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The jock was disarming. Dressed in a wrinkled red T-shirt, old jeans, and untied sneakers and having just snarfed down a frosted Pop-Tart he bantered about fundraising, veterans affairs, and more.
Then he coiled and struck.
Pull U.S. forces from Iraq or no? he queried. "It seems as if you're not willing to commit?"
"No, uh, no ... what I'm saying is, uh, get the questions asked, what's in the strategic interest of the United States," stammered Klein, who's running in Fort Lauderdale. "We may need to move people out of Baghdad."
The jock looked up from his keyboard. Klein turned away.
"Maybe our best interest is to move our troops to the borders," he continued, shifting in his chair as the jock stared him down. "It could be a question of training troops."
Who knocked the poised pol a guy running neck-and-neck against the immortal Clay Shaw, and has raised more than three million dollars on his articulate ass?
Can you say Jim DeFede?
Fourteen months after the Miami Herald canned him for turning on a tape recorder, the mountainous media celebrity has re-emerged. Indeed his work is taped every day. Having cobbled together a five-day-a-week radio gig on WINZ-AM (940), three days as a TV commentator on CBS 4, and regular writing for South Beach magazine LRM, the 44-year-old has branded himself. JimDeFede.com gets hundreds of hits a day. And, he contends, he's earning double the hefty salary he was pulling in the July day Art Teele shot himself in the Herald's lobby.
"The reality is that I would not have done these things if I hadn't been fired by the Herald," he says. "What I am doing now has got to be embarrassing to them."
Of course, the former Herald and Miami New Times columnist had some background in nonprint media. About a dozen years ago, he and New Times staffer Steve Almond reported swilling Jack Daniels on their way to a radio gig that lasted only briefly on WMBM-AM (1490). And when DeFede was at the Herald, he was occasionally a guest on TV and radio shows.
But two weeks after he left the newspaper, when CBS 4 news vice president Shannon High-Bassalik phoned him to discuss TV work, the erstwhile columnist demurred. He spent five months unemployed, squandering his savings on no-limit poker while awaiting a state attorney's decision on whether to prosecute him for illegally recording his conversation with Teele. "Back then I was still trying to get my job back at the Herald," he says. "I told Shannon, öI can't do any work for you if I'm in jail.'"
After prosecution was declined, he did a commentary on Channel 4 this past November. It was silly something about generator etiquette but he promised more serious stuff if a contract were offered. In January he signed up. And his material, though sometimes larded with rhetoric, has certainly become more ambitious.
"I've had to learn and I'm still learning two new professions," DeFede says. "And I'm doing what I know. Not national or international news.... Ask me about corruption at County Hall."
He recently broke a story on CBS 4 about a scandal at Miami-Dade County's Water and Sewer Department that followed up on an internal investigation. In his words, there were "2600 employees, 4200 cell phones, $2.5 million taxpayer dollars wasted you do the math."
His radio show is unique, at least locally. It blends blather about wacky events with serious discussion of politics, an unlikely media mix somewhere between Howard Stern and Don Imus. Besides Klein, DeFede has interviewed pols from across the nation. In just the past few weeks he has hosted Bill Richardson, Susan McDougal, Max Cleland, both major candidates for governor, as well as Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade mayors. Then there have been legions of state senate and other political hopefuls.
But it ain't investigative reporting. There's a lot of opinion and too little digging. DeFede is the guy who almost single-handedly killed a commercial airport in Homestead, exposed Heat owner Micky Arison's greed, and helped prosecutors nab former county Commissioner Miriam Alonso. "Even as a columnist, I was doing less reporting than I was as a news reporter," he says.
The sharp-edged political talk nevertheless fills a niche that for decades has mostly been limited to Spanish-language shows on Cuban radio WQBA-AM (1140) and Radio Mambí (710 AM). "Until now, there was nothing for this kind of talk in English," he says. "This kind of stuff makes my nipples hard. I don't know about you, but that's what democracy does for me."
On a recent morning, DeFede arrived at 5:45, met his producer Nicole Sandler, who briefed him on the day's news, and spent the next hour or so taking calls many from organizers of an all-night vigil for affordable housing being held outside the Stephen P. Clark Center in downtown Miami.
At 7:30, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez called for an interview. "The [housing] agency has failed in its mission," he began.
"Were you planning on stopping by the protest?" DeFede queried.
"I won't hold you to it," he added sarcastically.
Following the mayor's call, others phoned in to vent sundry outrage. Around 8:00 a.m., a guy named Julio suggested, "We need a Boston Tea Party in this town. Taxes are out of control."
After a half-dozen others whined about traffic and high rents, producer Sandler relayed a manager's complaint that DeFede wasn't repeating the station's call letters often enough. "That's Radio 101," she said.
So how long will DeFede be in this class?
"I don't know that I want to be waking up at 4:00 a.m. in ten years," he says. "For now I have three jobs. That way I can be fired from one and still be covered."