Steve Berke: Comedian for Miami Beach mayor
The would-be next mayor of Miami Beach is in his element: A vodka swishes in his left hand, a tipsy Swedish model with razor cheekbones leans against his shoulder, and a dozen of South Beach's beautiful people listen raptly as he describes getting laid.
It's past midnight on a Friday outside the Townhouse, a boutique beachfront hotel, and Steve Berke, a 29-year-old with dark, gelled hair, is clad in a half-buttoned plaid shirt and his trademark unlaced vintage Nikes.
"I had sex with this girl recently who was 19 and she was all, like, 'Come all over me! Come all over me!'" Berke says to his friends' laughter while taking a swig of vodka. "I'm 10 years older than her, and I'm shocked she's talking to me like that. And then I realize: She grew up watching hard-core porn on the Internet while I was trying to steal my dad's Playboys. It's amazing how growing up online has changed people."
It's a story that might sink the campaign of any other politician — but Berke didn't exactly graduate from the Marco Rubio Finishing School for Former Boy Scouts. Recently, the Yale grad, two-time All-American tennis star, and reality TV contestant has eked out a living by telling raunchy jokes in Miami clubs and making parody videos on YouTube, where his top clip, featuring a half-nude Dutch model advocating legalized pot, has notched nearly a half-million hits.
That's not to say his candidacy is a lark. He has a legit platform: decriminalizing weed, building a casino, and lowering property taxes with the new revenue. And his strategy is sound. He's raising money from clubs and bars, and energizing young voters who usually skip city races. Then there's his degree in American studies from New Haven's best Ivy League school and his past competing against the likes of Federer, Roddick, and Hewitt.
Most important of all, though, is his campaign manager and Svengali: the legendary Roger Stone, a GOP dirty trickster with connections to Watergate who helped Ronald Reagan and both Bushes get to the White House. More recently, he engineered the surprising win of Republican Sheriff Al Lamberti in Broward during the 2008 Obama landslide.
The odd pair aims to take over more than just Miami Beach City Hall when elections are held this November. They're filming the race with a production company, hoping to lure a network into buying the first campaign custom-built for reality TV. In a country where Sarah Palin ignites a movement by hunting moose on the Discovery Channel, and Glenn Beck makes millions with a televised Howard Beale-style road show, it just might work.
The last election for Miami Beach's top job in 2009, after all, drew just 7,500 voters, and incumbent Matti Herrera Bower's administration hasn't won fans as property taxes have risen during an economic free fall.
"Steve wouldn't be doing this if he thought he was going to lose," says Gabriel Goldstein, a tennis teammate from Yale. "He's not wired that way. He's so damned competitive he thinks he can pull this off."
Steve Berke is the rarest of SoBe species: a third-generation Beach resident. His grandmother immigrated from Chicago in 1933 when the city of Miami Beach ended at Lincoln Road and the Venetian Causeway had only recently linked the beach to the mainland. Berke's father, William, was born in 1945 and grew up in a mansion on Pine Tree Drive.
Miami Beach was a different universe then, William Berke says. "In the 1950s, as a little kid, I used to go swimming in the canals," he says. "They were all so full of fish. It was a beautiful, natural place before all the development and pollution came in."
William left for almost 20 years, studying medicine in Illinois and later teaching English in Mexico City, but he returned to Miami Beach to set up a general family practice in the mid-'70s. He soon met a young Persian-American dermatologist named Alam Farzad and fell in love.
They were married in 1979, and their only son, Steve, was born two years later. The young family moved into a waterfront house in the Keystone Point neighborhood of North Miami, just across the bay from Bal Harbour.
William knew Steve was a gifted athlete when the boy was just 3 years old. They were at the house of a neighbor who was pitching to his 6-year-old son. "He said, 'Why don't you give it a try, Steve?'" William Berke recalls. "The bat was way too big for him, but he smashed the ball right over a fence. His hand-eye coordination was always amazing."
By the time he was 7 years old, the younger Berke was entering elite tennis tournaments. At age 14, he won a national title in his age group and represented the United States in a world tournament in Japan against future pros Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. When he was 16 years old, he represented the United States again, along with Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, making it to the quarterfinals of the world tourney.
"He was thin and not that athletic, but he dominated the mental side of the game," says Jimmy Bollettieri, Berke's coach. "He understood how to structure a point, and he was extremely competitive."
