Ex-North Miami Mayor Elton Gissendanner Is Back
"He's a politician?" cracks the construction worker assigned to guarding the flooded road. "Throw him in the creek!"
But then he allows the 80-year-old man in the driver's seat of a turquoise Acura coupe to tool past a barricade and down an unlit road, where dark water laps right up to the asphalt and windshield wipers furiously slap away pints of rain.
"Meet the Candidates," reads a sign outside the single-room library in Ortona, a Glades County village 15 minutes west of Lake Okeechobee, where about the only thing that qualifies as commerce is the brisk sale of neon-orange pigs' feet at a gas station convenience store, the only shop in town.
On this August evening, about 50 gabbing townies have braved the soaking aftereffects of Tropical Storm Fay, which barreled through a couple of days earlier. They fill the library with the sober cheer of a bingo hall. When lightning loudly smacks an electric pole outside and the building is thrown into darkness, the townsfolk call friends, who deliver battery-powered lanterns.
"Just about have to be a rubber duck to get in here today," the soggy old man laments after exiting his Acura and scampering into the library. A badge pinned to his khaki safari shirt identifies him as Elton Gissendanner, candidate for state House of Representatives. He seems to be the only person in the room who doesn't know anybody else, so he makes the rounds, sipping instant coffee and listening to residents complain about a controversial garbage collection plan and an outrageously expensive yacht storage facility.
Eventually they take their seats and a succession of speakers parades to the podium, which is decorated with dollar-store plastic bunting and flags. In his chair, Gissendanner sleepily picks at tiny scabs on his arm.
It's a week before the primary and about a dozen candidates have shown up. The crowd is seemingly dominated by young men in buzzcuts and matrons in pajama pants. Everybody is white, and this is no-doubt-about-it Republican country.
"I am 100 percent pro-life and 100 percent Second Amendment," begins one male candidate.
"This country doesn't need change. It needs consistency," says another.
Then the burly emcee calls Gissendanner. Following some small talk about Fay, he recounts his resumé. A practicing veterinarian, he was twice mayor of North Miami. He was an architect of perhaps South Florida's most significant land deal in history and served as the state's top environmental regulator. For four years he was a state rep — the same gig he's running for now.
He has stumped on far larger stages than this one, and it shows in his calm, paced speech. He describes the sugar industry's destruction of the Everglades. "As good as it's been," he begins, "it's come at quite a cost to the natural resources around us."
It's an unlikely tack. Around here, if you're not personally dependent on the sugar industry, a close relative is. But with a state buyout of thousands of acres looming, Gissendanner advocates solar energy. "We'll be forced to phase out sugar cane," he says. "There's still plenty of time to get those people who depend on it into a more sustainable business.
"The issues that face us are greater than party, greater than age, greater than economic status."
Polite applause follows. He shuffles back to his seat.
Gissendanner is a living artifact from Miami's fabled drug-smuggling Eighties. Two decades ago, he traded that top environmental job for handcuffs and spent 10 months in federal prison. He has never shaken that stink of disgrace, and filing for bankruptcy eight years ago only seemed to confirm the downward spiral of his life.
But he's here tonight trying to revive a moldy corpse: his political career — and with it, his tattered legacy.
"Welcome to God's country!" Gissendanner says, khaki shorts pulled up high on his belly and arms outstretched as he stands in the driveway of his comfortable and airy lakefront house in Lake Placid, 45 minutes north of Ortona.
"I was just having some tomato juice," he adds, as if establishing an alibi for his lazy afternoon.
Gissendanner chats breathlessly about the minutiae of everyday life, peppering his language with dated phrases such as "little-bitty," "Afro-American," and "don't know beans."
The great-grandfather casts a mole-like figure: slightly bent and doughy, with high, round shoulders and sprightly white eyebrows. In moments of impatience or deep explanation, he removes his glasses to expose eyes squinted against the shock of light, heightening the likeness.
Seated next to his living room coffee table, he launches into the reasons for his lifelong crusade against the local sugar barons. It's a meandering 15-minute speech that somehow finds him explaining how the moon affects the tides and singing Florida's state song. The conclusion: He's not actually against the industry, just its mining of the Everglades. As proof, he digs from his closet a gallon of cane sugar syrup. "I'm not opposed to it; I love it — it tastes great on pancakes!"
