If Miami Beach politics is a joke, Abe Hirschfeld is the punch line. Even in a city hall where the mayor is under investigation by the Feds; where some commissioners view their offices as extensions of their private businesses; where proclamations are issued in honor of politically connected, world-class drug dealers; where millions of dollars earmarked for the community suddenly surface in Homestead, never to return; where greased wheels and back-room deals are a way of life - even in this three-story freak show of mutant public policymakers, one man, 71-year-old Commissioner Abe Hirschfeld, stands out like a lime-green necktie in a roomful of undertakers. Hirschfeld, a real estate magnate, a veritable tycoon who owns the New York Penta hotel, Manhattan's posh Vertical Club athletic center, and a host of parking garages in the Big Apple, is best known locally for spitting on Miami Herald reporter Bonnie Weston, for telling ethnic jokes in commission chambers, and for being kicked out of his own hotel for ignoring fire-code violations. On the dais of the Beach commission chambers, where each city official seems to have found a way to be disliked, blamed, or ridiculed by one or another of his peers, Abraham Jacob Hirschfeld holds a unique distinction: nobody likes him. And that's no joke.
Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, perhaps unwilling to stir up the already roiling political soup he's in, is hesitant to criticize. "His publicity has not been good," Daoud hedges when his opinion is solicited, "but it has not been as bad as some of the other malevolent publicity that has really been pushed by the Miami Herald and the other news media in the area."
Other Beach officials, however, are not so reticent:
"He's one of the wonders of the world," says fellow commission member William Shockett. "He takes credit for things - he says that he got rid of the prior police chief, and he refers to him as `Gladstone' when his name is `Glassman.' That says it all. He's sitting at the meetings taking credit for getting rid of `Gladstone,' and everybody is laughing.... He's just unbelievable. I find nothing redeeming about him. He's a very vicious, warped, shrewd man." Shockett filed a slander suit this past week in response to Hirschfeld's broadcast allegation that Shockett "comes to the commission drunk." The suit was dropped two days later, after Hirschfeld presented Shockett with a written apology and after Shockett apologized for requesting Hirschfeld's resignation.
"I don't think that you gain respect as a legislator by doing acts that are not socially accepted," says Commissioner Stanley Arkin.
"He's totally unreasonable," asserts Commissioner Bruce Singer. "He is ineffective as a city commissioner because of his inability to work with others."
"The basic problem," says Commissioner Martin Shapiro, "is he's a person who's not suited to be an elected official. He doesn't understand the intricacies and the subtleties of being an elected official. The public looks at him as being a jerk."
Commissioner Shapiro says the public thinks you're a jerk -Well, the only thing I can tell you is he's not my lover and I wouldn't indulge in a discussion with him. He can call anybody a jerk - and that you're unsuited for public office. And others say you're taking credit for things you shouldn't take credit for.
They happen to be right. I'll tell you why. All the people come over in Miami Beach and they tell me, "Abe, you deserve the credit for making Miami Beach roomy," and I tell them, "Do me a favor, don't give me the credit. Give me cash." And I haven't seen any yet. So taking the credit doesn't give me any cash. If it does, it's good for the people. That is my cash.
An elected official is just common sense. And success in private events - not one of them [Miami Beach commissioners] has any success to be credited for. And I have all the successes that they will never reach if they live another thousand years. I don't think any one of them has a single honorary - and by the way, I got an honorary doctor of philosophy from the Protestant Theological Seminary. I got man of the year from the City of Hope, the man of the year from the real estate industry, and it can go on and on and on. And never have I taken an honor from an organization that I contributed money, because I don't want to buy an honor.
You've run for office several times in the past. Is politics in your nature?
No. No, I ran for office because I realized if I won't run for office, I will lose all my investments because of mismanagement in government. I was a member of the Electoral College of the United States. I am in Who's Who in the East, and nobody in South Florida is listed there. [Miami Herald publisher] David Lawrence is trying to get in and I won't stop him. I was the treasurer of the New York State Democratic Party. President Carter sent Air Force One to bring us to the peace treaty signing with Israel and I am the only one in the universe who has the peace treaty signed by the three presidents that were sitting at that table.
I went to Carter - there were about 200 people at that dinner - I said, "Mr. President, I want you to autograph for me the peace treaty," and he says, "I'm not going to do it for anybody tonight. There are 250 people and I can't do it." I said, "Well, if I'm anybody, don't do it." He said, "Give it to me." I had a special pen. He wrote down the whole thing in English. Then I asked Sadat, and Sadat wrote down a whole story in Arabic and English, and Menachem Begin, who was sitting to my left, wrote down the whole story in Hebrew and English, and every museum wants it, and my wife won't give it to anybody.
