The Comeback Kid Does South Beach

Angry Jewish machers, a SoBe club mogul, and Bill Clinton in the middle

In 1999 Rodham entered into a $118 million hazelnut deal in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Rodham's Georgian partner was accused of attempting to overthrow the Georgian government -- a U.S. ally -- and using the former public defender as a shield.

Most recently Rodham again made national headlines when he received $400,000 to successfully lobby for two presidential pardons during the final days of Clinton's administration. (He eventually gave the money back.) Given this track record, it's little wonder that a senior Clinton White House official told the New York Times last year: "You never wanted to hear [Rodham's] name come up in any context other than playing golf."

In late January, after initially announcing Clinton's imminent arrival, Kelly was more than willing to crow of his close friendship with Rodham -- and how that bond had been parlayed into a Clinton visit -- to Herald nightlife columnist Lesley Abravanel, as well as the Daily Business Review. But once those boasts appeared in print, both Kelly and Ray Zeller, executive director of Kids in Dade (on whose board Kelly sits), received irate phone calls from Clinton's staff. Both men say they were ordered to stifle themselves.

Oh brother-in-law, where art thou? Hugh Rodham tangles up Bill Clinton -- again
Steve Satterwhite
Oh brother-in-law, where art thou? Hugh Rodham tangles up Bill Clinton -- again

Rodham did not return phone calls, and Clinton spokeswoman Payne refused to discuss the matter. But she stressed Clinton was only "dropping by" Level. Contrary to Kelly's repeated assertions that the former president would be delivering an hourlong speech, "that's not the case," Payne said. Sure enough, just 24 hours before Clinton's jet touched down in South Florida, Level's marquee mysteriously transformed from "An Afternoon with William Jefferson Clinton" to "Bill Clinton Speaking." The actual speech clocked in at five minutes.

"It's politics," sighed Kelly last week of the WIZO dinner. "That's the event they want the press on, because that's the event that's paying him." He added glumly: "I've been told by Clinton's staff not to give any interviews," and referred Kulchur to Ray Zeller, who also sounded a note of exasperation.

"Look, I don't want another screaming phone call from New York," said Zeller, a long-time activist with the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party. "I'd love to shoot my mouth off, but I can't." Still, Zeller was quick to rise to the defense of both Kelly -- "The man has a heart; South Beach can be proud of him" -- and Hugh Rodham. Indeed Zeller was part of Rodham's failed 1996 effort to seize control of the county Democratic Party from chairman Joe Geller.

"Hugh's gotten a raw deal," Zeller insisted. As for Clinton's South Beach stop, he noted, "Hugh did not make this happen. I've been writing letters to Clinton for a year, and I finally got some results. I have no idea how [Rodham's] name even got into all this."

When February 7 finally arrived, however, Level co-owner Noah Lazes was more than happy to clear up the confusion. Standing inside his club, Lazes watched as the room filled with an odd mix of Beach scenesters and local politicos; nightclub promoter Michael Capponi and artist Romero Britto threaded their way past a Lubavitch rebbe, careful not to knock off his wide-brimmed hat.

Gazing out proudly over the surreal scene, Lazes explained: "This all developed out of our relationship with Hugh Rodham, who is a very close friend of Gerry's. Hugh made the introduction to Bill Clinton's manager, and Gerry worked on him night and day."

Lazes gestured to where 30 small children -- some in-the-flesh Kids in Dade -- were about to take their seats on either side of Clinton's podium. "I remember one night," he laughed, pointing to a spot stage left. "Gerry and Clinton's manager were onstage together at 1:00 a.m., drinking champagne. Here's a guy who'd never been in a nightclub before!" Lazes shook his head, clearly impressed with Kelly's ability to charm. "I said, 'Oh my God, Gerry -- you've corrupted the president's manager!'"

Lazes insisted no money changed hands, that Rodham simply was hooking up a favorite cause with a dear friend.

So will Rodham at least get a table in the VIP room when he comes to Level from now on?

Lazes chuckled: "Oh, he gets a good table anyway."

It was easy to spot the winners inside Level. Zeller looked pumped, perhaps gearing up for yet another power grab within the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. Moreover, with Florida's Democrats revving up to unseat Jeb Bush in the upcoming fall race for governor, the afternoon had all the hallmarks of an anti-GOP rally. United Teachers of Dade's Pat Tornillo and Painters Union's Seth Sklarey worked the room, glad-handed by a slew of party loyalists and aspiring candidates.

Conspicuously absent was Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, who, despite being a Democrat, received an election endorsement from Jeb Bush last November. Dermer's defeated opponent (also a Democrat), former state Rep. Elaine Bloom, occupied a seat front and center of Clinton.

Amid all this glitz and politicking, it's unclear if the actual kids who make up Zeller's Kids in Dade were anything more than useful props. Although Kelly said afterward he expected the benefit to raise some $75,000, that claim seems highly inflated. A look at a carefully annotated list of the afternoon's attendees revealed that roughly half had received complimentary tickets. And even several of those who did pay their way in found themselves upgraded to pricier seats in an effort to fill the otherwise half-empty $10,000 tables.

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