When he was 16, Berke left home to live at an elite Bradenton-based tennis camp run by Bollettieri's father, tennis legend Nick Bollettieri. "Tennis was my life 24/7," Berke says. "I always assumed I'd turn pro."
In fact, he begged his parents to do so. But when Yale offered Berke a tennis scholarship, William Berke put his foot down. "The truth is we insisted that he go to Yale. He would have turned pro otherwise," William says. "We wanted him to have a fallback."
It turned out to be a wise move. Berke earned All-American honors at Yale in 2001 when he went undefeated all season and then made it to the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. He repeated as an All-American in 2003 after transferring to the University of California, Berkeley. (He still received his degree from Yale.)
After graduating the next year, he entered the pro circuit. But in one of his first tournaments, in Mexico, he severely herniated two discs in his back.
"I was stuck for two weeks because I couldn't even fly. It still hurts sometimes," he says before turning on the shtick. "I've had a lot of sex injuries, actually. Those low-lying floor beds may be chic in South Beach, but they're not good for sex with a bad back."
After a career that saw him ranked in the top five among young Americans and victories in dozens of tournaments, Berke was done with tennis forever.
His dad, worried about the depression that might follow, pushed him to try something radically different. In New Haven, Berke had discovered a talent for acting while playing out Hamlet scenes in theater classes. So he persuaded his son to attend a tryout for the first season of Donald Trump's reality show, The Apprentice.
Berke made it to the final round of casting, which included a urethra swab to test for STDs. "The doctor stuck this umbrella up my cock, and it was horrible," Berke recalls. "He told me it was a great sign they were going to choose me, though. And then I ended up the first alternate, praying someone else tested positive for herpes."
It didn't happen, but the producers recommended Berke for another show in the works: Sir Richard Branson's knockoff, The Rebel Billionaire, which featured contestants racing the globe to compete for a job in Branson's Virgin Group.
Berke spent weeks dashing from New York to Hong Kong to Zimbabwe, dangling from waterfalls and pitching business ideas to the mogul. He came in eighth, getting booted in Marrakesh, Morocco, after failing to track down Branson in the desert. The show was a cross between The Apprentice and Fear Factor, and Berke played the part of the good-natured, fratty jokester.
"The show actually helped me a lot to cope with life without tennis," he says. "It's a real mind-fuck to lose the game when your life has always revolved around it."
Afterward, Berke spent a few months setting up a business selling a neck support for airline travelers — called the Moosh Pillow — that he'd pitched during one episode. When it didn't take off, he got a real estate job. "I hated every second of it," Berke says. "I had to try something else."
It wasn't the kind of post his Yalie friends were snagging in D.C. and L.A., so two years ago, he started showing up at open-mike nights at Miami Improv and other local clubs. Those turned into opening slots for bigger comics such as Pauly Shore. "At my first gig, I made all these jokes about Obama right after the election. At least half the audience was black. I thought I might be killed," he says. "I didn't get it yet that you have to make fun of yourself before turning it on other people."
Last spring, his comedy career took a turn when he met friends in L.A. and spent a week shooting video parodies, including a pro-marijuana remake of Eminem's "Love the Way You Lie."
The video, called "Should Be Legalized," features drop-dead-gorgeous Dutch model and singer Charlotte Bruyn and Berke rapping the verses. The clip went viral, notching more than 400,000 hits before YouTube decided it was too racy and rated it NC-17.
Meanwhile, pro-legalization groups such as NORML drafted Berke and his video for their efforts. He hosted an event at Burger & Beer Joint during last fall's failed effort to get marijuana decriminalization on the ballot in Miami Beach. That was his first inkling that his comedy could intersect with his politics.
Then, in November, Berke was in New York at the wedding of a friend from one of Yale's secret societies — "not Skull and Bones," Berke says, though he refused to name which one — when he drunkenly mentioned the idea of running for Miami Beach mayor. "I never planned to actually do it," he says. "There are way too many embarrassing pictures of me online. Just go on Facebook; there are thousands of pictures of me drunk. But the more I thought about it, the more I was like, 'The mayor of Miami Beach should know how to party,'" Berke says.
By the end of the night, Berke's Yalie friends were buzzing about the idea. "Once we heard his platform, it seemed to make a lot of sense," Goldstein says. "It's crazy that Miami Beach doesn't have a casino and doesn't seem to be encouraging nightlife."
