Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret

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

I take some notes. Yavis tells me we're off the record. I tell him we're on. He tells me we're off. I tell him we're on. He keeps talking.

He tries to sell me on his deluxe package. He will call every voter in Surfside and convince them that they need an investigative journalist in office. He will go door-to-door. He will wear a T-shirt with my name on it. "Five hundred bucks, and I'll win this thing for you," he pitches. "Two hundred fifty up-front and two hundred fifty when we win.

"If we don't win, then I didn't do my job," he says, but then clarifies, "but I'm not giving back the first 250."

I turn him down, but not because I don't think he'd earn his money. Mine is a self-funded campaign. And if I get elected to my $1-a-day seat, I plan to keep all interactions on the record. Which would probably kill any extracurricular moneymaking activities like shaking down developers.

But I continue to hear pieces of news about Yavis — that he screamed about his water bill at a Miami Beach town hall meeting and that he got into a shoving match with a TV cameraman. He calls my cell phone one afternoon and tells me that even though I didn't buy his services, I still have his vote. Then I hear him and a passing pedestrian begin hollering at one another. Yavis spouts mischievous nonsense about Latin American dictators and the U.S. president. "¡Pinochet, sí! ¡Obama, no!" There's something else undecipherable about Hugo Chávez, some scuffling sounds, and then a dial tone.

A couple of weeks before the election, Town Manager Roger Carlton calls and invites me to meet with him at his office.

My election team doesn't like it. Carlton is the dreaded establishment. Phyllis calls him, with disdain, Surfside's "daddy rabbit."

OJ says, "He's just trying to get in your brain, man!"

I've read some of Carlton's columns in the Surfside Gazette, which is sort of the town's English-language Granma. He often laments the lack of laws available to squelch bloggers taking "unfounded" shots at town officials. Such cyber-critics, Carlton wrote in one recent issue, "ignore the impact on your family when these folks call you corrupt and uncaring in the new forms of unaccountable communication that our electronic age has created."

I like to imagine that he pens such columns on his front porch after dipping his quill in sweet tea. I agree to meet him.

The "daddy rabbit" greets me in his expansive corner office in town hall. He's a large fellow in a business suit, with a white beard on a big, bovine face. I can't quite place the likeness, until he mentions he once won $50 in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest at Flanigan's. "Of course," he adds, "because of my position, I couldn't accept the money."

Carlton probably won't miss his doppelganger winnings. He used to be a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin. Since then, he's overseen the City of Miami's street parking and served as the city manager of South Miami and Miami Beach. He's been Surfside's manager since 2010, and the town pays him $145,000 a year.

But Carlton doesn't really come across as the municipal Darth Maul that my team has made him out to be. He's more like an uncle who's interesting even if you aren't drunk. He lives with his wife in a Brickell high-rise because they like the urban life, but he talks in a yearning way about his North Carolina country house, in a region so sparsely populated that a six-vote election was once decided with a coin toss.

But things get weird when he broaches the topic of my supporters — namely Dorie Lurie. "If she had been around in his day," Carlton intones, "she would have been a compatriot of the Marquis de Sade."

That description seems a little harsh for a lady with a ceramic donkey collection. But Carlton says Dorie once lured him to her house with the promise of a civil meeting. When he arrived, she was waiting with a cadre of fellow insurgents, all ready to berate him about a recent zoning decision the town had made. "I told her," Carlton intones, his steely glare now ruining the Papa Hemingway thing, "never to ambush me again."

Everybody in town hall knows from the signatures on my petition that I am a member of the Dorie Lurie revolution. Carlton doesn't hide his hope that I lose.

"If you're defeated," Carlton tells me cheerily before showing me out, "that will mark the end of the days of Dorie's influence in this town."

Around the time I meet with Carlton, Michelle Kligman's signs start popping up around the neighborhood. "Experience matters," they read passive-aggressively.

Along with the rest of Surfside's political world, I first laid eyes on Kligman at a commission meeting in mid-March. The town's elected leaders had just announced a plan for a special election to address the open commission spot. I was considering my next move when a woman — handsome with dark brown hair and cloaked in soft fabrics — beat me to the podium.

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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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