Anatomy of a Defeat
Betty Sime had Key Biscayne's first mayoral election so deep in her pocket that several of her closest friends didn't even bother to vote. "I had people the day of the election calling me up, saying, `Well, we're not going to be at the election party tonight, but we wanted to congratulate you on winning,'" Sime recalls, shifting forward on a chair in the living room of her cedar-and-glass house overlooking Biscayne Bay. "And I had supporters who gave me parties and donated money and didn't vote that day!" Sime throws up her arms, lets out an abbreviated laugh of dismay, and sinks back in the chair. An expression of calm tinged with frustration settles across the soft features of her face as she gazes out beyond her two German shepherds lumbering around the pool deck. "It's always the kiss of death when you think you've got it made."
If so, the Grim Reaper of the Polls enjoyed some heavy petting with Sime this past September 3. While she luxuriated in confidence and her friends prematurely saluted victory, other voters slipped in and out of the polling booths. At about 9:00 p.m., the final tally was announced and the champagne went flat in the Sime camp: She had lost by 60 votes, 1236 to 1176. "It was one of the true real surprises in politics in the last couple of years," says Philip Hamersmith, a South Florida political strategist. "No matter what anybody says, it was a complete surprise."
Hamersmith would find few dissenters on Key Biscayne, where residents are still trying to figure out why Sime lost. She was the island's most visible and determined civic activist, the 53-year-old leader of its successful incorporation movement, a foe of encroaching development, a 21-year resident, a household name. Her opponent, Rafael Conte, was a 66-year-old airline executive who had sat quietly on the island's ad hoc citizens' council and said little. He was the quintessential dark horse. In fact some residents, wanting to stem a landslide victory and preserve the island's cultivated neighborliness, checked Conte's name on the mayoral ballot out of politeness. But in conversations from the docks of the Key Biscayne Yacht Club to the breakfast counter at Vernon's Pharmacy, residents posit several reasons for Sime's fall at the polls, not the least of which was her triumph in the incorporation battle that made the election possible in the first place.
Sime (pronounced simm) emerged on the nascent Key Biscayne political scene at the same time the island's relationship with the Metro-Dade Commission began to sour, and murmurs about incorporation became talk. She marks the start of war with the commission in October 1987, when the county uprooted a hammock of native trees along Crandon Boulevard to build a pedestrian underpass to the International Tennis Center, site of the Lipton International Players Championships. Sime led public meetings and a demonstration against the tree removals. At one point, she and several other indignant residents actually faced off against a bulldozer on the median. Public outcry forced the county to replace the trees and the state legislature to declare Crandon Boulevard a historic road.
"It was the most open, flagrant lack of communication between the county and the people out here, because no one ever really understood they were going to bulldoze trees," Sime recalls. "They had done a lot of things, but this was such an overt lack of caring about what the people thought."
The controversy precipitated the election, on November 17, 1987, of the Key Biscayne Council, nine residents who would serve as a liaison between the island and the county. "In essence it was a lobbying group, but it was a legally elected body and had more influence than any other group on the island," says Sime, who emerged as the council's chairwoman. "It was very necessary, since we had nobody to really speak for residents on the island."
Sime quickly became synonymous with the council's efforts to check development and other threats to Key Biscayne's delicate environmental and social equilibrium. The citizens' group scuffled with the county over plans to build a 12,000-seat stadium at the tennis center and a lavish 33,000-square-foot clubhouse that included a hair salon, a restaurant, and an aerobics studio. They fought bitterly against two hotel-and-condominium projects that would have added more than 2700 new dwelling units to the island of lush subtropical vegetation and white-sand beaches. "We're not antidevelopment, we just want reasonable development so it doesn't destroy what we have out here," Sime explains.
But the council had limited success getting through to the county commissioners and affecting the projects. "We'd speak and speak and speak and they'd ignore us, they'd interrupt us when we were talking," says Sime, her voice rising in frustration at the memory of countless commission meetings. "It was like talking to a blank wall. We felt naively that if we had this elected group and we went before the commission and explained why we didn't want this excessive development, that they would listen. But we were wrong."
The council did manage to force the county to downsize the Lipton clubhouse to one-third of its proposed size, but was unable to reduce or block the stadium, or make any headway in negotiations with the county and the hotel-condo development companies, Hemmeter Development Continental and VMS Realty Partners.
Still, in a November 1989 straw vote, Key Biscayne's voters reaffirmed the council's stand against runaway development. Although the county had already given builders the go-ahead, the island's voters registered their overwhelming disapproval of the VMS Realty development, slammed the Hemmeter project, which days later would receive county approval, and resolved to pursue legal action against the two projects until public services on the island were improved. The majority also voted down plans for the proposed stadium (which was eventually downsized to 7000 seats and is set for construction in 1992.)
More important, though, a majority of voters expressed their resentment of the county's seeming insensitivity, by urging the Key Biscayne Council to look into the possibility of secession. "It became clear that we had no other choice, that the county commission would not listen to us, and that we had no real power," says Sime, who had been elected to serve her second two-year term as council chairwoman. "Voters were sick and tired of the commission being hand-in-hand with the developers and not caring about the rest of us."
