Forget about anthrax jitters or terrorist sleeper cells. To hear outgoing Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin tell it, there's a more imminent threat, one set to rear its head with the local election this Tuesday, November 6. "The fate of the Beach hangs on Elaine Bloom beating David Dermer in the mayoral race and Saul Gross winning a commission seat," Kasdin declares urgently. "If both of them lose, it will be a step back into the dark ages for Miami Beach, a return to the politics of pandering and out-and-out corruption."
Strong words, but Kasdin is just getting warmed up when it comes to long-time rival Dermer: "He doesn't give a damn about the Beach. He'd sell out this community in a heartbeat if he could fool the public." As for Bloom, "whatever flaws she may have" -- for Kulchur, her calculated discovery of gay rights certainly comes to mind -- "she also has a substantial record of doing great things for this community: preservation, culture, support for diversity."
There are two other candidates for Miami Beach mayor: Commissioner Nancy Liebman and political unknown Oscar Hernandez (whose last-minute entry and spaced-out public ramblings have made more than a few people question his true motives). Neither factor into Kasdin's formulations: "The polling data I've seen shows it's a race between Bloom and Dermer." Thus, while he says he's considered her both a like-minded ally and a friend, "Liebman is third consistently and therefore out of it."
These are bluntly striking statements from a public official who's largely played the role of an above-the-fray statesman, keeping his two mayoral terms of bitter sparring with Commissioner Dermer behind closed doors; watching a Beach commission meeting on TV with the sound turned off, Kasdin often appears like a kindergarten teacher tirelessly attempting to corral his unruly flock. And the crisis he warns of -- a decade's worth of economic benefits and cultural flowering in danger of being undone -- is hard to grasp from a surface reading of Beach politics. In fact the very phrase "Beach politics" is a strange concept to many locals, who are more preoccupied with the spectacle of surf and sin that has defined South Beach internationally. Fewer than 9000 of the city's 88,000 residents voted in the last mayoral contest.
Indeed inside the downtown Miami law offices of Gunster Yoakley, where Kasdin practices, the view from the 35th floor conference room is far from troubling. It reveals a breathtaking sweep of South Beach's pink-and-blue-hued skyline with the glittering Atlantic beyond. Only a large American flag on the wall behind Kasdin's chair alludes to trouble in paradise.
"The formation of the South Beach civic and political community was truly a remarkable thing," Kasdin recalls, "because in the past -- and to this day in most other cities around the country -- the people who own businesses and residents' civic groups are usually locked in deadly battle with opposite ends. But in South Beach there was a seamless integration of the entrepreneurial leadership with civic preservationists." This is the alliance that first elected Kasdin as commissioner in 1991, and then propelled him to the mayor's office in 1997 and again in 1999. Its defining philosophy is simple.
"What's good for residents is good for tourists," Kasdin explains. No one wants an atmosphere like New Orleans's raucous Bourbon Street tourist strip. "It drives away good' tourists and attracts a certain kind of crowd that in the long run doesn't sustain a tourist economy. It leads to decline. You want to have a real community where people live, work, and visit.
"The nightlife that helped make the South Beach scene was sophisticated, high-end," he continues. "It may have been a bit Eurotrashy" -- he chuckles with the self-realization that he now sounds like an Ocean Drive columnist -- "but it was not eighteen-year-olds coming over from Kendall, driving around, drinking beer on Washington Avenue, and then going to an after-hours club. Those kids came to the Beach because of the amazing scene that was created by the hip New Yorkers and Europeans."
Quickly warming to the art and science of clubland, he goes on: "At one point the Living Room was the hottest spot around. It didn't help their business when some dive bars opened up next door, attracting a low-rent crowd. Again, what's good for residents is good for tourists: It wasn't the Living Room that was creating problems for the people who lived nearby. It was the dives."
In flusher times many nightclub owners were more than happy to go along with this thinking, thus their support of the city's crackdown on after-hours joints as well as its barring club entry to the under-21 set last year. But the deepening recession and its resultant scarcity of high rollers has brought panic. Now several of these same impresarios are looking for any warm bodies; downtown Miami's Club Space -- once dismissed as hopelessly déclassé -- is seen as a threat with its open-past-dawn hours.
