Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret

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

Soon Maria is pouring forth apologies — "lo siento, lo siento..." — as she plunks me into a comfortable armchair while she signs my petition.

After that, OJ leads me on a tour of Surfside's abuelitas. Dropping his name works like a password to biscotti, cafecitos, photos of grandchildren, and precious signatures. OJ prepares me with each woman's nickname. He tells me which ones have Alzheimer's. By the time I head to the clerk's office, I have 37 signatures. When it comes to winning over the plastic-covered-furniture and telenovelas demographic, OJ is my David Axelrod.

In the weeks that follow, he becomes my off-and-on campaign advisor. We meet in his home office. It's adorned with large flat-screen TV sets, American flags, a clock branded with the Surfside seal, and photos signed by local police officers. OJ came from Cuba on the Pedro Pan airlift in 1962 and served as town commissioner from 2004 to 2006. He throws a giant book labeled Florida Statutes on my lap and tells me to get acquainted with it. "That's the bible, man!" he says. He urges me to spruce up my image — maybe get some primary-color polo shirts like his. His fluffy little dog nuzzles my sneakers.

Gus Garcia-Roberts
Jacob Katel
Gus Garcia-Roberts
On the campaign trail in the beachfront hamlet of 4,700.
Jacob Katel
On the campaign trail in the beachfront hamlet of 4,700.

OJ keeps warning me to stay away from a certain character. "There's a river rat in town!" he says in his conspiratorial whisper, which is around the decibel level of Gilbert Gottfried at a roast. "He's a mercenary! All he cares about is the money!"

I'm intrigued. And when I return to New Times HQ one afternoon, the editorial assistant says in a harried voice that a man called half a dozen times that morning. He boasted of having guided six Surfside commission candidates to office, and demanded to speak to me.

His name is Paul Yavis. A quick search of campaign finance reports shows that in the gleefully insane political landscape of Miami-Dade County, he is a low-rent Karl Rove. Aspiring politicians from Miami Lakes to North Miami Beach to Homestead have paid him fees ranging from $55 to $890 for services they've listed on their campaign reports as "absentee ballot work," "phone bank," and simply "campaign."

In 2007, businessman Luis Salom paid Yavis $250 for "consulting" on a Miami Beach commission race that he lost by a scant 10 percent. Four years later, Salom pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation for selling unregulated chocolate to Panama using bogus USDA insignia.

Two years later, Yavis billed Earl Rynerson $330 for "staff help" in his Fort Lauderdale mayoral run. Rynerson was whipped in that race after Fox News accused him of racking up a credit card bill on a bondage-themed porn site. (Rynerson denied the naughty charges.)

Mysteriously wealthy Russian émigré Isaac Feldman paid our hero $100 for managing his 2010 Sunny Isles commission campaign. Singer lost and a year later was indicted for allegedly masterminding a scheme that used pretty girls, date-rape drugs, and fake South Beach nightclubs to separate tourists from thousands of dollars in credit card charges.

Those are just the losing examples. The sitting politicians who have hired him for their successful campaigns include Homestead Mayor Lynda Bell and Miami Lakes Councilwoman Mary Collins.

In 2009, the then-62-year-old "river rat" — who lives in Surfside — was allegedly so heated up by a disagreement with then-vice mayor Marc Imberman concerning the town library that he harassed Imberman's son at Publix, where the 17-year-old worked ringing up groceries.

The police were called. Though he wasn't arrested, the town stripped him of his coveted title of chairman of the Surfside education committee. "It's a lie!" Yavis boomed dramatically during the town hall meeting where he was punished.

I phone Yavis, and on a bright weekday morning he saunters from his apartment to my place a block away. He's a sinewy dude in a mesh safari hat, a T-shirt reading "recall," and shorts. He grins widely, exposing a row of missing lower teeth. Yavis is carrying a flash drive that he says holds the key to winning my election. It contains a list of Surfside's absentee voters. We haggle and I give in, agreeing to pay him $50 for it.

As I download the list from the flash drive to my computer, Yavis runs through his credentials. "I spent 30 years working for both the CIA and the Mafia," he tells me in a booming, declaratory voice to rival OJ's. Apparently neither organization pays well. "I'm poor but I'm not broke," he reasons, later adding that he lives on his "Obama checks," meaning social security.

After the information transfer, we head to a picnic table in my back yard to talk. My landlord is an 82-year-old Bulgarian exile who escaped the Communists, and he has trimmed the bushes to spell the acronym of his peasant insurgent group: БЗHC. Next to this covert topiary somehow seems like the perfect place to have this conversation.

Some of his advice is free. He tells me how to exploit my Hispanic heritage to get the Cuban vote — without admitting to anyone that I'm Mexican. "When a Latin opens the door, you should say, 'I'm Gus Garcia-Roberts!' like that," Yavis tells me. "When it's a white person, say 'I'm Gus Garcia-Roberts!'" (Yavis is a pro at harnessing the Hispanic voting block. He's running for a spot on the local Republican Executive Committee using the nickname "Pepe.")

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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".

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.

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.

 
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