Donkey Demise

Dressed in their evening finery, hundreds of the Democratic faithful gather on a Saturday in late June for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a gala fundraiser for the Florida Democratic Party. Supporters from around the state, including Sen. Bob Graham, Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, and state Rep. Elaine Bloom, file down the plush-carpeted corridors of the Sheraton Bal Harbour and past Secret Service agents, toward one of the hotel's cavernous banquet halls. In what party leaders have billed as a sign of Florida's importance in the upcoming November election, this year's celebrity speaker is none other than presidential hopeful Al Gore.

The vice president isn't the only candidate here tonight. In the foyer outside the banquet hall, young volunteers are handing out campaign literature for Dan Gelber, a former South Florida federal prosecutor and counsel for the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Gelber is running for state representative from District 106, which stretches from Aventura to just above Lincoln Road and includes four precincts in the City of Miami.

Joe Geller, a candidate for the same seat, also is present. But he doesn't dare distribute any campaign literature; he knows he'd be vilified if he did. Geller has all but formally announced that he'll run against Gelber in the state primary, set for September, but he's not participating in this fundraiser as an aspiring office seeker. Tonight he's acting solely in his official capacity as chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC).

Even so, Geller is feeling the heat. His detractors, citing what they call a conflict of interest, have said publicly that he has no business running for office against fellow Democrats while remaining chairman of the local party. As head of the DEC, Geller coordinates grassroots programs and volunteers; his position, the critics maintain, gives him an unfair edge over both Gelber and Surfside Councilman Mitchell Kinzer, another primary contender.

But an apparent conflict of interest is the least of Geller's woes. A major power struggle is under way in the county party he heads. And while almost everyone at tonight's fundraiser rides a united-for-Gore bandwagon, rigid smiles mask fierce antagonisms among a number of those in attendance. Many elected Democrats ignore the DEC as irrelevant. And some critics say mere identification with the party could be lethal to one's political ambitions.

Missing from the crowd is Mayor Alex Penelas, the highest elected Democrat in the county. Raul Martinez, the Democratic mayor of Hialeah -- the state's fifth largest city -- is another no-show. Together the two control perhaps the top political machines in Miami-Dade.

Martinez says the party has ignored him for years and that he has little to gain from associating with it. No state chairman had ever paid him a visit, in fact, until the day before this Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Penelas, a member of the Democratic National Committee, has little involvement in the local party, though, like all Democratic officials elected countywide, he's an honorary member of the DEC, which also includes 160 representatives from 80 districts, the heads of about 25 county Democratic clubs and caucuses, and a number of at-large members appointed by the chairman.

Still, one might think the mayor would turn out to see the vice president. Until recently the two reportedly had such a close relationship that party officials speculated about a cabinet position for the rising Cuban star if Gore were to win the White House. Then the Elian tsunami swept up both men, and many now say it does neither any good to be seen with the other. (Penelas's campaign manager, Ric Katz, explains tonight's absence as a break for “scheduled time with his family.”)

After twelve years as chairman of the DEC, Geller admits he has become the lightning rod for criticism of all that is wrong with local Democrats. But he fires back, pointing out that there's plenty of blame to go around. And, indeed, Paulette Wimberly -- the first black state committeewoman in the DEC, whom Geller helped elect in 1996 -- says, “We can't blame Joe for all our problems. I'm not going to let anybody off the hook, including myself.”

Nonetheless under his leadership, say his foes, the local party is broke and has lost hope of recruiting supporters. Thanks to him the party has abandoned its moderate base by courting Cubans at the expense of a rapidly growing population of non-Cuban Hispanics. The party is so impotent, they add, that only a fraction of the DEC's districts is currently active. Geller, they complain, doesn't even work in the county (he and his wife, University of Miami neurology and pharmacology professor Deborah Mash, live in North Bay Village, but he maintains a law office in Hollywood.)

A few days before the dinner, Cindy Hall, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO and a DEC committeewoman, contacted Bob Poe, the state Democratic chairman, to object that if Geller the chairman shared the stage with Al Gore, the appearance would be a showcase for Geller the candidate. Poe assured Hall that Geller would follow protocol by simply introducing the next person in the party hierarchy and then leaving the stage.