It's not senility. Gissendanner has always had a capricious mind and a mouth like an out-of-control yard sprinkler. "I talk a lot," he says. "But there's so much to talk about. That's the problem."
A cynic might deem it fitting: In 1927, Gissendanner was born on the grounds of a Leon County prison in Tallahassee, where his father, Elton Sr., was in charge of roads and prison labor — in essence, he was desk manager of the chain gang. Gissendanner's mother, Emma Lou, was a second cousin of future president Jimmy Carter.
The family moved to the sandy, sweltering pinelands of rural South Georgia when Elton Jr. was still in diapers. His dad bought some property, and they set to harvesting peanuts, tobacco, corn, and cotton with the help of a family of black sharecroppers who lived on the property.
"It was the Jim Crow-est," Gissendanner says of the time and place, though he didn't learn the term until after high school.
When Elton Jr. was eight years old, his father was stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, an affliction that paralyzed him for four years before death. The industrious man, once a county commissioner, suddenly found himself unable to support his family in the midst of the Depression. So mom sold the farm, took work as a schoolteacher, and rented out her kids for agricultural labor at 50 cents per day. Elton Jr. began working part-time stripping turpentine from pine trees and threshing cotton.
Like many folks of his era, Elton views work as a privilege, which might be why he'll never retire. And perhaps because he grew up without an active father, he was later aloof with his own kids. "He never really had a father," son Buddy says, "so I don't think he understands the role."
The elder Gissendanner was a good son, though. He and his three brothers cared for their impoverished mom until her death in 1976. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps (which would become the Air Force), he earned a veterinary degree at the University of Georgia. In 1951, he married Frances, who worked at a nearby creamery, and they moved south to Miami. Says Gissendanner: "I thought I was on my way to fame and fortune in the Magic City."
He started his own practice, the Biscayne Animal Clinic in North Miami, then a barely developed suburb. Soon he had met virtually every resident. Then 35 years old, he parlayed his small-town notoriety into politics, running for city council in 1963 — and being appointed mayor of the town for getting more votes than any of the other council members.
The next 15 years would bring a pendulum swing of victories and losses that had him and Frances bouncing back and forth between South Florida and Tallahassee. In 1967, he was elected to the House of Representatives. Then he lost a congressional race, reclaimed North Miami's mayoralty, and was defeated in a bid for lieutenant governor.
As North Miami mayor, Gissendanner had his first taste of scandal — an aperitif, as it turns out, before the main course to come. A Dade County Grand Jury named him a co-conspirator in a bribery plot involving two other North Miami officials. But the statute of limitations had expired, and the charges melted away.
In 1970, he took over as chairman of the Interama project, an outlandishly ambitious plan for a permanent fair of the Americas on undeveloped North Miami acreage. It was designed by seven of the world's top architects in a Jetsons-style futuristic motif. The centerpiece was to be a 1,000-foot tower surrounded by water and accessible only by tunnel. Plans called for 15 million visitors a year — if only the federal government would pick up the tab.
Five years into Gissendanner's chairmanship, the 25-year-old project — supported briefly by President Nixon — was finally scrapped with nary a shovel having scraped soil. "It was certainly the most ambitious stretch of Gissendanner's career," says Paul George, historian at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, "but it did not come to fruition."
A small miracle, though, was quietly birthed by the famous flop. Gissendanner soon became involved in two projects that salvaged the Interama land for good use: the Biscayne Bay campus of Florida International University and Oleta River State Park.
Snatching opportunity from failure was typical of the then-51-year-old Gissendanner. A charming self-promoter, he had become a ubiquitous character in Florida politics. "He was always available for a good quote," recalls Susan Neuman, a former Miami Herald city beat reporter who would become good friends with Gissendanner. "He was always up-front and honest — and high-energy. He was never still."
"He was all over the landscape at that time," George says. "He was everywhere, it seemed."
Then came a fateful alliance that would indirectly lead to his downfall. In 1978, close friend Bob Graham made him the Miami manager of his successful gubernatorial campaign. After Graham took over in Tallahassee, he appointed Gissendanner executive director of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), a mammoth state agency that oversaw parks, fisheries, state land purchases, and the ports. This was the big time: The $76,000-per-year job put Gissendanner in charge of 1,955 employees and an annual budget of $154 million.