As they talked, he had another brainstorm: Why not make the whole campaign a reality television show? Politics makes great TV. Then he added an even more tantalizing idea. Why not surround the politician/comedian with a retinue of gorgeous models — and do it in sunny South Beach?
A friend who had just finished working on Carl Paladino's failed bid for governor of New York perked up when he heard the idea. "Dude," he said, "I've got the perfect fucking guy for you."
Roger Stone strolls into Oliver's, his favorite neighborhood joint on West Avenue. His broad face is bronzed, his slightly conical head topped by blondish-white curls, his eyes shaded by hugely oversize round shades. With his prominent ears and thin nose, he bears no small resemblance to Prince Charles.
Yet something is off. Just three years ago, Stone was riding high — a penthouse office in Fort Lauderdale, a waterfront mansion, even a New Yorker cover story by Jeffrey Toobin that lingered on Stone's wardrobe of more than 100 designer suits and his four chauffeured Jaguars. (Not to mention the tattoo of Richard Nixon's face on his back.)
Today, the mansion has been sold, and if Stone drove to lunch, his car is inconspicuous. He's even wearing a blue polo shirt and khakis.
Has Stone fallen on hard times? The public record indicates as much: After getting tangled up with Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein, Stone faces a $400,000 IRS lien and is being sued over a $25,000 credit card bill. And for the first time, he's throwing his name into a local race in his adopted hometown.
But anyone who takes those facts to mean Stone is broke is dead wrong, he says. "Like a lot of Floridians, I have debt," he says. "But I also have plenty of income."
The story of how Stone ended up running Berke's campaign has two parts: (1) the rough patch in a long career in the political shadows and (2) the lifelong mission to erase the line between politics and entertainment.
Stone was born in Lewisboro, New York, in 1952 and attended George Washington University before abandoning school in 1971 to work as a gofer at the Committee to Re-elect the President (or CREEP, as it became universally known after Watergate).
Soon, he was playing a role in Nixon's Watergate shenanigans. During the 1972 primary, he made contributions to Nixon's rival, Pete McCloskey, in the name of the "Young Socialists Alliance" and then sent the receipts to a newspaper to smear the California Republican's name.
Stone lost a postelection job on the Hill with Bob Dole after the Senate Watergate committee publicized his role. "Watergate was one of the stupidest ideas I ever heard," he says now. "That stuff was all childish."
He served as youth director for Reagan's '76 run and then played key roles in his successful 1980 and '84 races as the candidate's Northeast coordinator. Next he cofounded a lobbying firm along with legendary Republican slime-master Lee Atwater. He consulted for the senior Bush's run in 1988 and Dole's 1996 race.
Stone's public career in politics all but died that year — or at least tilted toward Berke-style libertarian races. The National Enquirer published a story that Stone and his wife, Nydia, a Cuban-American from Miami, had placed ads in swinger magazines looking for sex partners. "Hot, insatiable lady and her handsome bodybuilder husband... seek similar couples," the ads read with pictures of the Stones.
"Roger Stone is a libertine," says Michael Caputo, a fellow political consultant who has known Stone since the mid-'80s. "But he's also a hard-core libertarian. He's no hypocrite."
Dole booted him from the family values-focused campaign, and Stone split his time between Washington and Miami — bouncing between apartments on Collins Avenue and Ocean Drive.
In 2000, Stone made his most notorious mark on national politics — of the sort Berke can only hope for. As the world's media descended on Miami for the presidential recount of ballots, he and his wife bought time on Radio Mambí to lobby for Dubya. On November 22, they urged protesters to storm the Stephen P. Clark Government Center, where Miami-Dade ballots were being recounted. When the protests turned violent, the recount was halted — and a court-mandated deadline couldn't be met. Many pointed toward the riot as a turning point after the Supreme Court declared Bush a winner a few weeks later. Gore likely would have picked up hundreds more votes in Miami had the recount continued.
Stone claims he personally orchestrated the chaos downtown with walkie-talkies from a nearby trailer.
After the riot, the Bush administration landed Stone a cozy position consulting for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, where he allegedly engineered millions in payoffs from tribes looking to build new casinos. Media called his work with tribes seeking new casinos a conflict, but Stone denies the charge. "False," he says. "I put up my own capital on some casino projects, and the vast majority didn't even work out. I certainly didn't make any huge profits."
