Who's afraid of Don Peebles? At Miami Beach City Hall, plenty of people
Who's afraid of Don Peebles? At Miami Beach City Hall, plenty of people
Steve Satterwhite

Black and White and Dread All Over

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, or Manhattanites heading for the Hamptons, Miami Beach's city hall also has a rhythm you can set your watch to. At some point during a lengthy Beach commission meeting, Commissioner Luis Garcia will begin bellowing epithets such as "Dictator!" and "Hugo Chavez!" at his political rival, Mayor David Dermer. The mayor, turning red-faced, will storm out of the room to regain his composure. And once the meeting has devolved into a schoolyard squabble, Commissioner Saul Gross will step in, deftly solving a contentious historic-preservation issue, finding a new home for the evicted Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, or soothing ruffled feathers before chairs start flying.

Which made Gross's tone at the June 11 Beach commission meeting all the more jarring. "Enough is enough!" he exclaimed grimly, staring back from the dais at Royal Palm Crowne Plaza Resort owner Don Peebles. For more than an hour Peebles had been going through an elaborate song and dance routine, presenting video clips, pointing to detailed charts, even wheeling out several Miami ministers to offer up testimonials on behalf of his plans to drastically slash the amount of rent his resort would pay to the city government.

It had been a decade since the city had provided several prime beachfront parcels and Art Deco buildings, and then kicked in a ten-million-dollar loan for Peebles to revamp them as the nation's first African-American-owned convention-style hotel -- the key to ending a three-year black tourist boycott of Miami-Dade County. Now, after endless construction delays, the Royal Palm was open, but Peebles oddly blamed the city for neglecting to point out problems that caused him huge cost overruns -- overruns he wanted the city to cover. He insisted that his 25-year resort lease be upgraded to 99 years -- with his annual rent payments dropped from $490,000 to about $80,000. If the Beach really believed in racial justice, Peebles argued as the commission sat utterly silent, they'd jump at this new deal.

Gross wasn't buying any of it, and the anger in his voice was palpable. "What you've proposed at a cost of $40 million to the taxpayers of Miami Beach is preposterous!" he snapped, as eyebrows began rising all over the room. This wasn't a "black/white issue," it was a "business issue" -- though clearly Peebles relished the idea of holding a racially charged lawsuit over the city's head. "You, Mr. Peebles, like to use litigation as a tactic in your transactions. In fact, in this very transaction [the Royal Palm], you've been involved in lawsuits with your partners, you've been involved in lawsuits with your engineers, you've been involved in a lawsuit with your contractor, and in my judgment you will be involved in a lawsuit with the City of Miami Beach." After eighteen months of protracted talks, he added, "I don't need months more of negotiating to dismiss this out of hand. I think it's preposterous!"

Commissioner Richard Steinberg continued on that note, accusing Peebles of playing a "race game" by betting that the Beach was terrified of revisiting the black boycott, afraid of "the headlines when it files suit to collect on the rent that you have not been paying."

Commissioner José Smith, though much more muted in his criticism, also made it clear he wasn't willing to turn what was originally a sweetheart deal into a $40 million giveaway.

Yet for all this Sturm und Drang, a curious thing happened as commissioners Matti Bower, Simon Cruz, Garcia, and Mayor Dermer took their turns speaking. Each bent over backward to agree with both sides. Peebles had been wronged, and somehow so had the Beach. The more they spoke, the harder it was to figure out exactly where they stood. Was Peebles a hustler playing the race card or a crusader against inequality? Bower even complained she was "still gathering facts," despite eighteen months of city hall talks, since "I have a very bad memory for detail." But she assured Peebles she knew just how it felt to be a black man. After all, being a woman -- a fact she noted for Peebles no less than four times within 60 seconds -- she too was a minority fighting "a constant battle" inside city hall.

It was a baffling display. How could Peebles infuriate Gross and Steinberg -- two of the city's most even-keeled figures -- while inducing in their colleagues a bewildering show of glad-handing and verbal gymnastics? The key would seem to be this November's Beach election. Bower, Cruz, Garcia, and Dermer are all up for re-election. And Peebles has made little secret of his intention to pour cash into the campaigns of those who support him, and conversely to lavish funds on the opponents of those who cross him.

It's hardly idle talk. As previously reported by New Times, Peebles allegedly bragged in 1999 of being able to personally raise $75,000 for mayoral hopeful Martin Shapiro in his quest to unseat his nemesis, Neisen Kasdin. (A State Attorney's Office investigation into campaign violations -- on both Peebles and Kasdin -- was dropped for lack of cooperation by witnesses.) More recently Peebles admitted to New Times's Francisco Alvarado he pumped $50,000 into the unsuccessful mayoral campaign of Nancy Liebman in her 2001 bid against Dermer and Kasdin ally Elaine Bloom. (After Liebman's elimination, Peebles cast his lot with Dermer.) With barely 13,000 voters deciding the outcome of the Beach's elections, those dollars -- and the advertising they buy -- can be crucial.