And after a 30-second welcome from the dais, Geller is indeed back in his seat. A couple of speeches later, Gore strides on to the stage amid a burst of sustained applause. The county chairman is on his feet, leading the cheers until, slowly, the room settles down and the vice president launches into his address. But after a few minutes, Geller's attention strays to a perusal of Gelber's campaign brochure.

A few days later, Geller is sitting in the conference room of the Hollywood law office that he shares with his brother Steve, a twelve-year state legislator from southeast Broward County. State party rules will force Joe Geller to take a leave of absence from the DEC chairmanship by July 21, the deadline for submitting qualifying papers in Tallahassee. If he loses the primary in September, he can resume office. And though he has said he won't run for a fourth term in December, when party officers come up for election, he'll no doubt participate in the struggle for leadership that has already begun between loyalists and those he's alienated. Although he has run for office only once before (an unsuccessful bid for mayor of North Bay Village in 1998), politics clearly is his passion.

Geller claims he can recall his earliest political memory: He was just six years old and watching the election returns from the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential race. Today, at age 46, he adds wryly that it's remarkable he has no recollection of the Eisenhower years.

His family moved from the Bronx to (Miami-Dade's) Westchester when he was eleven years old, and it didn't take long for the young man to find an outlet for his political interests. At Miami Coral Park High School, he joined the Teen Democrats. (The student who recruited him into the club, he says, was Kendall Coffey, most recently known as an attorney for the Lazaro Gonzalez family during the Elian crisis.) At Florida State Geller joined the Young Democrats, became president of the chapter, and worked for the 1975 Carter campaign. He stayed on at Florida State through law school.

In 1984 Geller joined the Miami-Dade DEC, which oversees the work of the county's 80 Democratic districts, volunteers, and precinct captains, and develops candidates and election strategies. Four years later then-DEC chairman Simon Ferro (now the U.S. ambassador to Panama) was elected state party chairman, and Geller was picked as his replacement. He won a subsequent election for the seat and has remained in the post ever since.

The late Eighties were grim years for Miami Democrats. They'd failed to carry the county for four of the previous five presidential elections. In 1986 the party lost the governor's mansion and a number of legislative seats. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen won a special election for Rep. Claude Pepper's seat after the legendary Democrat died. Democrats still outnumbered Republicans, but “people were saying Dade County had become a Republican county,” Geller recalls.

A fearsome demographic shift was taking place as well. Large Anglo voting blocs in the county's southern and northern reaches had begun to disappear as elderly transplants, the “condo commandos,” began to die off. Other residents moved out in the wake of immigration, and Hurricane Andrew drove tens of thousands of people from the area after 1992. Cuban immigrants, who for the most part registered Republican, moved into the neighborhoods. The party has been struggling to accommodate diversity, says Thomas Pinder, president of the All Peoples Democratic Club in northeast Miami-Dade, and he credits Geller with trying to bring in more people.

Among Miami's blacks the party has traditionally fared well, though the Republicans have recently made inroads. Geller also has targeted the Haitian community. “This is a crucial community to us,” he explains. “They can be a counterweight to other immigration groups that registered Republican.”

Geller is proud of his tenure. Under his watch Florida Democrats have made four out of five big-ticket wins. The party took back the governorship in 1990 and held it for two terms. Local Democrats also helped elect Bill Clinton twice, and those presidential campaigns make Geller especially proud. “It's the most important work I've done as chair,” he says, “probably the most important work I've ever done politically.” Geller knew Clinton from national Young Democrat organizations, and in 1991, even before Clinton had declared his candidacy, he became the first Democratic Party chairman in Florida to endorse Clinton for president. When Clinton carried the county in 1992, it was the first time in sixteen years that a Democratic presidential candidate had done so.

Which is all well and good, say his critics. But while Geller's focus on state and national victories has helped earn him a couple of nights at the White House, it has done little for Miami-Dade politics. In the meantime, critics maintain, he has destroyed the local party through gross neglect of its finances and its base.

There are only a handful of places where national politicians routinely travel to raise funds. These bastions of wealth and influence include Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley. South Florida, always near the top of the list, funnels tens of millions of dollars to both parties each election cycle. And it's not just Clinton and Gore who drop by the Sunshine State. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and New York Senate hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton have come by looking for donations. So have New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Yet despite the millions going to the Democratic National Committee, the local Democratic party is perpetually strapped for funds and constantly in debt. Though Geller maintains the story was erroneous and planted by political rivals, the Miami Herald reported in 1998 that the local DEC owed $4000 in unpaid rent and had lost its headquarters in Coral Gables. (Ray Zeller, president of the Dante Fascell Democratic Club, complains the DEC has changed offices five or six times in as many years. Geller insists they have only moved twice, with one month “between offices.”) These days the party operates out of one cramped room, open by appointment only, in a building on Biscayne Boulevard.

