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."

Annunziato is inclined toward either Jimmy Stewart-esque pronouncements -- "I've always been drawn to the public arena, to be my brother's keeper" -- or a lapse into blunt cop-talk. Asked whether he supports funding the Cirque du Soleil takeover of the Jackie Gleason Theater, he immediately shoots back: "Negative!"

Not that Libbin disagrees with him: "There is no land acquisition, there is no building acquisition ... they're asking the city to put up $100 million, and for what?"

It would be easy to see this race as nothing more than a generational contest then, with a healthy dollop of class conflict added for color. On one side is Libbin, the Normandy Shores Homeowner Association head with a $1.7 million waterfront abode, a family man comfortable working with the current power structure. Facing him is Annunziato, who lives with his fiancée in a modest South Pointe condo that he rents from a fellow police officer (who might want to update his homestead exemption claim before the county property assessor reads this column).

That comparison would not only be glib, but it would also be profoundly misleading. Many power brokers are quietly orbiting Annunziato -- for starters, Mayor Dermer, whom Annunziato freely acknowledges as a mentor. Annunziato also admits that commissioner Matti Bower "is out there and working as hard as she can to get people on board to help me. But she has to be careful how she positions herself. If she picks me [publicly], and I'm not in a runoff, that puts her in a bad spot." For her part, Bower told Kulchur, "I do have my preference," but she declined to elaborate. "You don't want to hurt anybody, so I'm staying quiet. You have to work with whoever wins." Most telling is the identity of Annunziato's campaign treasurer: José Riesco. An influential figure in the local Republican Party (as well as a delegate to its 2004 national convention in Boston to renominate President George W. Bush), Riesco was the campaign treasurer for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez's victorious run last year. He remains a close advisor to Alvarez, chairing his "strong mayor" PAC, Citizens for Reform, and has personally raised $537,000 for that effort in only a few months. The precise role that Riesco -- and his circle across the bay -- would play on Miami Beach if Annunziato were elected remains unclear.Though if Riesco simply hit a few buttons on his phone's speed dial, Annunziato's fundraising woes would surely be over.

"I talk to him only about once a quarter, right before my finance reports are due," Annunziato demurs when he is first asked about Riesco. "He's very busy."

It's a little too coy for Kulchur. Come on, Alex. José Riesco doesn't become the campaign manager for just any candidate. And you've already told me you can't afford to pay expensive consultants, so Riesco must have another motivation besides simply earning his accountant's fee.

"We've had some discussions," Annunziato answers carefully. "We've discussed some projects."

Of course they have: It's election season in Miami Beach.

Kulchur will cohost a Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce-sponsored "Meet the Candidates" forum Wednesday, September 28, from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. at the South Beach Marriott, 161 Ocean Dr. All five candidates for the contested Miami Beach commission seat are slated to be in attendance. Admission is free for Chamber members and ten dollars for the general public. For more information, call 305-674-1414 or visit www.miamibeach.org.

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