In a conversation with Kulchur, Dermer promised a receptive ear when it comes to easing the Beach's 5:00 a.m. last call for alcohol. He also suggested he's amenable to curbing overzealous code enforcers and fire marshals. Which may explain the substantial Dermer campaign contributions from crobar, Level's Gerry Kelly, and, ironically, Club Space co-owner Luis Puig -- currently readying his own Beach venture in the Lincoln Road slot previously occupied by Michael Capponi's 320 and Chris Paciello's Bar Room. (Shawn Lewis's Joe Black Productions, new owners of the Living Room, made a $500 contribution to Saul Gross, but the check bounced.)
"The idea of shifting to an anything goes' standard is not going to bring in business," Kasdin cautions. "It could actually lead to the death of the Beach as an attractive place to visit." Still, for Kasdin, indulging all-night clubbers is hardly Dermer's worst sin.
"He's a hypocrite," he snaps, addressing Dermer's constant championing of his leadership in the Save Miami Beach crusade against notorious high-rise developer Thomas Kramer. "When he first ran for city commission in 1991, he ran against Susan Gottlieb, who was a chief proponent of downzoning. By 1997 [when Dermer ran again and was elected] he saw which way opinion was moving. Where was he in the meantime when myself, Susan, and Nancy Liebman were trying to roll back development? He was nowhere to be found."
Particularly rankling to Kasdin is Dermer's role in spiking the 1998 sale to the city of Kramer's "Alaska Parcel," a three-and-a-half-acre chunk of prime Beach waterfront. He concedes it was a popularly received move, but he considers it shortsighted. "We had an option to buy [the parcel] for seven million," Kasdin sighs. "It could've been a public park free of high-rises forever. Instead Dermer led the opposition, saying, 'We're not going to give Kramer a dime.'"
As of last week, Kramer is set to go to court. Says Kasdin: "If a judge says that property has to be permitted to have high-rise zoning, the responsible parties are the ones who voted against the public buying it when we had an opportunity three years ago." He adds sharply: "That was a criminal act!" and then points to a similarly aborted deal with the city: Kramer offered the seven-acre slice of bayfront north of Monty's for $11 million, a bargain considering it sold this past summer to Jorge Perez's Related Group for $52 million. Perez has slated more towering condo buildings for the site.
Perhaps even more glaring, the notorious duo who received more than $100,000 in consulting fees to orchestrate Kramer's own anti-Save Miami Beach campaign -- political operative Armando Gutierrez and his wife Maritza's Creative Advertising Ideas -- are now part of the brain trust behind Dermer's mayoral quest. Armando is his consultant, while Dermer recently paid $20,000 to Maritza's agency.
Gutierrez is known to the general public chiefly for his role as the Elian Gonzalez "family spokesman," helping to turn a six-year-old boy into a political prop for the Cuban-exile community. But before all that, Gutierrez was a familiar face in Beach elections, believed to be responsible for spreading false rumors of anti-Semitism and redbaiting on behalf of whichever candidate hired him. The Fair Campaign Practices Committee called him "a blight on Dade County politics." And while Dermer may be paying his salary, at least when it comes to Cuban-exile politics, Gutierrez seems to be calling the tune.
During the October 1 mayoral debate at the Colony Theater, a hint of Dermer's position emerged. Asked by filmmaker Frances Negron how they felt about Cuban artists performing in Miami Beach, both Bloom and Liebman emphatically announced their belief in freedom of expression. They were delighted with the Supreme Court's ruling that led to the overturning of Miami-Dade's cuba ordinance, which barred county-funded arts groups and venues from interacting with that island. Cuban bands wanna play here? Bring 'em on!
With the Hollywood Jazz Festival's mysterious cancellation of next month's concert by Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés, as well as West Palm Beach's Carefree Theater backing out of an earlier Irakere date because of fears of violent protests from road-tripping exiles, this is hardly a moot issue.