So being a member of the Electoral College certainly represents a bigger office than being commissioner of Miami Beach. My wife was on the board of the Kennedy Center. I was a member of the Tri-State Regional Planning Commission, which is New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, comprising about 30 million people. I was the president of Democrats for Reagan.
People ask me, "What are you?" And I tell them, "I am a liberal Republican, a conservative Democrat, which makes me a Hypo-crat, which most Americans are, because they vote either way all the time." What's on my lung is on my tongue. Americans generally vote individually. I think it's a wonderful system, because it gives them a choice to vote the political party or to vote individually. Gives them freedom.
The Bible says you should divide your life into three: into family, into business, and into charity and public service. There are guys who like to gamble, there are guys who like to go with prostitutes, there are guys who like to go to racetracks. There are guys who like to drink. My hobby is to go in politics. And I get to help people.
How is it in the best interest of a community to have you, a big businessman, involved in the day-to-day operations of their city as a hobby, and to protect his own investments?
Look, it's only good business. Government is the people's business. It's a business of analyzing the expenses, the income. Spending their money, not wasting their money. Getting the right results for the monies that the people are paying in their taxes and in other increments.
Why did you choose to come to Miami?
All my life, my formula of business was buying into neglected communities and into communities where the prices are at the rock bottom, and then bring my knowledge and improve the neighborhood, and everything grows with it. It's almost like the Bible saying, those who sow with tears cut with joy. And when you come in a place where everything is neglected - and yet in my opinion, we have visited countless places all over the universe, I would say maybe 70 percent of the places - I really believe that the territory of Miami Beach is the nicest I have seen anywhere.
HIRSCHFELD COVER, PART TWO:
At an age when many people would be considering a life of quiet retirement, Hirschfeld arrived in Miami Beach in 1987 and plopped down $14.5 million cash for what was then the Konover Hotel at 5445 Collins Avenue. He spent another ten million dollars renovating the eighteen-story, 484-room resort, renamed it the Castle, and basked - albeit briefly - in local glory. He discussed the hotel with anyone who would listen, and was especially smitten with its 1000-seat theater, which he named after himself. But a union strike, lawsuits, numerous personnel changes, and building-code violations turned Hirschfeld's Castle into a palace under siege. This past July, days before attorneys for the city planned to ask a federal judge to order that the hotel be shut down, Hirschfeld closed the Castle's doors himself.
In the meantime, in 1989, Hirschfeld managed to win a seat on the Miami Beach City Commission; helped by the public's strong anti-incumbent sentiment, he scraped past Commissioner Ben Grenald by a total of 21 votes.
"We painted him as a prominent businessman from New York," says public relations consultant Robert Goodman, who made the most of Hirschfeld's friendship with Donald Trump, featuring the billionaire in his candidate's campaign advertisements. Goodman also distributed free copies of Hirschfeld's self-published autobiography, An Accidental Wedding, July 4, and he spent money - a lot of money. Hirschfeld shelled out $110,000 of his own funds campaigning for the $6000-per-year position against Grenald, the Herald-endorsed candidate.
The Miami Beach commission triumph was Hirschfeld's second successful stab at politics. In 1946 he was elected vice mayor of B'nai Brak, a small town near Tel Aviv, Israel, where he had lived since his family fled Tarnow, Poland, in 1933. In Israel Hirschfeld met and married Zipora, his wife of 47 years, fathered two children, and prospered as a metal importer, bringing aluminum, brass, copper, and other metals into the newly formed nation.
In 1950 Hirschfeld moved from Israel to New York City, and amassed a fortune constructing multilevel parking garages. Before he arrived, Manhattan parking garages were completely enclosed structures with heating, ventilation, and windows. Hirschfeld opted for a more Spartan architectural strategy: floors, walls, and parking spaces. No climate control, no windows, no frills at all - just parking. The idea, in Hirschfeld's words, "revolutionized the world."
Hirschfeld's United States political career commenced in 1966, when he was named treasurer of the New York State Democratic Committee. In 1974 and 1976 he ran unsuccessfully, and without Democratic Party backing, for the U.S. Senate, spending more than one million dollars of his own money on the failed 1974 campaign. "I had plenty of money to run without party funds," he writes in his autobiography. "So what if I didn't win. At least I would bring to the public's attention an issue that none of the other candidates was willing to tackle."
