Ex-North Miami Mayor Elton Gissendanner Is Back

A prison stay and bankruptcy can't keep him down.

"He's a politician?" cracks the construction worker assigned to guarding the flooded road. "Throw him in the creek!"

But then he allows the 80-year-old man in the driver's seat of a turquoise Acura coupe to tool past a barricade and down an unlit road, where dark water laps right up to the asphalt and windshield wipers furiously slap away pints of rain.

"Meet the Candidates," reads a sign outside the single-room library in Ortona, a Glades County village 15 minutes west of Lake Okeechobee, where about the only thing that qualifies as commerce is the brisk sale of neon-orange pigs' feet at a gas station convenience store, the only shop in town.

Now age 80, Elton Gissendanner lives in quiet Lake Placid.
Jacek Gancarz
Now age 80, Elton Gissendanner lives in quiet Lake Placid.
In Ortona, Gissendanner meets the townie.
Jacek Gancarz
In Ortona, Gissendanner meets the townie.

On this August evening, about 50 gabbing townies have braved the soaking aftereffects of Tropical Storm Fay, which barreled through a couple of days earlier. They fill the library with the sober cheer of a bingo hall. When lightning loudly smacks an electric pole outside and the building is thrown into darkness, the townsfolk call friends, who deliver battery-powered lanterns.

"Just about have to be a rubber duck to get in here today," the soggy old man laments after exiting his Acura and scampering into the library. A badge pinned to his khaki safari shirt identifies him as Elton Gissendanner, candidate for state House of Representatives. He seems to be the only person in the room who doesn't know anybody else, so he makes the rounds, sipping instant coffee and listening to residents complain about a controversial garbage collection plan and an outrageously expensive yacht storage facility.

Eventually they take their seats and a succession of speakers parades to the podium, which is decorated with dollar-store plastic bunting and flags. In his chair, Gissendanner sleepily picks at tiny scabs on his arm.

It's a week before the primary and about a dozen candidates have shown up. The crowd is seemingly dominated by young men in buzzcuts and matrons in pajama pants. Everybody is white, and this is no-doubt-about-it Republican country.

"I am 100 percent pro-life and 100 percent Second Amendment," begins one male candidate.

"This country doesn't need change. It needs consistency," says another.

Then the burly emcee calls Gissendanner. Following some small talk about Fay, he recounts his resumé. A practicing veterinarian, he was twice mayor of North Miami. He was an architect of perhaps South Florida's most significant land deal in history and served as the state's top environmental regulator. For four years he was a state rep ­— the same gig he's running for now.

He has stumped on far larger stages than this one, and it shows in his calm, paced speech. He describes the sugar industry's destruction of the Everglades. "As good as it's been," he begins, "it's come at quite a cost to the natural resources around us."

It's an unlikely tack. Around here, if you're not personally dependent on the sugar industry, a close relative is. But with a state buyout of thousands of acres looming, Gissendanner advocates solar energy. "We'll be forced to phase out sugar cane," he says. "There's still plenty of time to get those people who depend on it into a more sustainable business.

"The issues that face us are greater than party, greater than age, greater than economic status."

Polite applause follows. He shuffles back to his seat.

Gissendanner is a living artifact from Miami's fabled drug-smuggling Eighties. Two decades ago, he traded that top environmental job for handcuffs and spent 10 months in federal prison. He has never shaken that stink of disgrace, and filing for bankruptcy eight years ago only seemed to confirm the downward spiral of his life.

But he's here tonight trying to revive a moldy corpse: his political career — and with it, his tattered legacy.

"Welcome to God's country!" Gissendanner says, khaki shorts pulled up high on his belly and arms outstretched as he stands in the driveway of his comfortable and airy lakefront house in Lake Placid, 45 minutes north of Ortona.

"I was just having some tomato juice," he adds, as if establishing an alibi for his lazy afternoon.

Gissendanner chats breathlessly about the minutiae of everyday life, peppering his language with dated phrases such as "little-bitty," "Afro-American," and "don't know beans."

The great-grandfather casts a mole-like figure: slightly bent and doughy, with high, round shoulders and sprightly white eyebrows. In moments of impatience or deep explanation, he removes his glasses to expose eyes squinted against the shock of light, heightening the likeness.

Seated next to his living room coffee table, he launches into the reasons for his lifelong crusade against the local sugar barons. It's a meandering 15-minute speech that somehow finds him explaining how the moon affects the tides and singing Florida's state song. The conclusion: He's not actually against the industry, just its mining of the Everglades. As proof, he digs from his closet a gallon of cane sugar syrup. "I'm not opposed to it; I love it — it tastes great on pancakes!"

It's not senility. Gissendanner has always had a capricious mind and a mouth like an out-of-control yard sprinkler. "I talk a lot," he says. "But there's so much to talk about. That's the problem."

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