It hasn't helped matters that for four years Geller has been at war with the most powerful unions in town. In 1996 AFL-CIO labor leader Cindy Hall was part of a coalition to unseat Geller as chair. Hall claims Geller boasted he didn't need organized labor. She and her coalition lost the party elections, and when Geller emerged victorious, he found the AFL-CIO labor council would no longer contribute to the party or allow the DEC to meet in certain labor-owned offices. Geller denies he disparaged labor and points to support from other unions, including the International Longshoremen's Association.

“It's pretty hard to follow when [the DEC says] they don't need you but they want your money,” says Hall, who has urged Geller to resign and pleads, “Let the party pull itself together.”

Yet the party's financial irregularities go beyond the lack of support for a key labor constituency. For three years, from 1997 until late this past June, the DEC owed the county nearly $4000 in fines for filing delinquent campaign reports. By appealing to the Florida Elections Commission, the chapter whittled down the sum from more than $20,000; the penalty was finally paid, in part with money the DEC raised selling five tables at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner.

Geller responds rather testily to the criticism. This is a volunteer position, after all, he says, and he has to earn a living and have a personal life. He notes that many DEC members don't even contribute the $200 per year they are supposed to bring in themselves.

““Well, Joe can't raise money,'” he groans, mimicking the complaints. “Gee, I have to raise [all the money], too?” he asks. “I give thousands. There are plenty of times when a phone bill has to be paid and I just write a check. Sometimes I wouldn't even put it through the DEC council.”

It's hard to raise money for local parties, he argues, when the donor pool already has been tapped. Local Democrats often are last in line at the till for state and national fundraisers like the Jefferson-Jackson dinner nor can they attract celebrity guest speakers of their own. “Of course you can't raise any money,” he explains. “You're in competition. They're bringing in the president, the vice president, a member of the cabinet, and a senator from up north, a congressman, and the governor. And what do we have?”

Democratic fundraiser Sylvan “Sonny” Holtzman, who raised money for late two-term Gov. Lawton Chiles, disagrees. He suggests all the money available for politics here in South Florida should serve as an incentive for the local parties to be among the strongest in the nation. Donors would give to the county party if they knew the funds were targeted for specific goals, he adds. But the chaotic finances have deterred would-be donors.

Geller's solution has been to beg for handouts from the state and the national parties. “We can't compete [for Democratic dollars] without some kind of revenue sharing,” he says. “If we got one percent of what [the state and national Democratic organizations] raised here, God, what we could do in terms of professional staff.”

That's not good enough for some of his critics, who note that for his upcoming election, Geller has raised, by his own estimate, about $111,000. At the same time, the DEC has raised about $50,000 for the party, he admits.

In contrast to the Democrats, the Miami-Dade Republican Party chairwoman contends it has no problem raising funds locally. Executive committee chairwoman Mary Ellen Miller says Republicans hold regular breakfasts, charging just $10 to $15 a head, at which grassroots activists can mingle with their elected officials. And unlike the Democrats, county Republicans host an annual fundraising dinner, the Lincoln-Dade, exclusively for themselves.

It's a recent Saturday evening at a palatial home in Miami Shores. An afternoon meeting of the Miami-Dade Gore Steering Committee has given way to an outdoor reception. A sumptuous spread of fruit and cheese is laid out over several tables on a tree-shaded patio near a small pond.

America Schroh, president of the Dominican-American Democratic Council, declines the offer of caviar from a young waiter as she explains how difficult it has been for the 128 members of her club to get involved with the Miami-Dade DEC. It took several years, in fact, just to get the DEC to register the club. (Geller says the process is still under way.) She's only here tonight, she confides, because she demanded the right to be present.

Schroh's tale of alienation is echoed by other area Democratic club members, both Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanic. One of the principal roles of the DEC is to energize the grassroots, yet the presidents who represent hundreds of hard-core Democrats talk of feeling estranged from their own party. For some the Elian Gonzalez experience and the DEC's refusal to support the decision of a Democratic administration demonstrate just how powerless they are.

