Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret

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

There was a time when every Florida town had its own postcard. Each municipality was unique enough back then. Surfside, incorporated in 1935, had an in-plain-sight illegal casino called the Brook Club. The sultry singer Abbe Lane owned a sirloin joint on Harding Avenue. Dorie and Eli — they married in 1958, after he had already gotten wealthy running a business that installed antennas atop tall buildings, and built their house in Surfside — pedaled around their hamlet on beach cruisers.

They were in the town's garden club and chess club, and they ballroom-danced in the art deco community center on Collins Avenue. Eli became a commissioner in 1972, then mayor, and then vice mayor, ultimately serving 20 years in town government at a dollar a year. His greatest achievement: the Surfside minibus.

They raised a daughter named Elizabeth. She put cheeseburgers and shakes on the family tab at the local drugstore, Sheldon's. In those days, when you went to the beach, you took a number from town hall so they'd know you drowned if you didn't return it.

That was the old pigs'-feet-and-palm-fronds Florida, before DJ Khaled and face-eating zombies and Pollo Tropical. Over the years, Surfside has been nibbled by homogenization. The casino became Publix. Abbe Lane's steak house became Flanigan's. Sheldon's became an HSBC branch.

But the town — still full of affordable single-family homes a few blocks from a pristine beach — clings to its soul. It's Stepford with Jewbans instead of WASPs, surrounded on all sides by weirdo provinces: Indian Creek Village, full of the feuding ultra-rich. Bay Harbor Islands, fat-sucking plastic surgery central. Prada-worshipping Bal Harbour. The Trump-occupied territory of Sunny Isles Beach. The ranting 9 a.m. drunks of the gritty northern border of Miami Beach proper.

Thinking about Surfside losing its quaint identity and becoming like one of those places gives Dorie the vapors. So she does battle with the town commissioners who have in the past several years approved new beachfront hotels and voted to tear down the art deco community center for an expensive modernist glass building. She doesn't much like that they are now pushing for a massive parking lot that could conceivably bring Pauly D and Snooki types to Surfside's placid sands. Dorie has been shouted down at commission meetings, penned earnest editorials in the Herald, and circulated futile petitions to stem development in Surfside's little downtown.

Dorie is not waging the war alone. "Why do we fight?" says Phyllis, the 81-year-old bird-boned redhead I met at Dorie's party. Now she's standing in her doorway and nearly teary with passion. "Because Surfside was one of the first towns in Dade County with affordable single-family homes, and it may be the last. That's why we fight."

The insurgency had one representative on the four-person commission. Surfside lifer Joe Graubart served one two-year term, from 2010 to 2012, and spent it as the lone naysayer when it came to voting for new development in town. The 61-year-old, who was also vice mayor, wears a gray shoulder-length beatnik hairdo and thick-rimmed Elvis Costello glasses. His only regret, he says, is not chaining himself to the original community center so the bulldozers couldn't get at it.

Graubart's former commission seat is my goal.

A special election is scheduled for May 1. I've broken reporter code by throwing my hat into the ring, and another candidate has stepped forward: 39-year-old Michelle Kligman. The Herald, which will later accuse me of mocking the town, has wondered about the "sudden interest in [the] vacant Surfside seat."

Over potato chips and Scotch at Dorie's house, I ask Graubart why he didn't seek a second term. He says it's because he didn't want to be associated with the overdevelopment that is pulverizing the soul of the town where he grew up. "Why does Surfside have to march in lockstep with everywhere else?"

I stagger out of Dorie's daylight bacchanal and count in dismay the signatures on my petition to officially enter the commission race. I am still about a half-dozen short.

The 25 signatures are due to the town clerk the next morning, so my political career could die an unborn fetus. Petition in hand, I knock on doors. The front yard of the first house I approach features ceramic figurines of children in 1930s tramp outfits chasing each other around a gardenia bush. When I knock, a woman in a nightgown and curlers cracks her door, keeping the chain intact.

I start to explain my mission. "¡No te conozco!" she screams — I don't know you! — and slams the door in my face.

Later, I learn that crooks have been posing as utility workers to dupe local elderly folks into letting them enter their homes, where they then raid their jewelry boxes. And I am a somewhat large, perpetually sweaty 29-year-old man with booze on his breath. Earning the trust of this populace seems unlikely.

But as I wander home, I get a call from Orestes Jimenez — better known as OJ — the booming former commissioner from Dorie's get-together. OJ explains that the lady, Maria, who just banished me from her porch called him in alarm, and he explained to her my purpose. "Go back!" OJ yells.

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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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