So how does Peebles do it? Especially considering that it's illegal to contribute more than $500 to a candidate per election. Simple: You don't get to be a developer of multimillion-dollar projects by following the letter of the law -- at least not in Peebles's view. He laid out his modus operandi before the entire commission this past November, scoffing at Gross's attempts to enact new campaign-finance reforms.

"When I call up the general contractor," Peebles explained at the time, "who I am paying $65 million to build a building for me, and tell him Saul Gross is a nice guy and I would like you, your company, and your employees to each contribute $500 to his campaign, I dare them to tell me no.... Or I'll get on my intercom, call up my comptroller, and ask him how many limited partnerships and entities do we have? He tells me 30 or so. I tell him to cut a check from each of them and give it to Commissioner Luis Garcia's campaign."

Matti Bower may claim to have a bad memory, but as this year's November election approaches, you can bet even she will recall Peebles's words with ringing clarity.

What makes Tony run? That's the buzz-laden question surrounding crobar co-owner Tony Guerra's nascent candidacy for Miami Beach commissioner against incumbent Simon Cruz. To read the volumes of press Guerra's recent announcement has generated is to accept at face value his desire to represent the interests of the city's nightclub industry -- a business he sees as increasingly threatened by overregulation.

Look closer. Just as most of the hundreds of nightlife protesters who flooded city hall in May, supposedly fighting for their right to party, were actually nightclub employees ordered by their bosses to appear, Guerra also seems to have some strings attached.

In a gushing profile, Guerra earnestly told Street, the Herald's tabloid weekly: "My message to the youth of Miami Beach is that the one right given to us citizens is the right to vote, and we should take advantage of it." Stirring words. Yet the 32-year-old Guerra has never voted in a single Beach election, according to Miami-Dade records. This despite registering in 1991 as a Republican to vote in Miami Beach, where he claims to have lived for the past decade. So what's the source of Guerra's newfound civic conscience?

According to several city hall sources, Guerra's campaign against Cruz is essentially being orchestrated by influential lobbyists and Dermer backers Sylvester Lukis and Alfredo Balsera. Commissioner Cruz long ago earned the enmity of Dermer's key supporters and he has helped to spike lucrative city contracts for Lukis and Balsera's clients. (Expect to see these same forces helping Stuart Reed's commission run against Luis Garcia.)

Guerra has had private meetings with key figures in Dermer's camp, including state Rep. Gustavo Barreiro and his brother, county Commissioner Bruno, as well as Miami's answer to Karl Rove -- campaign consultant-for-hire Armando Gutierrez, a man believed to be responsible for so many dirty tricks that the county Fair Campaign Practices Committee called him "a blight on Dade County politics." And that was before Gutierrez went to work as PR spinmeister for Elian Gonzalez's Miami relatives.

To be fair, as familial Cuban dynasties go, Tony Guerra and his equally charming younger brother Emi are certainly more palatable than the Barreiros or the politically reactionary Diaz-Balart and Diaz de la Portilla brothers. Moreover, with the nightclub industry being vital to the Beach's economic health, having someone from that world sitting on the city commission is a no-brainer -- especially someone like Guerra, who has not only worked at several noted Beach nightspots but now helms one of Washington Avenue's marquee clubs.

But Guerra's attempt to unseat Cruz has little to do with the nightclubs. Cruz has actually been one of the industry's more forceful advocates over the past few years. It was Cruz who went to bat for Level when the club hoped to present an all-ages Nelly Furtado concert -- a concert illegal under Beach laws that bar anyone under 21 from even setting foot inside a nightclub. Dermer provided the tie-breaking vote to shoot down Cruz's proposal, and it was Matti Bower who voiced some of the strongest opposition to relaxing age restrictions -- at Level or anywhere else.

If Guerra truly wanted to strike a blow for nightlife, it's Bower he'd be challenging. Bower, however, remains a Dermer ally, and like Garcia, a formidable opponent with access to a considerable war chest. The Beach's pols may not have reached the same degree of scheming as their pals across the bay, but it isn't for lack of trying.

On the upside, Guerra is a shoo-in for next year's New Times Best Dressed Politician award. Hey, this is Miami Beach.

Just die already. That's local philanthropist Harvey Burstein's advice to the beleaguered Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. After founding director Robbie Rosenberg's departure last year following internal conflicts (he cited interference with his creative vision; festival board chair Mike Perez called him just plain difficult), the event remains in limbo. Replacement director Phillip Matthews jumped ship last month, and according to several festival sources, its current debt is upward of $150,000. Burstein's solution? In an open letter to the community he writes, "I am willing to personally give a new entity $50,000 to restart a gay film festival." As for the current festival: "It should dissolve itself and liquidate its assets as best it can." Burstein, a founding festival board member and long-time Rosenberg supporter, is a bit coy about just who he'd like to see return as this reborn gala's director.

Seriously. Just die already. Betting continues on just when Billboardlive, the Beach club now in Chapter 11 bankruptcy, will actually shut its doors. Bankruptcy papers reveal millions in debt, but where did all that money go? A senior Billboardlive staffer who stayed till nearly the bitter end tells Kulchur he was recently questioned by FBI agents investigating the club's finances.


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