The Dominican club was formed in May 1999 in part to challenge a party that its members believe only concerns itself with Cuban Americans. “They don't care about other nationalities,” Schroh asserts. In fact at this antique-filled home just hours before, during a closed-door strategy session of the steering committee, former Miami City Mayor Maurice Ferré warned Gore supporters not to waste their time and money pursuing Cuban-American votes. Local outrage at the Clinton administration in the aftermath of the Elian raid would be too difficult to surmount.

“Concentrate on your strengths,” Ferré advised by telephone a few days later. While he concedes that other Hispanics are likely to vote Democratic, the party hasn't done enough to cultivate those communities. “It's a natural constituency that Latinos will be Democrats,” he says. “There just isn't time before now and November.”

As of May there were 87,488 registered Hispanic Democrats in the county, of a total of 373,611 registered Democrats. This compares with 207,193 registered Hispanic Republicans, out of 314,655. The elections department no longer breaks down by nation of origin which Hispanics belong to which party, but it's fair to say the majority of Hispanic Republicans are Cuban. It's unclear what the breakdown is within the Democrats. What is clear is that there exists a growing pool of non-Cuban Hispanics who are not registered to vote.

Ferré left the steering-committee meeting after offering his advice, thereby missing a rebuttal from Gus Garcia, the former executive director of the Miami-Dade DEC and -- as cofounder of the Democracy Movement with Ramon Saul Sanchez -- a flash point of dissension within the party: “Don't abandon the Cuban Democrats,” Garcia told the group. “You can't hide from [them].”

Yes, both parties have made plenty of mistakes concerning Cuba, Garcia says on the patio afterward, but in the final analysis, Democrats have betrayed his people less often than have Republicans. This is the message he wants to sell to his fellow Cubans.

In twelve years as chairman, Geller has depended on others for outreach to Hispanics. And he has relied most on Gus Garcia, whose hard-line views have driven some Democrats to try to oust the chairman. In 1994 Geller hired Garcia as executive director, “with the idea that, more than anything besides recruitment, he could be a spokesperson or voice ... on the radio.” After two years the party could no longer afford to pay Garcia's salary. “At the end we were trying to pay Gus to work on a part-time basis, for around $12,000 a year,” recalls Geller. (He acknowledges they are still trying to pay money owed the former executive director.) Garcia quit the post in 1998 and now serves as the outreach coordinator, a volunteer position.

“Cuban Americans tend to be liberal, except on one thing -- Castro -- where they are to the right of Attila the Hun,” opines Garcia, who kept a daily vigil with Sanchez outside the Little Havana house where Elian Gonzalez lived. The boy's story struck a cord with Garcia, who was four years old in 1959, when his own family fled Cuba. His father, a shopkeeper, had refused to give supplies to Castro's insurgents, who in turn bombed his store and then marked him for death after he turned them in. And just as happened with Elian, the United States denied entry to the Garcias -- in their case, because this nation still had diplomatic relations with the island and the Garcias had not gone through official channels. The family eventually came to the United States via Puerto Rico and settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey; they were one of eight Cuban families in an enclave that grew to 80,000.

Like Geller, Garcia became involved in Democratic politics early. One of his first acquaintances was another young New Jersey Cuban named Robert Menendez, who would eventually become a U.S congressman. In 1987 Garcia moved to Miami to be closer to the woman who would become his fourth wife. He did a stint as chief of staff to Commissioner Pedro Reboredo but left after a year. Then Geller approached him with the idea of being the DEC's executive director.

In 1998 Garcia ran against state Sen. Al Gutman, who was under indictment for Medicare fraud at the time. Although Gutman won by 300 votes, he was forced to relinquish the seat as the result of a subsequent guilty plea. “The Gutman race proved that I could penetrate the Cuban [Republican] community,” says Garcia over lunch at Versailles, the unofficial headquarters of el exilio. He still revels in the fact that he is accepted here.

Critics, however, say Geller and Garcia have made Fidel Castro a litmus test for participation in the party. And they are quick to point to Geller's role as a lawyer for the Democracy Movement. “We feel that we just have a one-party system,” says Alonso Rhenals, president of the Colombian-American Democratic Council. “Both parties obey the interests of the Cuban hard-liners.” To illustrate his point, Rhenals describes a dispute that began in April, when he attended a meeting of presidents of county Democratic clubs. The INS had staged its raid on the Gonzalez home in Little Havana only eight days before. That night, just five presidents attended the bimonthly meeting. Rhenals believed it was important to show solidarity with the administration and to send a letter of support to President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno in the wake of the raid. The five presidents all agreed.

