It's 11:30 a.m. on Election Day, and Alex Daoud pulls up to his precinct at Miami Beach's 21st Street Recreation Center in a gray Chevy SUV. The only available parking space is a bus stop. "Oh jeez, this is horrible," he frets. "If I were still mayor, I'd get a police officer out here right away."
Daoud — who is 64 years old, six feet four inches tall, and looks like a cross between actor John Goodman and Muppet Fozzie Bear — lumbers across the street and past campaign workers, who barely acknowledge his greeting. They don't know that in the Nineties he was the city's most charismatic politician. Nor are they aware he routinely left commission meetings for kinky sex with two women, accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash bribes, and served 18 months in a federal lockup.
Inside it's a different story. The election workers know all about Daoud's shady past, but are delighted to see him. "Buenos días, Mayor," says a sixtyish woman sitting at the registration table.
"Mi amorrrrrr," Daoud purrs.
Daoud, whose voting rights were restored a mere three years ago, quickly casts his ballot for mayoral candidate Simon Cruz and others endorsed by the police union. Then he kisses four elderly ladies goodbye on his way out. One of them places an "I Voted" sticker on his chest. "Does this mean we're going steady?" Daoud says flirtatiously.
Cruz, the international-banker-cum-mayoral-candidate, ended up finishing only 289 votes behind grandmotherly community activist Matti Herrera Bower. The two will compete in a runoff next Tuesday. At stake is the rezoning of the Miami Heart Institute, property tax hikes, and continued overdevelopment of every inch of the Western Hemisphere's playground.
But no matter which one is elected, the Beach is unlikely to be transformed as it was during Daoud's terms as commissioner and mayor, from 1979 to 1991. Last month Daoud published a book detailing his time as the city's czar. It's called Sins of South Beach. And it's a juicy, if sometimes self-serving and myopic, 493-page romp through Daoud's 22-year political career. The handsome Lebanese-Catholic, half-Jewish, Spanish-speaking lawyer with a caudillo's charm was elected to the Miami Beach City Commission in 1979.
Back then the Beach was a haven for the elderly and a cesspool of crime. Some of the book's most interesting chapters catalogue Daoud's ride-alongs with the cops on the midnight shift; he often carried a gun and, he contends, beat rapists and robbers to a pulp at officers' behest.
In his first run as mayor in 1985, Daoud beat incumbent Malcolm Fromberg. Daoud's multiethnic and linguistic stew was at first a tasty change in a fractious town. During that campaign for mayor, he raised $100,000 — which equates to about $193,000 today, or almost four times the total raised by Bower.
The Eighties were a lawless era on the Beach, and Daoud was elected for three two-year terms. His oversize personality attracted celebrities like Princess Caroline of Monaco and Donald Trump. He even had two cameos on Miami Vice (in one episode he played a corrupt judge; "No typecasting there," he says, chuckling), and in 1988 pondered a run for Congress.
Then, on October 29, 1991, just days before his final term as mayor ended, the feds indicted him on 41 counts of bribery, obstruction of justice, and tax evasion. He was accused of accepting a $10,000 bribe from a drug dealer and boxing promoter, of directing his secretaries to lie on the witness stand, and of accepting $20,000 to vote on a boat dock for a millionaire. Instead of preparing for his next campaign, he spent the next year organizing his defense.
Daoud's trial, which Hurricane Andrew interrupted, was a circus. His former lover, Bonnie Levin, took the stand against him and said she had dated Daoud — and that he had talked about taking payments from businessmen in exchange for favors. His second wife, Terri, was in the audience and heard it all. When Levin finished testifying, Terri stood up in court and yelled, "I'm leaving you!"
In 1993 a jury found him guilty on only one count of bribery; he later pleaded guilty to four additional counts of obstruction of justice and tax evasion. Though Daoud could have faced life in prison, Judge James Lawrence King cut the sentence to 18 months. The reason: Daoud helped the government go after two former friends: David Paul, the ex-chairman of CenTrust Bank, and Abel Holz, the former chairman of Capital Bank.
While locked down in solitary confinement for most of that time (Daoud says there was a death threat), he documented his flaws in a memoir. "It started as a catharsis," he says. "I just wanted to write the real story. The real story of politics never gets out."
