Surfside's Dirty Little (Political) Secret

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

"I'd like to put you somewhat at ease and assure you that at least one person will be submitting their candidacy for commissioner," she announced. "And that is myself."

Kligman went on to brag about having lived in Surfside with her husband for seven years, raising two kids, and having former experience in government as an assistant to City of Miami managers. She's also a licensed psychologist.

Her name has an easy, nefarious roll off the tongue: Kligman. After I declared my candidacy, she regularly beat me to the punch. Whenever I learned that she had outmaneuvered me in some way — filing her 25 signatures far in advance of the deadline while I showed up at the last minute, or submitting her financial reports on time while I was fined $31 for tardiness — I balled up my fist and muttered "Kligman!" the same way Jerry says "Newman!" on Seinfeld.

An opportunity comes to swiftboat her. Members of my camp inform me of an issue with her last name. She was born Michelle Piña, but when she was married several years ago, she didn't file paperwork changing her voter registration name as required.

"If she's under both names, Gus," Phyllis posits one day, before adding with gravity, "isn't that fraud?"

Probably not. But OJ's Florida Statutes tome suggests that such a name snafu might have violated the dreaded 101.045(c). My team encourages me to contact the Florida Division of Elections about tossing her name from the ballot. But I don't want to win like that. In fact, by the final week of the election, I'm not sure I want to win at all.

Maybe it's the late financial report and the fine that changed my mind — along with the realization that public service isn't journalism, where a deadline can be massaged by offering to buy your superior a shot and a beer. Maybe it's Roger Carlton's pointedly soul-numbing descriptions of the commissioner's job, with its 500 pages of dense legal briefings a month and meetings that stretch from 7 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning.

But mostly it's Kligman. Throughout the campaign, I've wanted to hate her. But every time I run into her, she smiles sweetly, introduces me to her young son — everything short of offering me freshly baked brownies. She has lived in Surfside longer than I have, and owns property here, and maybe experience does matter, I find myself thinking.

When you qualify to run for office in Florida, you sign an oath declaring that if you win, you will serve. I intend to honor that promise. But I decide to make a campaign video so off-kilter that if Surfside elects me after watching it, I'll know the town is yearning for chaos.

With a New Times videographer in tow, I spend a Friday afternoon engaging in some shenanigans — shotgunning a beer, going door-to-door with an oversize fake check so the viejitas think I'm the sweepstakes man, knocking on Kligman's door to challenge her to a debate, and interviewing a dog. The denouement arrives when I approach the fancily scripted welcome sign to Bal Harbour, Surfside's haughty neighbor to the north. As cars whiz by, I straddle the sign and hump it twice.

The videographer slows down the resulting footage so viewers can hear my grunting. (You can experience it at "The Gus Garcia-Roberts for Commission Campaign Hits.")

It turns out Surfside doesn't like mixing frivolity and politics. The rambling watchdog site Who Controls Surfside Florida rescinds its endorsement.

"We will not endorse him because we believe he is an immature buffoon looking for an audience," writes the anonymous blogger. "If he gets elected, it will be either due to default or [because] people [are] so fed up that they will vote for any new face."

The morning of May 1 — Election Day — Kligman and her extended family have formed a sort of sign-waving guerrilla camp in the town hall parking lot. Vans circulate with pro-Michelle posters strapped to their sides. On the other hand, the only supporter I bring to the polls is my dog Murray.

My opponent pets him and says we should set up a play date with her dog Freud. I apologize for making her life hell in the past month. "Oh, that's OK," she chirps. "I actually enjoyed the race."

Kligman!

I try one more tactic. I stand on busy Harding Avenue, just ahead of a ubiquitous police officer with a radar gun, and wave a sign reading "Speed trap ahead. Vote Gus." Brake lights flicker en masse, but I don't notice any of the ungrateful bastards making U-turns to cast ballots.

Then I head back to town hall and vote for Kligman. So does my fiancée.

I'm at Flanigan's gulping three-dollar gin and tonics when somebody tapes the results to the door of town hall.

Kligman: 333. Garcia-Roberts: 86. That's almost exactly an 80 to 20 percent split. It's the most sound walloping in town memory.

In its Neighbors section that morning, the Herald runs an election recap featuring a strange lead about Kligman campaigning so hard she turned pink. The daily snaps that I "mocked the town." Even the Sun Post weighs in, comparing my loss to that of New Times columnist and Miami-Dade County mayoral candidate Luther Campbell. "Memo to Chuck Strouse," the Sun Post writes to my editor. "Politics ain't working out so well for you folks, eh? Better stick to journalism."

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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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