A Colombian-born, MIT-trained engineer, Rhenals drafted a letter that began: “We the undersigned presidents of Democratic Clubs and Caucuses of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party....” It ended with: “Your staunch defense of the rule of law has increased our admiration and respect for you.” He faxed it to the other club presidents for any additional signatures. Instead he got a return fax from a Geller loyalist: “Joe Geller does not approve of sending the letter by or on behalf of the M-D DEC Interclub Council [which oversees the clubs].”

Geller explains his opposition to the letter by saying that its language was misleading; people might have thought the letter came from the Interclub Council, not from the individual signers. And the council has no authority to take political positions. But he adds, “I knew it would drive [Cubans] over the edge.”

Shirley West, president emeritus of the women's group Democratic POWER and chairwoman of the Interclub Council, says she'd sent out an earlier fax to the club presidents, as a feeler, to see how many might be willing to sign the letter. No one responded. And Rhenals believes they were pressured not to sign.

As tensions escalated, Rhenals asked Geller to call a special meeting of the presidents to discuss the issue, but the chairman refused. So at the next full meeting of the DEC on May 31, 2000, Rhenals asked the officers to define the role of the Interclub Council. Geller told him the council had no power, that its function was to serve as a forum for the presidents to exchange ideas. “I have better things to do if it is just a social group,” Rhenals now comments.

Unsurprisingly there are Miami Cuban Americans who oppose the hard line the party has taken under Geller and Garcia's direction. Luis Chinea, a 70-year-old veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion who still wears his commemorative ring with pride, is among them. Chinea founded his club, the Cuban-American Democratic Council, in 1992 at the suggestion of President Clinton; it has since grown to 250 members who meet in a two-room office in an industrial area of north Miami-Dade, just off Florida's Turnpike.

Chinea harbors deep suspicions about Garcia's party loyalty. “He was put here in the Democratic party as an employee of the Republican party,” the retiree believes. “He doesn't have leadership, and he hasn't done anything.” Of the DEC leadership, he charges, “They aren't interested in winning office. They are interested in helping themselves.”

Jacques Despinosse, president of the Haitian-American Democratic Club, agrees that the party has faltered. “There is nothing to do as a member,” he says. “The only way we can claim victory is if we work together and that is not what is happening.”

Ginger Grossman herds senior citizens, state representatives, and judicial candidates into a conference room at a Courtyard Marriott in Aventura. Grossman is president of the William Lehman Northeast Dade Involved Democrats, one of the last bastions of a voting bloc that once ruled Miami-Dade County: the largely elderly, Jewish, condominium crowd.

“I bet you didn't know there were this many Democrats,” she says, beaming as she surveys the room. There are about 30 people in attendance and half are candidates for nonpartisan office, courting votes.

Jeff Mell, a former aide to the club's namesake, the late Congressman William Lehman, also is here. He's not impressed with the numbers. “Years ago this would have been an embarrassment,” he admits. “They would have had 250 people.”

The 80-year-old Grossman, wearing the dark glasses that have become her trademark, parades candidate Dan Gelber around the room, professing her love for him. Joe Geller is definitely not welcome here. “Joe should have the courtesy and understanding to step down,” says Grossman, who has been a Democratic activist for 60 years and is running for a committee slot on the DEC. Those elected will decide who the next DEC chairman will be. “We are taking the party back piece by piece,” she declares.

State Rep. Elaine Bloom, who is running for U.S. representative this year, and state Rep. Sally Heyman have also put in appearances. In the hallway outside the room, Heyman blasts Geller for the condition of her party. “As the head of the DEC, he didn't build consensus or rally our Democratic clubs,” she says. “In a time when there is a flood of money, he hasn't resolved the deficit.”

Geller knows the sentiments that abound in this room, but he insists the focus on him is misplaced. It's always easy to criticize, he offers philosophically. But most of his critics have griped from the sidelines rather than involve themselves. He muses that it might have been better if he'd stepped down as chairman earlier, yet he believes his presence is too valuable. “I fought hard for my term, and I can still do a good job,” he insists.

“Like I'm the party,” he grumbles. “I'm just the schmuck who takes the heat.”


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