During the ensuing year, Sime and the council spearheaded the incorporation movement, which divided the island's residents in a debate that pitted those who feared higher taxes and deteriorated public services against those who were tired of the county's treatment of Key Biscayne and wanted self-determination. On November 6, 1990, by a 58-to-42 percent margin, residents voted to break from the county, making Key Biscayne only the second city to incorporate since the Metro charter was adopted in 1957. (Islandia, a largely uninhabited chain of islands south of Key Biscayne, incorporated in 1961.)
A charter for the brand-new municipality was approved by the island's voters this past June, creating a formidable island fortress of wealth, whiteness, and Republicanism. Key Biscayne's population of 8854 includes 4998 non-Hispanic whites, 3790 Hispanics, and 19 non-Hispanic blacks, more bleached than any other municipality except Bal Harbour. Its median house value of $312,500 is higher than that of Coral Gables, and 55 percent of all registered voters align themselves with the GOP, compared to 31 percent who side with the Democratic Party.
The village charter called for an unsalaried mayor, a six-member elected board of trustees, and a paid city manager appointed to administrate the government. Once the new administration was in place, the council would be dissolved. Fourteen candidates filed for the trustees' race, but only Sime and the council's treasurer, Rafael Conte, announced they would run for mayor. Sime's candidacy was no surprise and her positions regarding the issues were well known, but Conte was a mystery. A 21-year resident of the key, he was a top sales executive at Varig Brazilian Airlines, a Rutgers graduate, widower, and father of four. But he had maintained a very low profile in public and on the citizens group. "Conte was a very nice guy who, among the nine members of the council, was the least visible," says Eugene Stearns, who serves as the group's attorney. "He very rarely spoke in council meetings." Conte's resume boasted a solid career in administration, but he lacked the all-American appeal of Sime, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Duke University, a former state-ranked tennis player, mother of several star athletes, and wife of one of the nation's foremost opthalmologists.
Both mayoral campaigns were conducted with a civility befitting Key Biscayne's genteel ambiance. "The candidates were very kind and said nice things about each other," says Dorothea Bailey, who campaigned for Sime. "It wasn't like Miami Beach!" The gentle approach also extended to the candidates' campaign literature. Sime carefully avoided any semblance of confrontation in her mailings, and Conte never mentioned his opponent in either of his two flyers. And neither candidate addressed any of the controversial issues facing the island, particularly the hotel projects or the Lipton stadium. In fact Sime says that at the last minute, she pulled a leaflet that directly contrasted the two candidates' positions regarding several issues.
But the campaigns differed in several ways that subtly mirrored a significant difference between Sime and Conte. Whereas Sime ran a busy campaign with a $7000 budget and more than 100 volunteers, Conte's effort was subdued, with a budget half the size and about a dozen volunteers. "That's my own personality, being low-key and trying not to make a ruckus," says Conte, a tall, soft-spoken, grandfatherly man. "She had more people helping her. If I had five, it was too many."
And after more than a year of rancorous debate about incorporation, many residents were hoping to find in the September 3 vote the restoration of calm on their self-described Island Paradise. "People were looking for peace, tranquility, and he gave them that image," says Luis Lauredo, a newly elected trustee. "Conte ran a very low-key campaign in which he projected a style people were looking for."
As an established businessman, Conte also offered -- at least superficially -- the promise of a well-managed village, and restoration of an even political keel. "What I heard up and down the key was that Sime was a housewife who didn't have business experience, while Conte was more of a business type," says James Pavilack, a nineteen-year resident. "For the first time, people wanted someone with business experience." Never mind that Sime had led the citizen's council from its genesis, instigated the incorporation movement, and coordinated opposition to a number of different development issues. After all this is America, where, in the sea of political analysis, voters rarely wade in over their ankles.
Sime says a more pertinent reason for her defeat is that she lost the votes of many antisecessionists. Although all the candidates had supported incorporation, Sime had become so closely linked with the issue that for many foes of incorporation, virtually anyone else would have been a better choice. "I was the focal point, I was the one who worked hard, I was the one seen on the [pro-incorporation] videos, I went to the condos, I was the active one," Sime says. And understandably Sime bragged in a campaign mailing about her efforts. Conte left the issue out of his mailings.
During the campaign, Mary Schulman, a long-time resident who bitterly opposed the key's independence, sent out anti-Sime mailings to residents and hostile letters to Key Biscayne's newspaper, The Islander News. Schulman says Sime's close association with every council issue hurt her. "That was her downfall. The council on the whole had done nothing but disrupt this island for the last three years," says the strident Schulman. "They took a nice community and made it into a battlefield." But Schulman, too, sidesteps the fact that Conte was a member and an officeholder. "He was very low-key," she says, echoing what has become a Zen-like mantra among Conte supporters. "No one really knew him. He was there but he wasn't there."
"I do take stands and I'll continue to do so," Sime insists. "I think that's only fair -- that the people know what your positions are. A lot of politicians won't do that. If that's what you want -- someone who's never going to take a position -- well, then that's what you get."
