Bet on Norman Braman

Miami's most cantankerous billionaire could win by TKO.

In a board room just above a fleet of Christmas-bowed Rolls Royces, Norman Braman is surrounded by evidence of his great success — framed photos of his meetings with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford; a collage documenting his time as owner of the Philadelphia Eagles; a governor's notice declaring January 11, 1994, to be Norman Braman Day in Maryland; an award on his desk from Miami Mayor Manny Diaz for his contributions to Art Basel.

The 75-year-old Braman, a lanky gent whose monogrammed baby-blue dress shirt elegantly contrasts slate-gray pants, hasn't lost much in his life. Though he suffered a blow in mid-November, when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen threw out his challenge to the $3 billion Megaplan for downtown, he is far from finished.

By the end of this week, he will appeal the decision. And even if that fails, the recession is almost certain to kill most of this cornucopia of municipal excess. Just last Friday, plans for a tunnel to the Port of Miami were scrapped, a casualty of the state's anorexic finances.

Norman Braman (right) hugs attorney Bob Martinez in court this past July.
AP Photo/John Vanbeekum
Norman Braman (right) hugs attorney Bob Martinez in court this past July.

"We're just in the third inning," Braman says. "I have every confidence that the city and county's proposal will never come to fruition."

With a net worth of $1.7 billion, he might be the most significant nonpolitician in town since Henry Flagler. His ascent from poor immigrant progeny to consummate pain in the ass to Florida officialdom is dizzying. Braman's Romanian mother was a seamstress and his Polish father a barber in Philadelphia's pre-Fresh Prince west side. They never even owned a car.

After graduating from Temple University, he quickly founded a chain of department stores and then developed a pharmaceutical company. In 1968, flush with cash, he moved to South Florida, retired at age 36, bought a boat named El Dorado, and took his two lovely daughters to school every day.

Within five years, he grew restless and bought a Cadillac agency, which he nurtured into the megadealership Braman Motors.

In 1982, he began molding his reputation as Miami's loudest citizen. That year, Mayor Maurice Ferre was pushing a one-cent sales tax to build a new Dolphins stadium near downtown. Braman jumped into the fray, launching a media campaign opposing Ferre. The tax was defeated in both city and county ballot boxes.

In 1987, Braman declared victory when Joe Robbie opened the current Dolphin Stadium, built with the then-team-owner's own cash. "My involvement then was as it is now," Braman says, "as a citizen in disbelief that Ferre was intent on ramming this thing down the throats of the public."

His next battle came against a transportation sales tax pushed by a wunderkind politician giddy with ambition. In 1999, 38-year-old Miami-Dade County Mayor (and People's "Sexiest Politician") Alex Penelas was pushing a plan to raise funds for a $16 billion public transportation expansion with a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.

By then, Braman had bought and sold the Eagles for an estimated $120 million profit. He used his big money and high profile to tout an organization called People Who Just Don't Want Higher Taxes and bombard the radio waves with ads blasting Penelas's plan as a hopeless swindle. On July 29, a huge voter turnout rejected the tax by a tally of more than two to one. "[Braman] funded a campaign that underlined the city's past failures to build a successful transportation system," says Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. "He killed its chances."

Three years later, Penelas doggedly proposed a half-cent transit tax and, the way Braman describes it, personally begged the billionaire to stay out of it: "He sort of conned me, and everybody else, with his hot air and baloney."

Without Braman's interference, it passed. The resulting transit fund has been so mismanaged that Miami-Dade politicians officially apologized last month. Braman calls not fighting the tax his "only regret" — a mistake he is unlikely to make again.

Braman calls himself a "fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which translates politically to large donations to the Republican Party (he gave John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign $28,500). He is adamantly against using public funds for private enterprise, which includes his opposition to a Detroit automaker bailout despite his own business relationship with General Motors.

And this owner of an estimated $1 billion art collection and a 16,000-square-foot mansion on ultra-exclusive Indian Creek Island trusts your average county politician about as much as a vagrant spotted on his BMW lot. "Miami-Dade government is totally inept, and it's been that way for many decades," Braman declares. "I defy anybody to tell me what works here."

Given his pugnacious track record, it's unsurprising that Braman assailed the Megaplan, an audacious $3 billion makeover of downtown and environs that would — without a public vote — plant a Marlins baseball stadium in Little Havana, build a tunnel from I-395 to the Port of Miami, revamp Bicentennial Park, construct a downtown streetcar, and pay off debt at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

To fight the plan, he spent $1 million of his own money — eight times as much as he shelled out to kill the transportation tax — before Judge Cohen's decision. His argument: Use of the funds should require a public vote. He also claims county officials didn't follow open-government laws, and that the use of public funds for the Marlins stadium is unconstitutional.

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