The "issue" was inflation, but what sparked the most interest during the campaign were charges - later proven false by the state board of elections - that Hirschfeld had bribed opponent Allard Lowenstein to drop out of the race and run instead for the House of Representatives. That same year, at a breakfast, Hirschfeld attracted media attention when he spat on the late Stanley Steingut, then-minority leader of the New York State Assembly, who had refused to endorse Hirschfeld's Senate bid. (A few months later, Hirschfeld likes to point out, Steingut was indicted on corruption charges.)
Spitting, Hirschfeld explains, is the supreme insult: "A bullet you get hurt, but you can recover," he says, "but from spit, you can't recover. A spit can never be washed off." Given the chance, he adds, he would spit on Steingut again. "I only made one mistake when I spit in Stanley Steingut's face," he asserts. "I should've done it at dinner. At breakfast there were no TV cameras."
Of course TV cameras were present to capture Hirschfeld's next expectoration, the October 26, 1990, wet gesture directed at Bonnie Weston while the Miami Herald reporter attempted to cover Hirschfeld's unsuccessful attempt to sell his Castle Hotel.
You spat on a Miami Herald reporter. Why did you do that?
Well, I met with her twice I think, and I asked her to write fair and honest. I brought with me the Miami Beach "Neighbors" section [of the Herald] and said, "Here is your article. You write about a certain [commission] decision but you never mention that it was five-to-two, or six-to-one. You misled the public to think that it was unanimously voted on."
I met with her again and told her, "If I vote, if the vote is five-to-two against [the Miami Beach Police Department] sending out a letter [to employers of] people who are arrested for drugs, why don't you use my name? You use the mayor's name and not my name. What have you got against me?" It didn't help. So I spit in her face, and I never apologized for it.
Channel 10 asked me to apologize and I went on the air, and I said, "I do not apologize, but I will be very happy to discuss it in an open forum with the Miami Herald or any of their representatives. I never heard any responses, and a person not responding is only a person who is guilty. There is an old Polish law. When the Russians wanted to annex Poland and they came, they made their demand in the Polish senate, and the senate remained silent. The Russians answered, "No answer is acceptance," and that's basically the law of laws. Someone sues somebody and he doesn't respond, automatically they get the verdict. So the Miami Herald not responding to my allegation, automatically they are guilty.
I would immediately call the police and put them in jail. I would press charges for the worst insult one can hurl.
Is there any danger you'll spit again?
The last time I spit was 1974. I spit again last year, and the next time I spit will probably be in 2010. Until then you're all safe.
Do you regret spitting?
I regret nothing.
The Miami Beach City Commission reacted to Hirschfeld's salivary outburst by formally censuring him. The Miami Herald responded with a scathing editorial. The late Janet Chusmir, the Herald's executive editor, was quoted in a separate story as calling the commissioner "a disgrace to this community." Herald humorist Dave Barry, in an end-of-the-year article, mentioned Hirschfeld five times, once by the nickname "Spitball." In his widely read column, Carl Hiaasen savaged Hirschfeld.
The thick-skinned Hirschfeld once won a lawsuit brought against him by comedian Jackie Mason, who told him during a deposition, "You should drop dead by Thursday," and his self-image and sense of humor seem not to have been injured by the public criticism. Barely two months after the spitting image was televised, Hirschfeld gave local media another opportunity to zero in on him. Several minutes before the December 19, 1990 Beach commission meeting began, Hirschfeld noticed a group of people waiting in the audience. "I decided to entertain them, so I told a joke," he explains.
Hirschfeld's attempt at humor was a joke about the owner of a kosher deli who charged excessively high prices to black customers to keep them away. When the black customers were willing to pay for the sandwiches, the owner put up a sign that said No Jews Allowed.
The Beach commission called a special session the following week, and drafted another resolution to censure their colleague. The second censure comes up before the commission for a vote January 23.
Hirschfeld acknowledges that if he knew himself based only on what he's seen in the local media, "I wouldn't sit at a table with me." At the same time, though, he seems to covet attention, regardless of the sort. "This kind of publicity," he says, "I couldn't buy for $50,000."
Unfazed by his dubious fame, Hirschfeld delivered yet another joke at the next commission meeting, this time poking fun at Arabs and Jews. "I told a joke," Hirschfeld says. "If that joke is a crime, then people shouldn't live any more. All you see on TV is jokes."
You're a funny guy. Have you ever considered becoming a stand-up comedian?
A comedian, no. Let me tell you my opinion. Comedy is a wonderful medicine for human beings. We have to know how to entertain ourselves, and it seems that the best show on Broadway is Jackie Mason's comedy [The World According to Me]. The highest Tony Awards and the only Tony Awards and the only case of Tony Awards is Jackie Mason. He's got awards for being the producer, the director, the actor. He must've gotten ten awards. Nobody got two awards. In England he was invited by the Queen.