Sime's firm stand on a seemingly harmless but incredibly divisive issue -- new playing fields for the island's kids -- also cost her votes. She championed a proposal to sod three acres of the Quiet Gardens, a 58-acre botanical reserve at the southern tip of Crandon Park, on the site of the old zoo. Those acres, she proposed, could be supplemented with five acres that were being used as the county's motor pool, and three acres outside the old zoo site. The plan met stiff opposition, particularly from residents of the Commodore Club, a condominium complex adjacent to the gardens. "In my opinion that swayed the election, that one issue," says Conte. The voting results bear out his claim: in the 49th Precinct, which covers the northeast quarter of the island including the Commodore Club, Conte took home 319 votes out of 539 cast, or 59 percent.
"That's what she lost on," agrees Marie Kirk, vice president of the Key Biscayne Property Taxpayers Association, a group that opposed incorporation. "Sime tried to come and please the young people, the PTA group, by saying they were going to have a playing field on the old zoo site. All the condo people voted against it because it was going to be in their back yard." Kirk, who says she's "over 65," points out that the anti-incorporation and Quiet Gardens issues had strong support among the elderly. "The election was more divisive along age lines than anything else," Kirk says. "I guess you'd say it was a battle of the ages."
While many Key Biscayne residents agree that the vote split significantly between the generations, few embrace, or even touch, the issue of ethnicity. On the island, ethnic divisions blur unlike any other city in Dade. At the slightest mention of racial differences, residents will spring forward, protesting earnestly that nothing of that sort exists on their island. However, attorney Eugene Stearns says the election introduced an element of ethnic dynamics that the key has never seen before. He locates the cause in Luis Lauredo's campaign for trustee.
"He did a very, very effective job getting turnout of Hispanic voters that typically aren't involved in the community," says Stearns, one Key resident who doesn't shrink from controversy. "He brought a level of organization to his campaign that the public had no reason to know even existed. He's responsible for 90 to 95 percent of the Hispanic vote and also got out 20 to 25 percent of the Anglo vote." By way of proof, Stearns offers this observation: "Key Biscayne is small and I've been here twenty years, so I know a lot of people. But going to the polls was an unusual experience because I didn't know probably two-thirds of the people walking in to vote. But Luis knew them all." Not coincidentally, Lauredo was the highest vote getter at the polls, garnering 1401 votes, 165 more than Conte and 249 more than his nearest trustee opponent, Clifford Brody.
Stearns says the practical effect of Lauredo's campaigning was to lift the Hispanic percentage of the voting population well above the customary twenty percent. And in any election, Stearns says, those unfamiliar with the issues tend to vote for the name that sounds like their own. "So Rafael, because it was a Hispanic name, got a lot of those votes. If it wasn't for Luis Lauredo, the vote wouldn't have been the same." According to the county's statistical breakdown of voters, 73 percent of Key Biscayne's registered Hispanic voters turned out, compared to 59 percent of registered non-Hispanic white voters. So although Hispanic voters comprise only 25 percent of all registered residents, the Hispanic turnout amounted to nearly 30 percent of all voters who went to the polls.
Lauredo acknowledges that Conte "may have ridden on my coattails to a certain degree," but he bristles at the suggestion that he made a special appeal to the Hispanic population. "I did not campaign as a Hispanic, I did not appeal to any ethnic divisions," says Lauredo, who is president of an airline-parts company and who headed the committee that wrote the village's charter. "I got the vote out because they liked me and they liked my message."
Voting blocs aside, Sime contends that Conte won because he did not suffer from hubris or his supporters from languor. "Let's just put it this way," Sime says. "Whoever got the vote out that day, whoever had the energy and the effort, won. Whoever went out and voted got their candidate in."
Her greatest disappointment, Sime adds, lies in the fact that she will not play an official role in determining the direction of Key Biscayne's newfound autonomy. "That's the frustration, because we were fighting such an uphill battle before," she explains. "The only real legal power we had was the lawsuits, and one of the things the council did -- and nobody, even the people that don't like the council, can refute this -- is that we made people aware of the issues. And they sure knew what was going on, in no uncertain terms!"
The Key Biscayne Council will dissolve as soon as accounting matters are resolved and the new government is able to outline its plans for pursuing matters the council brought to court. These include lawsuits against the county and VMS Development and against the county and Hemmeter Development; a lawsuit against the county demanding a usage agreement for the Lipton stadium; and two suits that challenge a massive expansion proposal for the Seaquarium site on Virginia Key. "We're just seeing what the new government will do," Sime says with concern. "I hope they don't let down on any of the battles that we fought." Her caution may be well founded: Conte, who plans to retire from Varig early next year, says he doesn't know how the individual suits have progressed over the past few months and says he doesn't "have an opinion" about them.
Sime says she's encouraged by the trustees' election, which placed several close allies on the board, and she says she'll lobby the new government to maintain the pressure on developers. It's still too early to make a decision about a run for mayor in 1993, when Conte's first term expires. But Sime draws an intriguing comparison between her fate at the polls and Winston Churchill's loss of the prime ministry in 1945, after he'd led Great Britain through World War II. "I think the Churchill analogy is perfect," Sime says. "And remember, Churchill came back!
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.