Interestingly, he took a seat vacated by a felon. His predecessor was Harmon Shields, who would be convicted of seeking $235,000 in kickbacks in connection with a state land purchase and spend a year in prison.
At first, Gissendanner thrived. One day he'd be in front of news cameras, warning of hepatitis in oysters. The next he would be on a beach posing for a "Save the Manatees" photo shoot with Jimmy Buffett.
But he began to aggravate the state cabinet, to whom he reported. Controversy dogged many of his decisions, such as his restrictions on commercial fishing that had lobbyists howling in protest. And when Graham moved on to the U.S. Senate in 1986, Gissendanner caused a major stir by granting a dredging permit to a developer without consulting the cabinet or new Gov. Bob Martinez — a move so underhanded that authorities investigated him for bribery.
Cabinet members were furious, and Gissendanner knew his hold on the position was gone. He resigned in June after eight years on the job, hanging on just long enough to qualify for an $8,000 annual pension.
Three weeks later, the hammer fell. Gissendanner was indicted in Miami federal court. The felony charges: extortion, tax evasion, and perjury.
"It's simple," Gissendanner says now as he grazes on grape-and-tuna salad in a Lake Placid diner. "But when I think about it, it's so stupid what I did."
A 27-year-old Daytona Beach Community College dropout and pot dealer named Patrick Bilton would be Gissendanner's undoing. In 1982, Bilton had been delivering boatloads of seedy schwag from Jamaica and other countries to South Florida's harbors for years.
On November 6 that year, suspicious Florida Marine Patrol agents cruising Port Everglades spotted his 36-foot cigarette boat and ordered him to dock it for a thorough search. "I certainly did not need them to find what was encased in the hull of the vessel I was on," Bilton would later ruminate in court, "which was 500 pounds of marijuana."
So he gunned the engine and led the patrol on a high-speed chase toward international waters. The Miami Vice moment ended when snipers on a chopper shot out the boat's engines.
After being convicted of smuggling, Bilton faced 15 years of hard time.
Then he heard about Elton Gissendanner.
Another convicted smuggler and longtime family friend of the DNR chief — Dennis McGuire — advised Bilton on how to cut his sentence. The plan was this: McGuire would contact Gissendanner, who would hook him up with Marine Patrol agents. They would use Bilton as a confidential informant. Then Gissendanner would pen a letter, on state stationery, to the sentencing judge, commending Bilton for his assistance.
Not surprisingly, Bilton jumped to action, and after Gissendanner cited his assistance, the judge gave him probation.
Bilton, though, had masterminded a sham. He had simply loaded up a boat with his own cocaine and told Marine Patrol agents where to find it.
The successful ruse seemed only to energize Bilton. Over the next four years, he would smuggle at least $50 million worth of pot into South Florida.
But in 1986, Bilton and McGuire were both arrested in an international sting run by the DEA, IRS, and Scotland Yard. Facing 25 years each, the smugglers served up a bigger fish: Gissendanner. They claimed to have delivered $80,000 in brown paper bags in exchange for the DNR chief's connections and his letter to the judge.
The trial began November 9 that year. Among the witnesses was a Tallahassee music venue owner who testified Gissendanner had invested $10,000 into the business — in $20 bills.
Bilton claimed he had paid McGuire between $125,000 and $140,000 for the letter to the sentencing judge. But the drug dealer couldn't say whether the DNR chief ever received the money.
McGuire acknowledged he had paid Gissendanner, but there were no witnesses to confirm it. Further undermining the prosecution, he added the DNR chief had volunteered to help "for free."
"The government's case totally fell apart," says Gissendanner's defense attorney, Mark Nuric, now a New York state prosecutor. "They no longer had any quid pro quo."
But prosecutors had a hole card: Gissendanner had written a similar letter to the sentencing judge in an unrelated case involving McGuire several years before. That missive was a plain fabrication: McGuire had never worked as an informant. On January 25, 1988, Gissendanner accepted a plea. He copped to obstruction of justice, a felony that carried only a fraction of the potential 48 years of the original charges.
During sentencing, Gissendanner took the stand. He apologized to DNR employees, thanked his family, broke down sobbing, and begged for leniency: "I'm 60 years old and I've wasted almost a year, and have very few left to waste."
