Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret

A harrowing journey into the dark heart of small-town Florida politics.

Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret
Illustration by Kevin Keele

Like any true Surfside rager, Dorie Lurie begins her birthday party at 4 p.m. I've been warned that arriving even 15 minutes late could reflect badly on my character and possibly harpoon my nascent political career.

As soon as I walk through the front door of the little white-painted house on Abbott Avenue, the 82-year-old birthday girl grabs my elbow. Dorie is diminutive and feisty. She wears a short white hairdo, oval spectacles, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers.

She fairly shoves me toward the center of her living room and shushes the few dozen partygoers. "He's running for commissioner!" she announces in introduction before looking at me. "Would you like to say a few words?"

Eyes turn to me expectantly. The crowd is a blur of gray hair, eyeglasses, and toothpicks holding half-nibbled cheese cubes.

The impromptu first political speech of my life starts out poorly. "I have decided to enter one more time into the fray," I declare, holding my right fist aloft. I don't know why I'm referencing The Grey, Liam Neeson's movie about man­eating wolves. The partygoers furrow their brows. Then I add, "If elected, I will fire the town attorney."

That was the right thing to say. The little crowd hates Lynn Dannheisser, the tiny town's $181,000-per-year barrister. Somebody yells, "Huzzah!" A flute of champagne suddenly appears in my hand.

People grab petitions from my other hand and scribble their names. I need 25 signatures to officially qualify as a candidate for the May 1 election.

Surfside is an outwardly sleepy beach hamlet — population at last census: 4,700 — just north of Miami Beach proper. I've lived there since 2008. The place does dissension and intrigue like few towns that don't spell their names with the Cyrillic alphabet. Two rabble-rousing blogs — Save Surfside and the anonymous Who Controls Surfside Florida — frequently aim virtual torpedoes at town hall. Dannheisser has termed the bloggers "cyber-terrorists" who "burn crosses on your lawn." Faxes regularly churn into my newsroom warning of the "cancer of corruption" infecting the town.

Those missives almost certainly come from somebody at this birthday party. This is the rebel camp at war with town hall, and Dorie is the pearl-earring-wearing guerrilla leader. Think Golden Girls meets The French Connection.

And insurgency, it turns out, is delicious. There's a meat and cheese platter, a fruit bouquet, a cake, and a formally dressed bartender — the only person in the room who isn't twice my age — pouring three-finger cocktails.

As I plow through the spread, partygoers yank me aside conspiratorially. A frazzled-looking woman with wild eyes and copper hair tells me that Surfside hasn't been paying an obscure water tax.

A former Surfside commissioner named Orestes Jimenez — a Cosmo Kramer-lanky Cuban-American with a megaphone voice — impresses upon me the importance of snagging absentee ballots. "Politics is a machine!" he booms.

A woman named Phyllis, an elegant redhead with an air of cunning, tells me that she knows a man named Julio whose mother lives in a beachfront condominium building. This tidbit is invaluable, she says: "You need to get the condo vote."

This shindig is a splendid thing. In her emailed invitation, Dorie had informed me: "We are expecting 30-40 people. All Surfside voters! No town officials invited!" Indeed, this crowd is a cross section of Florida voters: Jewish, Cuban, elderly. Come November, the people represented in this tiny house will likely decide our nation's commander.

Dorie Lurie is a lifelong Democrat. Orestes Jimenez worships at the altar of Jeb Bush. But they're on the same team when it comes to their small town's nonpartisan politics. In my monthlong campaign against a local stay-at-home mom for a $1-a-year commission seat, I will enter a political world where $100 is a war chest and there's no such thing as a "viral" campaign — rather, votes are won over brandy and cheese in a constituent's living room — but there are still freelance consultants and managers offering chicanery for a price.

Dorie's husband Harvey is an extremely Zen fellow reminiscent of Rodney Dangerfield. As her birthday bash reaches full tilt around 6 p.m., he plucks a pineapple wedge from the fruit bouquet. It's half-dipped in chocolate. He announces, before taking a big bite, "This reminds me of a town divided."

When you're older than the town you live in, you've usually accumulated a lot of cool shit. Dorie Lurie keeps hers on shelves and in boxes around her comfortable home. There are hundreds of donkey figurines, symbolizing her allegiance to the Democratic Party. A yellowed Miami Herald article from the '80s features a photo of her at a feminist rally; she's identified in the caption only as "the grandmother in the Gucci scarf." And there's the gaudy gold key to Surfside, given to her late first husband — and two-term mayor of the town — Eli Lurie.

She shows me a postcard that most people would probably deem the least cool of all the shit. It reads "Surfside" in classic block font, the letters illustrated with photos of the beach and a store-lined Harding Avenue. But it's sentimental to Dorie, she says, because "you can't get postcards for Surfside anymore."

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11 comments
Hectanng
Hectanng

Was Gus Garcia acting as reporter or political candidate when he attended that birthday party? Did he identify himself as Gus the reporter, telling people they would be quoted in his paper? Seems to be a conflict of interest that the Ethics Commission should have a look at.

J.J. Colagrande
J.J. Colagrande

Gus, you should have changed your name to Oral Roberts or Oscar Robertson; always been curious about that politic tactic, i.e. The Distinguished Gentleman w Eddie Murphy. Synopsis: The Distinguished Gentleman A Florida con man named Thomas Jefferson Johnson uses the passing of the long time Congressman from his district, Jeff Johnson to get elected to Congress. Shortening his middle name and calling himself "Jeff" Johnson he runs a low budget campaign appealing to name recognition, figuring most people do not pay much attention and vote the "name they know."

Chuck Strouse
Chuck Strouse

Dishonest, C'mon. Let;s raise the level of discourse here.

Goldie
Goldie

Gus your better off, you dont ever want to be labled as corrupt and that is what 98 percent of the politions are today.They dont care about the people or their beleifs. Great story

Lydia
Lydia

I happen to know the town of surfside Mayor, and he is one of the most honest and friendliest people I have ever known. If it weren't for him, this town would be "NOTHING".

Corn U Copia
Corn U Copia

Please don't take this personally but if you really believe that you must be either a moron or seriously misguided. Surfside's ocean and bayfront "nothingness" is worth $1 billion in property value, is a 77 year old town of which the current mayor has had NOTHING to do with. He might very well be a nice guy but he comes accross as the Roger Carlton's as well as the attorney's puppet.

bigalosu
bigalosu

Entertaining article, but I would have felt you were mocking the city as well. It is a very nice town that I spend a lot of time in and I hope it doesn't give in to the pressure of being another block on Collins. Leave that to Bal Harbour, North Beach, Sunny Isles, Hallandale, etc. Surfside has a small town appeal with the cleanliness and lack of clutter that is so overwhelming on the rest of the A1A.

Ricky
Ricky

Very entertaining article....

michael wind
michael wind

surfside is very corrupt from the post office that is controled by organized crime with the po boxes of a group of white collar criminals,to corrupt code compliance,to a stupid town manager, i hope the time is now to make surfside into a normal town,investigate harding realty all the companies that operate from that office.

 
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