When the microphone was passed to Dermer, he hemmed, attempted a diversionary joke, and then said simply: "The law of the land is what it is, and we have to follow the United States Supreme Court." And that was it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of cultural freedom, particularly in its eerie echo of county mayor Alex Penelas's own public waffling -- acceding to the ordinance's repeal while being painstakingly careful not to offend el exilio.
Gutierrez appears to be up to his old tricks in the Group II commission race as well. Front-runner Saul Gross is hardly an underdog. His campaign war chest of $158,697 handily dwarfs that of his four opponents: Joe Fontana with $35,800, Louis Martinez with $15,680, Dan Pearson with $7100, and Julio Lora with $2925. A close look at these four, however, paints a far different picture than a simple lopsided fight. Some of Gross's opponents may be little more than straw men for figures eager to put their man inside city hall.
In an interview with Kulchur this past July, Pearson -- previously unseen in Beach civic circles -- was unable to elaborate one single policy difference between himself and Gross. Which begs the question: Why is he running? To that, Pearson could only stammer a few clichés about his so-called independence.
During a Latin Chamber of Commerce-sponsored debate at Pearl last month, the other three candidates were scarcely more inspiring. Julio Lora had difficulty elaborating anything substantial he had to offer, while Louis Martinez -- a Gutierrez in-law and client -- admitted he'd only been a Beach resident since July, having just moved here from Illinois. Common sense would suggest that Martinez actually live in a community for more than a few months before trying to represent it -- unless, as more than a few observers have dourly suggested, his only intention is to act as a spoiler and use his Hispanic surname to siphon Latino votes away from Gross.
As for Joe Fontana -- seemingly clad in the same brown blazer he's sported during his last three failed commission runs, he appeared woefully out of touch with current realities, blathering on about bus shelters when the rest of the room was preoccupied with addressing the local economic fallout from September 11.
Asked about this somewhat bizarre cast, Kasdin declines to directly finger Gutierrez. Instead he opines that "for some people their biggest enemy is a smart, honest elected official," someone like Saul Gross. "At the end of the day, people like Armando just don't like that kind of person in public office. Their favorite person is someone who joins along with their shenanigans. Beyond that, they can tolerate a person who's not too bright, who doesn't interfere."
Kulchur goes for broke: Would that be Joe Fontana?
Kasdin grimaces. "Joe would be a throwback to the old days of Miami Beach politics," he says, the Eighties era of mayor Alex Daoud -- who was eventually imprisoned for bribery, money laundering, tax fraud, and obstruction of justice, all charges during his reign. "I can assure you," Kasdin continues, "if Fontana and Dermer get into office, we'll be right back there in no time."
Neisen Kasdin is no angel, and he's done his share of cozying up to lobbyists. Yet it's hard not to feel some regret at his declining to run for re-election. After all, here's a leader who studiously kept both Miami's exile hysterics ("There was a lot of political pressure to get the Beach to toe the line") and its traditions of gross corruption from leaching across the bay. And having casually spoken with him over the past few years at events from the New World Symphony to the Source Hip-Hop Music Awards, it's become apparent that he's a keenly intelligent man who is genuinely dedicated to the best the Beach has to offer. So why is he stepping off into the sunset?
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Run, Neisen, run!
"No, no!" he laughs, holding up his hands in mock defense. "You have to understand the program I'm on. When I first ran in 1991, I resolved I wouldn't stay in office more than ten years. Politics is not my career; I'm an attorney. Nor is politics my family. I want to get back to the rest of my life."
C'mon, Neisen. For somebody ready to embrace domesticity, you've been politicking something fierce. I've heard all kinds of stories about your behind-the-scenes involvement in Tuesday's election.
"Look, you have to let go and accept what's going to come," he replies with a touch of Zen. "Politicians should not have such puffed-up egos to think the fate of the city rests solely on their shoulders." Taking in Kulchur's skeptical smirk, he quickly adds, "It doesn't mean I don't have a deep concern and interest in seeing our city is put in the best possible hands." Spoken like a true political playa.