He also vehemently denied ever taking a bribe. "In the plea agreement, I had them write that the government does not contend that I took money," he says now. "I wanted that in there, for my kids posterity. I would've never signed it if that hadn't been there."
The media declared his career dead. "The 24-year public life of Elton Gissendanner ... came to a rather dismal end Thursday," wrote one Herald scribe. "Slam the cell door shut," editorialized the same paper.
In fact, where Gissendanner went, there were no cell doors. He was sent to the federal facility at Eglin Air Force Base, a "country club" for nonviolent offenders. During his time there, he did veterinary work and learned to repair lawnmower engines.
"He took it in stride," says Gissendanner's brother Clarence. "He didn't like being there, but he never caused any trouble. He wasn't going to sit around and bellyache."
Adds Gissendanner: "Prison is just like you'd imagine it to be — no better and no worse. Nobody truly appreciates freedom until you lose it."
Upon his 1988 release, he and Frances made their Lake Placid vacation place a permanent home. Gissendanner wanted to move back to North Miami, but his wife burned with shame. "After the conviction," he says, "she didn't want to face her friends."
He would spend much of the next 20 years in Dade County anyway, commuting or sleeping there for work. He returned to veterinary medicine, opening 21 nonprofit spay-and-neuter clinics. To this day, he can emasculate a cat or dog in less than three minutes. It's an operation, oddly enough, that he still finds relaxing.
In 1992, Gissendanner took over as interim director of the Humane Society of Greater Miami, an unpaid position. He resigned after a year, when Florida's deputy attorney general called his directorship a conflict of interest — Gissendanner's spay-and-neuter firm, Compassion Inc., had a long-standing contract with the society.
Four years later, he had a heart attack and then open-heart surgery, which left a wire embedded in his chest. Looking to finally slow down, he bought two franchises of the U-Save Auto Rental chain, one in North Miami and one in Homestead.
He went into the enterprise hoping to see his nest egg grow. He walked away from it punished by another hard lesson. Gissendanner had unwittingly bought into one of the most cut-throat industries in existence. Hawk-eyed competitors soon drove him into the red. And the businesses were located in decaying neighborhoods, so cars were often crashed or stolen. Insurance companies don't cover stolen rental cars.
In 2000, he sold every car at a loss and jilted 13 hungry creditors by declaring bankruptcy. Gissendanner says the disastrous investment cost him $500,000.
If he'd had a clean record, this bankruptcy might have been viewed as just a minor misstep near the end of his road. Instead it seemed a confirmation of his O.J. Simpson-like slide — a brief addendum to the "fall" half of his life story.
Reporter Susan Neuman remembers a fretful Gissendanner asking about the depth of his ruined reputation. "He was worried that they would write about his crime in his obituary."
Neuman told him the truth: It would be in the first line.
A resort town past its prime, Lake Placid doesn't look like it has developed much in 50 years. In its center is an 80-foot observation tower that once might have inspired awe from eager tourists. Now its stairs are padlocked, too rickety to be climbed.
Located 80 miles west of Port St. Lucie, the town was chartered in the Twenties by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey decimal system and founder of the village of Lake Placid in New York. Dewey dreamed of using Northeastern cash to transform this dusty Florida town peppered with lakes and swamps into an upscale vacation hot spot.
When the Depression hit, Dewey and friends fled, leaving the place to the mostly indigent folks who predated them. One of those he left behind was Elton Sr., who had made Lake Placid the family's perennial vacation spot in the Thirties. "My brother was conceived right at this spot," declares Gissendanner now, standing in a parking lot that once was the location of a wooden hotel.
Like much of this area, Lake Placid ended up with a population split into three major voting groups: indigenous South Floridians, Midwestern retirees, and descendants of World War II vets who were stationed at a nearby Sebring Army base and decided to stay. That trio combined to make this place such a Republican stronghold that many Democratic candidates often switch parties to have a chance at election.
Gissendanner's Republican opponent, Denise Grimsley, a working nurse, has held the position for four years. She sings the right notes: She opposes the sugar buyout and brags of lowering taxes.
And she doesn't seem too worried about the competition. "I haven't had any contact with Elton," she says, adding that she's unfamiliar with his stances. "I don't really have any opinion of him."
