Black and White and Dread All Over

Don Peebles knows how to scare the living daylights out of Beach politicos

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or Manhattanites heading for the Hamptons, Miami Beach's city hall also has a rhythm you can set your watch to. At some point during a lengthy Beach commission meeting, Commissioner Luis Garcia will begin bellowing epithets such as "Dictator!" and "Hugo Chavez!" at his political rival, Mayor David Dermer. The mayor, turning red-faced, will storm out of the room to regain his composure. And once the meeting has devolved into a schoolyard squabble, Commissioner Saul Gross will step in, deftly solving a contentious historic-preservation issue, finding a new home for the evicted Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, or soothing ruffled feathers before chairs start flying.

Which made Gross's tone at the June 11 Beach commission meeting all the more jarring. "Enough is enough!" he exclaimed grimly, staring back from the dais at Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort owner Don Peebles. For more than an hour Peebles had been going through an elaborate song and dance routine, presenting video clips, pointing to detailed charts, even wheeling out several Miami ministers to offer up testimonials on behalf of his plans to drastically slash the amount of rent his resort would pay to the city government.

It had been a decade since the city had provided several prime beachfront parcels and Art Deco buildings, and then kicked in a ten-million-dollar loan for Peebles to revamp them as the nation's first African-American-owned convention-style hotel -- the key to ending a three-year black tourist boycott of Miami-Dade County. Now, after endless construction delays, the Royal Palm was open, but Peebles oddly blamed the city for neglecting to point out problems that caused him huge cost overruns -- overruns he wanted the city to cover. He insisted that his 25-year resort lease be upgraded to 99 years -- with his annual rent payments dropped from $490,000 to about $80,000. If the Beach really believed in racial justice, Peebles argued as the commission sat utterly silent, they'd jump at this new deal.

Who's afraid of Don Peebles? At Miami Beach City Hall, plenty of people
Steve Satterwhite
Who's afraid of Don Peebles? At Miami Beach City Hall, plenty of people

Gross wasn't buying any of it, and the anger in his voice was palpable. "What you've proposed at a cost of $40 million to the taxpayers of Miami Beach is preposterous!" he snapped, as eyebrows began rising all over the room. This wasn't a "black/white issue," it was a "business issue" -- though clearly Peebles relished the idea of holding a racially charged lawsuit over the city's head. "You, Mr. Peebles, like to use litigation as a tactic in your transactions. In fact, in this very transaction [the Royal Palm], you've been involved in lawsuits with your partners, you've been involved in lawsuits with your engineers, you've been involved in a lawsuit with your contractor, and in my judgment you will be involved in a lawsuit with the City of Miami Beach." After eighteen months of protracted talks, he added, "I don't need months more of negotiating to dismiss this out of hand. I think it's preposterous!"

Commissioner Richard Steinberg continued on that note, accusing Peebles of playing a "race game" by betting that the Beach was terrified of revisiting the black boycott, afraid of "the headlines when it files suit to collect on the rent that you have not been paying."

Commissioner José Smith, though much more muted in his criticism, also made it clear he wasn't willing to turn what was originally a sweetheart deal into a $40 million giveaway.

Yet for all this Sturm und Drang, a curious thing happened as commissioners Matti Bower, Simon Cruz, Garcia, and Mayor Dermer took their turns speaking. Each bent over backward to agree with both sides. Peebles had been wronged, and somehow so had the Beach. The more they spoke, the harder it was to figure out exactly where they stood. Was Peebles a hustler playing the race card or a crusader against inequality? Bower even complained she was "still gathering facts," despite eighteen months of city hall talks, since "I have a very bad memory for detail." But she assured Peebles she knew just how it felt to be a black man. After all, being a woman -- a fact she noted for Peebles no less than four times within 60 seconds -- she too was a minority fighting "a constant battle" inside city hall.

It was a baffling display. How could Peebles infuriate Gross and Steinberg -- two of the city's most even-keeled figures -- while inducing in their colleagues a bewildering show of glad-handing and verbal gymnastics? The key would seem to be this November's Beach election. Bower, Cruz, Garcia, and Dermer are all up for re-election. And Peebles has made little secret of his intention to pour cash into the campaigns of those who support him, and conversely to lavish funds on the opponents of those who cross him.

It's hardly idle talk. As previously reported by New Times, Peebles allegedly bragged in 1999 of being able to personally raise $75,000 for mayoral hopeful Martin Shapiro in his quest to unseat his nemesis, Neisen Kasdin. (A State Attorney's Office investigation into campaign violations -- on both Peebles and Kasdin -- was dropped for lack of cooperation by witnesses.) More recently Peebles admitted to New Times's Francisco Alvarado he pumped $50,000 into the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Nancy Liebman in her 2001 bid against Dermer and Kasdin ally Elaine Bloom. (After Liebman's elimination, Peebles cast his lot with Dermer.) With barely 13,000 voters deciding the outcome of the Beach's elections, those dollars -- and the advertising they buy -- can be crucial.

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