By Michael E. Miller
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Based on Peebles's testimony, city commissioners quickly moved to table Gross's ordinance until it included a ban on real estate interests. "I thought his remarks were disingenuous," Gross said during a recent interview at his commission office. "I think he was trying to deflect attention away from the real issue: the undue influence of certain lobbyists in the city."
Some of Peebles's business peers were taken aback by Don's remarks. "I respect Don as a businessman," said Craig Robins, another politically astute Miami Beach real estate developer. "Yet it's interesting that the real estate developer who's had the most issues go before the city commission would claim the deals he's reached with the city are part of a corrupt process."
Kasdin put it more succinctly: "Who do you think is going to be influenced more? A guy who gets thousands of dollars from various sources, or the guy who gets most of his campaign money from one individual?"
Characteristically, Peebles admitted that a reason he spoke against Gross's lobbyist ordinance was to defend Lukis and Balsera. "One problem with politics that I don't like is that when anyone is under fire, rightfully or wrongfully, their friends don't come to their defense," Peebles declared. "I thought [Syl and Freddie] were getting a bum rap and were attacked unfairly by people who should know better."
And how can anyone expect Don to turn his back on Syl and Freddie, considering that the three men form part of the clique (which includes Quik Park magnate Jacob "Hank" Sopher) that put David Dermer into office in 2001. At the start of that election cycle, Peebles threw his support behind Nancy Liebman. He admits pumping around $50,000 to her campaign during the first weeks of her run, before Elaine Bloom entered the race. When the former state representative made her move, all bets were off. "He supported me, but I think he sensed I could never beat Elaine," recalled Liebman, who remains a dogged Peebles loyalist. "He had to protect his interests and I understood that."
To this day, some Beach insiders believe Peebles propped up Liebman so Dermer could be in a better position to win her support against Bloom, who had the financial muscle of Miami Beach's business community behind her. The speculation was fueled by Peebles's alliance with Lukis and Balsera, who raised tens of thousands of dollars for Dermer. "The whole development community thought they pulled a coup by bringing Elaine in," Liebman chortled. "They thought they were going to win. Well, hah!"
After Liebman threw her support behind Dermer during the mayoral runoff, Peebles, through various entities and partnerships, contributed at least $4200 to David Dermer. According to campaign finance reports, 900 F Street Corporation, 919 East Street Association LLC, 2100 Martin Luther King Association, and Quality Maintenance Service, all Peebles-controlled entities, each gave $500 to Dermer for the runoff. The four also list a familiar address, 100 SE Second St., Suite 4650, in downtown Miami, which happens to be the old business address of Peebles Atlantic Development Corp. Later, one-time Peebles associate Scott Robins gave Dermer another $1000 through Lincoln Plaza Partners and Lincoln Management LLC. Development Managers International Inc., a partnership between Peebles and Robins (who did not return phone calls for this article), donated $500, and Peebles Atlantic vice president Michele Kohler gave $200 to Dermer.
Don, however, scoffed at the notion that somehow his fundraising prowess has bought him political influence on the Beach. "I think the supporter of a political candidate who gets elected should only expect to gain access in order to present his views and provide a level playing field," Peebles righteously opined. "With someone like me, who happens to be controversial, high-profile, and attracts a lot of media attention, it's hard for politicians to give me a level playing field because the easy way out is to go with whatever the mood of the public is, or which way the political winds are blowing. I don't expect Dermer, Cruz, or any of the commissioners to vote for my interests because I supported them. I don't believe money buys influence. It's unethical and unsophisticated to think like that."
Since opening the Royal Palm in May of last year, Don Peebles has been on a whirlwind public relations campaign to crown himself America's most successful black developer. The story followed the similar refrain of how Peebles had overcome obstacle after obstacle in his six-year quest to build the Royal Palm. Publications from the Boston Globe to Forbes to Jet magazine heaped portions of regurgitated acclaim upon Don and the black-owned convention hotel on Miami Beach, a moniker Don now proclaims is a disservice to him, his company, and his employees: "From day one, the media and community leaders have called it 'the black-owned hotel' or the 'African-American' hotel," Peebles intoned dramatically. "It's always referred to in the context of race. No one calls it the second largest hotel on South Beach. No one calls it an architectural masterpiece by Arquitectonica. Yet, the fact that it is black-owned is some big issue."
The Don sermon has just started rolling. "I pick up newspaper stories or magazine articles that think they are being friendly to me by calling me one of the most successful black developers in the country," he said incredulously. "I've never once heard anyone refer to the Loews Hotel as the Jewish-owned convention hotel. It's that kind of thinking that explains why there was a black boycott in the first place. That kind of thinking is why we have strained race relations here. Defining me as an African-American developer doesn't do justice to me, my company, or my employees."