Beach Brawl

Money and ethnicity narrow the race for Miami Beach City Commission to two men

Forget about calling it the American Riviera. When election season rolls around, Miami Beach begins looking less like a well-oiled resort town and more like Caracas, complete with all manner of backroom intrigue: anonymous flyers alleging anti-Semitism, cryptic Spanish-language radio ads intimating pro-Castro sympathies, and whispers of secret payoffs.

The engine behind all of this activity is often real estate development. Or rather, developers' desire to circumvent Eighties-era historic preservation laws and the subsequent zoning reforms enshrined by that generation's activists at city hall. Indeed, for South Florida's real estate titans, little accustomed to hearing the word no, dealing with the Beach's commission can be jarring.

Case in point: Über-developer Jorge Perez may be the new toast of Las Vegas with his proposed three-billion-dollar Las Ramblas condo-hotel-casino; that's his smiling face beaming back at you alongside fellow investor George Clooney in full-page national ads. But as far as Miami Beach's commissioners are concerned, all that glitters is most definitely not gold, regardless of how many dancing showgirls are attached. Perez was clearly expecting movie-star treatment when he pitched the city commission about transforming the Beach's Jackie Gleason Theater into a permanent home for the cheese-tastic Cirque du Soleil theater troupe; he touted his role among the group's backers while asking for an additional $100 million in taxpayer funds to enable this glitzy transformation. Instead, his reception, while guardedly polite, was hardly a standing ovation. Several commissioners warily insisted on seeing specific numbers and anticipated revenues before committing themselves.

Accordingly, with the commission maintaining so much influence over the Beach's building boom, it is little wonder that developers and their minions are intensely watching the November 1 race to succeed term-limited Commissioner José Smith. (Fellow Commissioners Saul Gross and Richard Steinberg, as well as Mayor David Dermer, have already been automatically re-elected after failing to draw any challengers.) And while Perez's Related Companies had yet to begin doling out campaign contributions as of June 30, if past elections are any guide, the firm will be featured prominently when the next round of required financial reports comes due next week.

Five contenders are in the running for Smith's seat: Florida Highway Patrolman Alex Annunziato, age 25; local gadfly Joseph Fontana, age 80; financial planner Jerry Libbin, age 53; condo manager Gabrielle Redfern, age 43; attorney and former police union head Dennis Ward, 53.

Fontana's name should be familiar, at least to the 35 percent or so of the Beach's electorate that bothers to vote in local races. This will be his fifth stab at becoming a commissioner, having served up boiler-plate stump speeches and lost in 1991, 1997, 1999, and 2001. Ward has raised $7110 but has yet to articulate much beyond his law enforcement credentials. Redfern, underfunded to the tune of $1805, drew national headlines earlier this year by leading a protest of breastfeeding mothers into the city commission chambers, all eager to proclaim their right to nurse in public -- leaving many puzzled onlookers wondering whether she was running for office in Miami Beach or Berkeley.

Which leaves two men standing.

"I'd have to consider Jerry Libbin to be the front-runner," observes commissioner Gross, "because he's raised the most money, and he has the best track record of community service of all the candidates."

That much is clear. Libbin has certainly put in his time with local organizations. He arrived from New York in 1982 to head the Beach's Jewish Community Center, and recently has served as president of the nonprofit North Beach Development Corporation and city planning board member. That background has attracted contributions -- $40,000 -- from well-known figures including former commissioner and Chamber of Commerce head Bruce Singer; nightlife attorney Steven Polisar; realtor Esther Percal; and -- providing a neat cover for their spouses -- Julie Bercow, wife of development attorney Jeffrey Bercow; Ana Kasdin, wife of former Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin; and Edith Gelber, wife of former Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber. Libbin also has lent $50,000 of his own money to his campaign.

The other candidate expected to make the runoff is Alex Annunziato. He may not have amassed much in the way of a campaign war chest -- $10,685 as of his last report -- and, as he quipped to Kulchur, he won't be writing himself an impressive check à la Libbin anytime soon: "I've got 72 bucks in my savings account."

But Annunziato has something just as politically important as money: Cuban blood. His mother is from the island, and Hispanics, who make up 53 percent of the Beach's population, are expected to be particularly influential in the low-turnout November 1 election. As crass as such handicapping may be, a significant number of voters continues to cast ballots with little thought of anything but ethnicity.

So what are we to make of a head-to-head matchup between Annunziato and Libbin? They seem to share the same vision of Miami Beach, and both offer up the same fealty to its shibboleths: historic preservation, controlled growth, support for the arts, and gay rights. Speaking with the two produces a contrast more of tone than substance -- no surprise, given that Libbin is old enough to be Annunziato's father.

On that note, Libbin is more apt to toss around management-speak such as "implementable solutions" and "community stakeholders."

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