In a board room just above a fleet of Christmas-bowed Rolls Royces, Norman Braman is surrounded by evidence of his great success — framed photos of his meetings with Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford; a collage documenting his time as owner of the Philadelphia Eagles; a governor's notice declaring January 11, 1994, to be Norman Braman Day in Maryland; an award on his desk from Miami Mayor Manny Diaz for his contributions to Art Basel.
The 75-year-old Braman, a lanky gent whose monogrammed baby-blue dress shirt elegantly contrasts slate-gray pants, hasn't lost much in his life. Though he suffered a blow in mid-November, when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen threw out his challenge to the $3 billion Megaplan for downtown, he is far from finished.
By the end of this week, he will appeal the decision. And even if that fails, the recession is almost certain to kill most of this cornucopia of municipal excess. Just last Friday, plans for a tunnel to the Port of Miami were scrapped, a casualty of the state's anorexic finances.
"We're just in the third inning," Braman says. "I have every confidence that the city and county's proposal will never come to fruition."
With a net worth of $1.7 billion, he might be the most significant nonpolitician in town since Henry Flagler. His ascent from poor immigrant progeny to consummate pain in the ass to Florida officialdom is dizzying. Braman's Romanian mother was a seamstress and his Polish father a barber in Philadelphia's pre-Fresh Prince west side. They never even owned a car.
After graduating from Temple University, he quickly founded a chain of department stores and then developed a pharmaceutical company. In 1968, flush with cash, he moved to South Florida, retired at age 36, bought a boat named El Dorado, and took his two lovely daughters to school every day.
Within five years, he grew restless and bought a Cadillac agency, which he nurtured into the megadealership Braman Motors.
In 1982, he began molding his reputation as Miami's loudest citizen. That year, Mayor Maurice Ferre was pushing a one-cent sales tax to build a new Dolphins stadium near downtown. Braman jumped into the fray, launching a media campaign opposing Ferre. The tax was defeated in both city and county ballot boxes.
In 1987, Braman declared victory when Joe Robbie opened the current Dolphin Stadium, built with the then-team-owner's own cash. "My involvement then was as it is now," Braman says, "as a citizen in disbelief that Ferre was intent on ramming this thing down the throats of the public."
His next battle came against a transportation sales tax pushed by a wunderkind politician giddy with ambition. In 1999, 38-year-old Miami-Dade County Mayor (and People's "Sexiest Politician") Alex Penelas was pushing a plan to raise funds for a $16 billion public transportation expansion with a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.
By then, Braman had bought and sold the Eagles for an estimated $120 million profit. He used his big money and high profile to tout an organization called People Who Just Don't Want Higher Taxes and bombard the radio waves with ads blasting Penelas's plan as a hopeless swindle. On July 29, a huge voter turnout rejected the tax by a tally of more than two to one. "[Braman] funded a campaign that underlined the city's past failures to build a successful transportation system," says Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida. "He killed its chances."
Three years later, Penelas doggedly proposed a half-cent transit tax and, the way Braman describes it, personally begged the billionaire to stay out of it: "He sort of conned me, and everybody else, with his hot air and baloney."
Without Braman's interference, it passed. The resulting transit fund has been so mismanaged that Miami-Dade politicians officially apologized last month. Braman calls not fighting the tax his "only regret" — a mistake he is unlikely to make again.
Braman calls himself a "fiscal conservative and a social liberal," which translates politically to large donations to the Republican Party (he gave John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign $28,500). He is adamantly against using public funds for private enterprise, which includes his opposition to a Detroit automaker bailout despite his own business relationship with General Motors.
And this owner of an estimated $1 billion art collection and a 16,000-square-foot mansion on ultra-exclusive Indian Creek Island trusts your average county politician about as much as a vagrant spotted on his BMW lot. "Miami-Dade government is totally inept, and it's been that way for many decades," Braman declares. "I defy anybody to tell me what works here."
Given his pugnacious track record, it's unsurprising that Braman assailed the Megaplan, an audacious $3 billion makeover of downtown and environs that would — without a public vote — plant a Marlins baseball stadium in Little Havana, build a tunnel from I-395 to the Port of Miami, revamp Bicentennial Park, construct a downtown streetcar, and pay off debt at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.
To fight the plan, he spent $1 million of his own money — eight times as much as he shelled out to kill the transportation tax — before Judge Cohen's decision. His argument: Use of the funds should require a public vote. He also claims county officials didn't follow open-government laws, and that the use of public funds for the Marlins stadium is unconstitutional.
"We were hoping to win on the trial level," says his lead attorney, Bob Martinez. "But Mr. Braman is a person of great tenacity."
In the appeal, Braman will try to sway the Third District Court of Appeal with the same line of reasoning. And he won't surrender even if he loses there. "From the very beginning," the billionaire declares, "I've said this case will go all the way up to the Supreme Court."
Regardless of the suit, the recession has become his ally. On Friday, the Port of Miami tunnel project was officially killed after a French financial firm that was partnering with Florida went belly-up. Worse for plan backers, funding relies heavily on tourist tax — to the tune of more than $1 billion through 2030. Scaring up that sort of cash looks a lot harder now than it did last December. "Now that we know where the health of the economy is going," says Carlos Gimenez, one of four county commissioners to vote against the Megaplan, "what about the health of those tourist taxes?"
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The gnarly bond market is another major blow. An estimated 90 percent of the plan is to be financed by credit — and it is a virtually insurmountable task to sell bonds on these projects without being crippled by interest. While baseball clubs are notoriously secretive about profits, the Marlins, who drew only 600 fans to one game last year, have never raked in revenue, and in 2007 were estimated by Forbes to be Major League Baseball's least valuable franchise. And they need to cough up $150 million. "The baseball stadium is semi-gone," speculates Javier Souto, another dissenting commissioner. "I think this whole thing is going to be coming apart soon."
Of course, Megaplan backers are still publicly waving their victory flag. Says Marlins Senior Vice President Peter J. Loyello: The team is "focused on moving forward now that the court has dismissed each and every count in Braman's lawsuit." Vicky Mallette, communications director for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez, says the billionaire's continued fight "sounds like sour grapes to me."
Braman's lawsuit might have succeeded in an unintended fashion — by stalling the Megaplan until the economy caught up with it. "The lawsuit has allowed the community to get some transparency about what the city has done, and has caused the process to go at a more deliberate pace," says Braman's attorney, Martinez. "What has occurred in the meantime is the economy has tanked, the municipal finance market has dried up, and the county and city haven't been able to rush this through as they planned. The circumstances overtook them."
If that turns out to be true, Braman will have made himself a new pack of enemies — and not just in the pomade-in-the-hair-and-flag-pin-on-the-lapel set. Since his fight for the little guy potentially threatens the future of our local baseball team, the tycoon has drawn ire from actual little guys. Says Yohan Gomez, a 21-year-old broadcast journalism major at the University of Miami, and creator of a 500-member Facebook group defending the new stadium and blasting Braman: "I think he's just an old man who has a lot of time on his hands and nothing better to do."