Stone did, however, pay $2.2 million for a waterfront home on Biscaya Drive in Surfside in 2002. He was later accused of authoring the fake George W. Bush National Guard records that cost Dan Rather his job at CBS (which Stone denies) before another drastic change happened.
In late 2005, he was invited to dinner with Gov. Charlie Crist and businessman Scott Rothstein. "My immediate impression of Rothstein was that he was very loud," Stone says. "He had this insatiable need to yell at the top of his lungs."
They soon agreed to a partnership in a company called RRA Consulting LLC. Stone got a prime corner office in the lawyer's palatial Fort Lauderdale suite. Today, Stone says the firm was a sham. "Scott was an acquirer of people," Stone says. "He'd put on a big show acquiring law firms or starting a business with me, and then once you were set up, you'd never hear from him."
Still, he did undertake one major project at Rothstein's urging — a job that might give a hint about Berke's campaign to come. In 2008, Stone worked as a consultant for Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti, who faced a steep re-election challenge. He quickly offered Lamberti some key advice: Attack opponent Scott Israel's background as a cop.
"I found out he'd fired at two African-Americans as a cop, and there was only one problem: The men were both innocent," Stone says. "I told Lamberti to plaster African-American neighborhoods with that information."
Responds Israel: "Lamberti's ads were total lies and fabrications that I wasn't prepared to deal with."
Adds his campaign manager, Judy Stern: "The whole thing was so Roger. That's campaigning Stone's way."
It worked. Despite a massive Obama win in Broward, the Republican sheriff held on to his job. "On paper, that should not have been a winnable race," Stone says.
Then Rothstein was arrested in December 2009, charged with running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme. Stone has been financially bruised and professionally battered ever since.
Stone briefly left South Florida afterward, first to engineer the race of a former madam named Kristin Davis for governor of New York, and then to advise fellow (and more realistic) gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino. Both races ended badly. Davis was crushed at the polls, and Paladino made a famously off-color remark about gays to a rabbi. New York tabloids picked up on the comment and pictured Stone walking shirtless in a gay pride parade to point out the hypocrisy. Then they reported on Stone's $405,035 IRS tax lien. (Stone explains he's "negotiating a settlement" with the feds.)
This past November, Citibank sued Stone, claiming he owed $25,000. Stone contends the suit is the result of overbilling, but acknowledges that in 2008 he sold his mansion. He now rents on Normandy Isle.
In January, a few months after Paladino and Davis were crushed by Democrat Andrew Cuomo, Stone received an email from Berke. Check out my pro-pot legalization videos, Berke suggested. And how about lunch at Oliver's?
He says a payout from a reality show or a city hall job — prospects both he and Berke decline to discuss in detail — was not his motivation. "Why can't anyone accept that I'm doing this for fun?" Stone asks.
Retirees downing cafecitos and chewing on scrambled eggs in David's Café II regard Steve Berke with curiosity. The Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club, a fossilized relic of politically minded residents and gadflies, is definitely not this candidate's crowd.
"Can you tell me, please," a woman with a permed bouffant asks over the chatter, "what the hell qualifications do you have to run a city?"
Berke goes on the attack. "I'm sorry, can you remind me what college Matti Bower graduated from?" he says, looking into the high-def camera filming discreetly to the side. "Oh, right, she didn't go to school. So I don't see why I'm less qualified than Bower."
The response earns a chuckle and gives Berke a chance to contrast his Yale cred with Bower's lack of a degree — but it also feels too harsh for a candidate running as a genial drunk.
As they hit the campaign trail, Berke and Stone are striking a delicate balance: The candidate has to be entertaining enough to make good television but also serious enough to win.
Stone and Berke first met to discuss the idea of his campaign in January. Berke pitched a two-pronged idea: a campaign — under the banner of "The After Party" — that could hinge on the libertarian social issues that Stone embraces. More interesting, a camera would follow him and they would pitch TV networks on a reality show starring Stone as one of the featured players.
"Roger has been working on getting a political campaign reality show on a network for years," Caputo says. "The problem has always been getting a candidate who's entertaining and might actually win."
Adds Stone: "Steve is surrounded at all times by a crowd of beautiful women. Even his male friends look like they just walked out of a Calvin Klein ad. It's like someone backed up a bus to an Abercrombie & Fitch."
