayoral contest.
Indeed inside the downtown Miami law offices of Gunster Yoakley, where Kasdin practices, the view from the 35th floor conference room is far from troubling. It reveals a breathtaking sweep of South Beach's pink-and-blue-hued skyline with the glittering Atlantic beyond. Only a large American flag on the wall behind Kasdin's chair alludes to trouble in paradise.
"The formation of the South Beach civic and political community was truly a remarkable thing," Kasdin recalls, "because in the past -- and to this day in most other cities around the country -- the people who own businesses and residents' civic groups are usually locked in deadly battle with opposite ends. But in South Beach there was a seamless integration of the entrepreneurial leadership with civic preservationists." This is the alliance that first elected Kasdin as commissioner in 1991, and then propelled him to the mayor's office in 1997 and again in 1999. Its defining philosophy is simple.
"What's good for residents is good for tourists," Kasdin explains. No one wants an atmosphere like New Orleans's raucous Bourbon Street tourist strip. "It drives away “good' tourists and attracts a certain kind of crowd that in the long run doesn't sustain a tourist economy. It leads to decline. You want to have a real community where people live, work, andvisit.
"The nightlife that helped make the South Beach scene was sophisticated, high-end," he continues. "It may have been a bit Eurotrashy"-- he chuckles with the self-realization that he now sounds like an Ocean Drivecolumnist -- "but it wasnot eighteen-year-olds coming over from Kendall, driving around, drinking beer on Washington Avenue, and then going to an after-hours club. Those kids came to the Beach becauseof the amazing scene that was created by the hip New Yorkers and Europeans."
Quickly warming to the art and science of clubland, he goes on: "At one point the Living Room was the hottest spot around. It didn't help their business when some dive bars opened up next door, attracting a low-rent crowd. Again, what's good for residents is good for tourists: It wasn't the Living Room that was creating problems for the people who lived nearby. It was the dives."
In flusher times many nightclub owners were more than happy to go along with this thinking, thus their support of the city's crackdown on after-hours joints as well as its barring club entry to the under-21 set last year. But the deepening recession and its resultant scarcity of high rollers has brought panic. Now several of these same impresarios are looking for any warm bodies; downtown Miami's Club Space -- once dismissed as hopelessly déclassé -- is seen as a threat with its open-past-dawn hours.
In a conversation with Kulchur, Dermer promised a receptive ear when it comes to easing the Beach's 5:00 a.m. last call for alcohol. He also suggested he's amenable to curbing overzealous code enforcers and fire marshals. Which may explain the substantial Dermer campaign contributions from crobar, Level's Gerry Kelly, and, ironically, Club Space co-owner Luis Puig -- currently readying his own Beach venture in the Lincoln Road slot previously occupied by Michael Capponi's 320 and Chris Paciello's Bar Room. (Shawn Lewis's Joe Black Productions, new owners of the Living Room, made a $500 contribution to Saul Gross, but the check bounced.)