Are the two of you friends again?
I'm glad you ask that, because last Monday night I was at [comedian] Joey Adams's birthday, and there was Joan Rivers and Jackie Mason and a who's who in government. The governor, the mayor - there were about 250 people there, and me and my wife. It's an unbelievable honor in New York.
I'll tell you how it works. About two years ago at [Adams's] birthday, I was in New York and Zipora was in Miami and I brought a friend of mine with me. They asked me my name. "You're Abe Hirschfeld?" And I said yes, and they asked the other party, "Are you Zipora Hirschfeld?" and she said no. And they said, "I'm sorry, you can't come in. This is a special party only for his very close friends." I was embarrassed and I took a cab and she went home.
At this party was Jackie Mason. He was a great hit, but I believe Governor Cuomo was better as a comedian. Unbelievable. And when I left, he [Mason] was at the check-out counter and I was standing next to him and we really dropped our hatchet. He hugged me, I hugged him, and I said, "Jackie, I want to come see your show." And he said, "Just let me know when you want to and I'll have tickets waiting for you."
People were offended by the joke you told at the commission meeting. They say it's improper for a city commissioner to tell such jokes.
Well, any city commissioner that has to hide something shouldn't be on the commission. They buy what they see and they get what they see, and if they don't like what they see, then they'll have to vote again.
HIRSCHFELD COVER, PART THREE:
Some say the publicity you've garnered is not positive, that this isn't the kind of publicity the city needs.
No. One, "they" are not people. Second thing, there is an old Jewish saying: "It's very easy to walk along a loaded wagon." When Abe Hirschfeld goes to a city, the whole world follows. And the same thing happens in Union City, in Albany, in Jackson Heights, in Washington Heights, and in Gramercy Park and Lenox Hill neighborhood. Those are the neighborhoods I completely renovated and made it booming in two, three years. This is my tenth community that I completely revived and brought to the top.
In every enterprise or in every government there are people with different knowledges. All I try to do is use my knowledge in the advance of experience. If they could realize what I know - and I know that there is a lot that I don't know - then they would be big people, but they think they know everything, and that's where the problem is. My philosophy is to take complex problems and bring in simple solutions.
But are there simple solutions?
Always. You know the simplest solution in the world? The computer. It just works on one and zero. There's nothing simpler than the computer. Yes and no, and that's why it functions so well.
Is there a simple solution to the most immediate problem facing the nation - the Persian Gulf crisis? How would you solve that problem?
It's too late for you to write about. In my opinion, when one is sick, he tries to find the best expert on the subject. There's only one person that knows foreign affairs in this universe, and on a scale of one to ten, if he's a ten, nobody's a two or three. We had a fantastic time - not fantastic, we had good times - when President Reagan was the president only because Richard Nixon was the chairman of the board. I believe that all three presidents - Carter, Ford, and Reagan - can't shine Nixon's shoes in foreign affairs, and the only problem is that both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan don't have a good relationship with Bush. I still think that if they would ask Nixon today to enter the negotiations, he probably would find a solution.
What about the ten communities you say you brought to the top? Specifically, what did you do?
I bought a building, made it an elegant building, and other surrounding neighborhoods started moving ahead. Same like in Miami Beach.
I wish I could say it so elegant like you.
But is the city on top now?
Things are looking good. But Rome wasn't built in one day. We're going in the right direction.
Although he's never at a loss for words, no matter what the controversy, and seems to deflect criticism with rambling replies and non sequiturs, a mixture of confusion and utter disregard, Hirschfeld does have one staunch ally and defender: his wife. Zipora Hirschfeld, who grew up in Tel Aviv, defends her husband passionately, the way only a spouse can.
"He has a brilliant mind," says Mrs. Hirschfeld, a self-described poet, as she sits at a round glass table in the Hirschfelds' eighteenth-floor penthouse suite at the Castle Hotel. "He sees things much clearer, and he's successful because he always sees what's needed, and he can create it. The other commissioners can't stand when a newcomer like Abe comes to Miami. He has better character and more honesty than all of them together. What have they accomplished?"
Her husband is a family man, she continues, a generous person who can't pass a beggar on the street without handing over a few dollars. "He has such a big heart," she says. "And he is very strong. He is stronger than me."
Mrs. Hirschfeld, who resigned from the Miami Beach Visitors and Convention Authority when the Castle Hotel shut down, says her husband will have little trouble riding out the current controversy. "They're looking to destroy Abe Hirschfeld," she says defiantly. "But they're not going to."
Do you have a philosophy that guides you as a public official?
