Jerry Babij, a fit-looking 65-year-old clad head-to-toe in black leather, wants you to know he can still tussle. "I'm a tough guy," he says, bunching up his weathered fists. "John Gotti blew up my restaurant one time, and I didn't back down from him."
Babij, once a rough-and-tumble character who dominated South Beach's cut-throat, low-end modeling scene, picks much less glamorous fights these days.
With Image Model and Talent Agency closed for good, and several of his properties in foreclosure, he's running for a seat as president of the board at one of South Beach's largest condos, the South Bay Club. His enemies, meanwhile, are plastering the place with fliers about his colorful past and trying to kill his latest ambition.
"They don't want him elected," says Debbie Katz, a former board member and ally, "because he doesn't put up with any shit."
Babij was born in Austria and grew up poor in Connecticut. He made a name for himself in New York restaurants. After a stunted acting career, he opened Image in 1991 in a rundown Ocean Drive office. He focused on booking models for shoots that paid only a few dozen bucks. He also rubbed a lot of people wrong. Since 1995, he's been arrested at least seven times on charges ranging from battery, to illegally concealing a weapon, to extortion. Former condo board members even accused him of super-gluing their locks after an argument. None of the charges ever stuck.
In civil court, a former partner accused him of stealing the company through threats. Another woman alleged he choked her. Both claims were dismissed.
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Babij's luck ran out this past December, though, when a former agent, Karen Bussell, won a nearly $7,000 judgment for breach of contract. That expense and lawyers' fees killed Image for good, Babij says. Since then, he has focused on politics in the venerable, 340-unit building at Eighth Street and West Avenue where he's lived for 21 years.
He lost a run for the board this summer, but then won a seat. The other board members appointed him president. In a few months on the job, he says he's gotten a delayed renovation back on track and prevented new fees.
But earlier this month, one of his enemies circulated a thick packet detailing all of his past brushes with the law. "Mr. Babij continues to this day to be a... sociopathic criminal," the anonymous flier says.
Bibaj says this hurt his chances of keeping a seat on the board. "I've had a love-hate relationship with the police, but I've never stolen a cent in my life," he says, sitting in the condo's bay-front lobby. "I've had three contracts put out on my life and I've survived that. I can win this."