She rarely stumps, usually begging off appearances, such as the one in the rainy village of Ortona, with the excuse of a 12-hour hospital shift. "She doesn't go because she doesn't have to," Gissendanner says. "She has the votes."
She also has the money. In the past campaign year, she has collected more than $125,000, much of it from the sugar and medical industries. "Lobbyists love her," derides Gissendanner. "She's so easy. She is the lowest-hanging fruit on the Florida legislative tree."
Gissendanner, meanwhile, refuses to accept contributions, instead funding his campaign with a $20,000 loan from his savings — money that his bankruptcy creditors might still salivate over. "No lobbyist has sent me a nickel," he says indignantly. "And I don't want it, and I wouldn't accept it."
Waging an uphill campaign in the dead of South Florida summer is not an attractive prospect, and the Democratic party was having trouble scaring up willing opponents. They were ready to let Grimsley simply keep the seat. But on June 20, 10 minutes before the filing deadline, Gissendanner officially volunteered.
"A person who has taken hundreds of thousands of special-interest dollars should not go unopposed," he says. "I never had the privilege of going unopposed."
But his reasons go deeper than that. He has spent the past 20 years stewing. "Since I first met him, all he's ever talked about is politics, and he hasn't changed," says veterinarian Tom Garretson, who has worked with Gissendanner at a Key Largo clinic. "What killed him the most is his inability to run for office again, because of the mistakes that he's made."
And he's a conservationist frustrated by the destruction of the Everglades. He likes to paraphrase Genesis. "We're the only species that can destroy the Earth," he says, "the only one that has the power. I sort of take that seriously."
Gissendanner realizes he's being grandiose. "I'm sounding like a big shot," he apologizes. "I'm not. But I think about it a lot."
Another of his political mantras boils down to "What would Bobby Kennedy do?" Take all of this into account, and his decision to run seems easy to understand. But Gissendanner's family has celebrated his candidacy with all the enthusiasm of pallbearers at a wake. At age 76, Frances is stricken with a serious but nonterminal disease, which the former DNR chief describes as "neuroposy," staying vague for the sake of her privacy. Frances declined to speak with New Times for this article. "She told me: 'My greatest fear is that you win, because it will take you away from me.'"
His son Buddy is wary of publicly revisiting the past. He says he quit his job in St. Petersburg after his father's indictment, when his bosses at an investment firm called him too "notorious" to meet with clients and reassigned him to a desk job. "It was emotionally and financially devastating," he says. "It put a great deal of strain on my marriage."
The elder Gissendanner admits feelings of guilt, but his long-shot candidacy feeds a voracious obstinate streak. "My wife is sick and my family is upset," he laments. "I'm in a perfect storm. I don't know what I'm going to do."
On a Tuesday afternoon in August, Gissendanner is back in North Miami, stick-shifting his Acura north along Biscayne Boulevard, where the animal clinic he formerly owned is still in business. He turns right on NE 151st Street and points out the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office he once oversaw.
But he considers his career's crown jewel to be the valuable leftovers from the Interama project, which includes this land. He helped save it from developers and eventually convert into Oleta River State Park and the FIU north campus — two institutions that have come to define North Miami.
"This is my legacy," he offers. "I'm more proud of this than anything I ever did. None of this would be here if it wasn't for me. I know you say that's bragging, but if you dig deep enough, you'll see that's true."
He seems personally wounded to see some of his work beginning to unravel, though. North Miami has leased a portion of the land to developers for the gleaming Biscayne Landing condo high-rises. Gissendanner once envisioned a public golf course there. "I just about puked when I saw them," he says. "There's gonna be a bunch of them! Dozens of them! High!"
Then he stops the car next to a street sign in an FIU parking lot. "Read that," he demands.
The road is named for state senator and former county commissioner Gwen Margolis.
Gissendanner pushes the gas. "I don't have anything in my name," he says. "There's no public recognition."
Meanwhile the campaign to rescue his reputation takes a day off. He's on his way back to Lake Placid from Miami Beach's Mount Sinai hospital, after a CAT scan to get to the bottom of a flulike bug that's been dogging him. While the results showed nothing serious, it's a reminder he no's longer a young man.
Gissendanner probably won't heed that reminder. Asked if his father might finally retire if he loses this campaign, Buddy doesn't hesitate: "Not until they close the lid on the coffin."
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