Yes. It's the same philosophy that applies to all my business and all my life. My philosophy is very simple: I don't work for money, I don't work for fame. I only work for love and the benefit of the public. And people ask me, "Abe, you're Jewish and you're not religious. Why do you go to the synagogue on Saturday?" And my answer is very simple. I go to pray for my employees, to pray for my guests, to pray for the people I work with. And if they do well, I do well. And the same is for Miami Beach. Miami Beach does well, I do well.
Some of your employees say they don't need your prayers.
You won't give me one name that doesn't like me.
How about the picketers outside your hotel? The people who went on strike?
Those are not names of individuals.
Miami Beach suffers from allegations of corruption and mismanagement. It's plagued with crime. What have you done to revive it?
A lot of it I am alleviating. We have solved a lot of problems in the last year. First of all we got rid of [former police chief] Ken Glassman, which removed us from the title of crime capital of the nation. I removed [former city attorney] Arnold Weiner, where all the commissioners offered him a big compensation. We won the [appeal of the] Carner-Mason lawsuit. [Initially the court had ordered the city to pay Carner-Mason $30 million in a contract dispute regarding the Miami Beach marina, but this past month an appellate court overturned the judgment.]
What can be done about crime in Miami Beach?
I believe - just like I had the solution for the parking situation [in New York], which really changed the complex of the universe - I believe I have a solution to the drug and crime problem, and I'll be working on it within the next 60 days. I don't know if it will be a complete solution, but very close to it. It has to be properly prepared with all kinds of facts and analysis, and then I will present it to the world.
Will you give us a hint?
No. I'd like to, but I can't yet. It isn't ready.
Some issues that come before the city commission are complex - things like bond issues, tax-increment financing, labor contracts, budgets. How much time per week do you devote - outside commission meetings - to commission matters so you can make informed decisions?
I would say somewhere between four, five to eight hours in two weeks.
And what do you do in that time?
I am analyzing the reports and preparing statements and preparing answers.
Commissioner Shapiro says you don't represent the people - that you can't put yourself in their shoes.
Nobody's closer to the people than I am. My whole world stands from almost daily having direct contact with my plumbers, with my contractors, with my carpenters, with my driver. As a matter of fact, I had a driver twenty years, Elijah Montgomery, a black guy from Mississippi. One day I said to him, "Elijah, why don't you come in the back and I'll drive?" He said, "No, Mr. Hirschfeld, I don't want to." We were really like brothers. And then he said to me, "Mr. Hirschfeld, what can I do to not be a driver?" I said, "Elijah, learn from me. I have a Rolls Royce limousine, but I carry cement bags and a shovel in the limo, because sometimes it's missing cement from the job, I'll bring it in the limousine."
I said to him, "Why don't you go buy a building?" He says, "I have no money, would you lend me?" I said, "No, but I'll arrange you a loan. You'll be responsible for it and so on. You know how to fix it, you know how to rent it. That's how I started."
What happened to Elijah?
He became very, very successful in Brooklyn.
Did you get him the loan?
No. He got the loan on his own. I told him, I directed him to it, and he got it on his own.
If you could tell people, "This is what I am, this is what I want you to know," what would you tell them?
I would tell them that I have only one interest, which is all my life's pattern of work. My first interest is to have all my customers happy, all my employees happy, all of the people who gave me the honor and elected me, and those who didn't elect me, but I am serving, to serve in honesty, when all of them are happy, then I am happy.
Do you think they're happy now?
Oh, I think they're very happy because - I get such stacks of mail. I see at least twenty-to-one supporting my positions and taking my stands. Just out of guessing, because they have nowhere to read it.
I'm going to win probably with 90 percent because my letters and calls are running twenty-to-one.
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Hirschfeld is having dinner at the staid, elegant Gatti restaurant in Miami Beach, explaining over veal parmigiana and a bottle of Beck's that he doesn't quite understand his notorious reputation. When the meal is over, he is introduced to some people at an adjacent table. He immediately launches into a joke about a prostitute in a British courtroom. It's getting late, and not many patrons are left in the restaurant, but those who remain have no trouble hearing Hirschfeld's distinct delivery, as he works the room like the father of the bride at a wedding reception.
Hirschfeld completes his comedy routine and moves away self-assuredly, leaving his audience laughing in his wake. The people still sitting at the table, although they're smiling politely, have not found the interlude quite so amusing as they let on, and it takes a few minutes for quizzical looks to give way to easy conversation, as if they've just had an unpleasant confrontation in the street with the village idiot.
Abe Hirschfeld, Miami Beach city commissioner, sees none of what goes on in the wake of this brief encounter. He's already out the door.