The key to that entourage is Berke's campaign manager and best friend on the Beach: Michael Malone, owner of Your World Entertainment, a VIP hosting and events company. Malone, an Indiana native with shoulder-length hair and a chic, tightly trimmed beard, was a model before switching to management. "I realized that all the clubs down here would let me and all my friends drink for free every night if I brought in all the beautiful models I know," he says. "That's really how it all started."
The campaign operates out of Malone's rented house on Prairie Avenue behind the Miami Beach Golf Club. The ranch-style abode with a small pool is also a boarding house for Malone's rotating roster of international models.
On a recent weekday, Berke sits out back with a bottle of Heineken and talks about his plans. Blond beauties in tight "After Party" T-shirts stroll by.
Berke has released a few well-produced YouTube ads touting his campaign. In the first, he sums up his position: "I'm a comedian, but my platforms, and what I stand for, are no joke," he says over swelling violins. Then he enumerates his pledges — doing a shot of liquor after each promise. (The clip has already garnered almost 100,000 views, and Berke's Twitter account recently topped 10,000 followers). "I don't see humor and politics as being in opposition," he says after pulling up the ad on his iPad. "I can connect with people through humor."
Stone and Berke plan to hold their first major fundraiser March 18. So far, they've filed no campaign disclosure reports. And one of his first big splashes ended in disaster. On March 4, Berke tried to use a slot introducing comedian Bill Burr at the South Beach Comedy Festival to tell some jokes and play up his campaign. Festival organizers weren't amused and kicked him out of the theater.
So what are Berke's chances to beat Bower in the November 1 election? The mayor's strongest demographics — older Hispanics and anti-development activists — were far and away the majority of the 7,500 voters who turned out in 2009 to keep her in office.
But Stone says 30,000 young Beach voters showed up to elect Barack Obama — and few of them came back for the mayoral race. "These guys are going to agree with Steve. If we can get them to the polls, we can beat Matti Bower," he says.
David Custin, a Miami Beach political consultant, disagrees. "Even if he turns out young voters, he'll be lucky to draw even. Bower is really liberal, and young voters usually support her."
One other candidate, Dave Crystal — the owner of a tutoring business — has also filed to run. He has raised a little more than $2,000 and pledges to reform the city's pension system and encourage new business investment. Bower, meanwhile, has reported $1,000 in contributions so far.
As for the reality show, Berke films new segments weekly. He and Malone pitched the idea at January's meeting of National Association of Television Program Executives, which drew more than 5,000 network suits to the Miami Beach Convention Center. He says he's negotiating but won't say with whom.
It's not clear what kind of cash could come with a series. If Comedy Central, for instance, were to bite, Berke and Stone would presumably earn serious salaries as creators and costars. Would they run afoul of campaign financing laws in the process?
"It's a local race, so there's no equal time requirements," Stone says. "Also, Comedy Central or whoever could just classify it as a news show, and there's no problem at all."
Bob Denton Jr., a political science professor at Virginia Tech who wrote a book about the collision of television and campaigning, isn't so sure. "The danger here is that the TV show ends up trivializing the entire electoral process in Miami Beach. What's become of our democracy if you're only running for office to get on TV and make yourself rich?"
Berke and Malone, his campaign manager, lead the way past two unsmiling bouncers into Wall, a new club in the chic W Hotel. The candidate turns and handpicks the chosen ones to follow him inside, like Saint Peter at the gates to Bro Heaven: "Him, him, and him. Her too," Berke says, pointing at anxious faces in line. "I don't know him. OK, her too."
Inside are pulsating lights inlaid in the mirrored walls and two DJs thumping out house beats. It's nearly 2 a.m. A dozen gorgeous women in tight dresses writhe atop Berke and Malone's champagne bottle-studded VIP table. "I love this scene," Berke shouts over the cacophony. "This is Miami Beach, it's — "
Berke stops midsentence as a 30-something man with a flat-brimmed baseball hat struts in, fist-bumps Malone, and grabs a seat. "Dude, that's the guy from Three 6 Mafia!" Berke shouts. Indeed, it's Lord Infamous, cofounder of the Oscar-winning rap group. "All these guys come to our table when they're in town because they know we can get them women. Really, you should hang out longer. All you have to do is wait until 3 a.m. and one of these chicks will be drunk enough to go home with you."
Berke looks thoughtful for a second. "We need a mayor who gets all this," he says, laughing. "This is South Beach!"
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