It's impossible to confirm many of the unseemly events described in the book. For instance, nightlong lovemaking sessions are recounted in excruciating detail. In one passage, Daoud says a "red-haired, freckle-faced 21-year-old pixie of a college student" worked on his mayoral campaign. He was twice her age, he says, but that didn't stop the young woman from crawling between his sheets one night, declaring, "I admire you so much. The way you've fought against all the odds. Tomorrow you have the most important debate of the campaign, and I want you to win."
Daoud concedes, "The romantic scenes probably got much more romantic in the retelling."
Even more tantalizing is his exhaustive description of political sleaze. Chapter after chapter describes how he pocketed cash and accepted "retainers" in exchange for favors or votes.
Among those whom he claims paid him off:
• Abel Holz: Daoud says the former chairman of Capital Bank kept him on a $1000-per-month retainer for doing political favors; Daoud wore a wire for the feds to help implicate Holz, who in 1995 pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice, a felony. He served a month and a half in jail and four months of house arrest.
• Charles Hermanowski: He allegedly paid the Miami Beach mayor $10,000 to vote in favor of his cable TV franchise. When a federal grand jury indicted Hermanowski in 2001 on tax evasion charges, he fled the country.
• Chris Korge: Daoud claims Korge, who is his first cousin and an influential lobbyist and fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, tried to bribe him with $50,000 to vote on a hotel project on the Beach, but Daoud refused. (Korge denies the claim.)
• David Paul: The former chairman of CenTrust Bank wanted the city commission to allow him to build a dock for his 120-foot yacht. He agreed to give Daoud $20,000 a year in exchange for voting for the dock and garnering commission support.
• Egmont Sonderling: The wealthy broadcasting magnate gave Daoud $3000 for renovations to his Sunset Island mansion in exchange for attending one of Sonderling's parties. (Sonderling testified that Daoud approached him and asked him for cash; Daoud was acquitted on that count.)
Daoud says he almost killed himself after his trial. When he left prison, he felt bitter and depressed. He lost his Sunset Island mansion and his Corvette. His political cronies spurned him. But perhaps the most difficult thing for the loquacious extrovert: He wasn't the mayor. He was nobody. "I went from being the most popular person in the world to being ostracized," he says. "The lessons were very painful."
These days Daoud has gained some weight but still looks surprisingly young for his 64 years. He survives on his social security check, doesn't really have a job, and lives in a guest room in his daughter's house. He does, however, have a girlfriend half his age.
He still follows Beach politics, and this year's campaign was no exception. "Running for office is one of the most painful things in Miami Beach," he says. "As a candidate, you just give so much of your soul to the public."
One candidate — he won't say who "because of the baggage" — called him for campaign advice. "Take the high road, I told them," Daoud says. "Smile, shake hands, and meet the people." Daoud says that Jonah Wolfson ran a "brilliant campaign" — he slimed his opponent by claiming he had business ties to Cuba. (Daoud did something similar during his first run for mayor.) "Beach politics are still rough-and-tumble," he says.
As to the superclose race between Michael Gongora and Ed Tobin, which required a recount, Daoud was surprised at the nastiness. Gongora, a lawyer, was accused of being an unethical louse — with some justification.
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But the top seat drew most of the ex-mayor's attention. Cruz outfundraised Bower by seven times, but she still bettered him at the polls. There were some claims of dirty politicking — minor misuse of a political action committee, "but nothing like in my day," Daoud says. Even though he voted for Cruz, he was impressed at the number of supporters Bower had at the polls on Election Day. "Matti Bower ran a phenomenal campaign," he says.
For old times' sake, Daoud drives by a couple of polls on Election Day before heading for Books & Books in Coral Gables. "Pardon me," he says to a clerk with a goatee behind the front counter. "Do you have the book Sins of South Beach?"
The clerk nods and picks up a copy sitting near the register. The jacket shows a cheesy, Miami Vice-style photo of Ocean Drive, all neon and glitz. "The author is actually a really good writer," the clerk says. "Just goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover."
A grin spreads across Daoud's face. "Especially when it's written by a corrupt politician."