The Body Politic Hits the Beach
Hispanics make up some 50 percent of the population of Miami Beach. They currently make up zero percent of the city commission. But not for long.
Though they lag behind as a percentage of registered voters -- at roughly 35 percent -- Hispanics will play a greater role in November's mayoral and commission races than they have in any previous Beach election. Many observers believe that success is virtually assured for one or more Hispanic candidates, a prospect that might be expected to inspire cooperation and unity among Hispanic activists. But in fact, Miami Beach's nascent Hispanic power structure has already shattered into warring camps.
One particular faction of influential Beach figures coalesced in the past two months and has held a series of meetings to decide which candidates should benefit from the Beach's burgeoning Hispanic electorate. The group, assembled by long-time political campaign consultant Armando Gutierrez, decided to back Commissioner David Pearlson for mayor, and anointed Simon Cruz -- a genial, well-educated, but relatively unknown Cuban-American real estate banker -- as its candidate of choice for the two-year commission seat Pearlson would vacate.
But one participant in the meetings has broken ranks: Matti Bower, a Havana-born veteran Beach civic activist who made a spirited but unsuccessful run for the city commission two years ago. Instead of abiding by the consensus of Gutierrez's informal group and running for one of the three other commission seats up for grabs, Bower instead entered the race against Cruz, who had been a volunteer in her earlier bid for the city commission.
While some people, outgoing Mayor Seymour Gelber for one, put a positive spin on the rift between Bower and Gutierrez -- arguing that it's proof no one group can control Hispanic politics -- others are quick to point out that Gutierrez and his cohorts are gamely trying to do exactly that: take control of Hispanic political affairs in Miami Beach, and eventually, inevitably, of all Miami Beach politics. "I got involved [in Beach politics] so nobody would be able to walk around and say, 'I control the Hispanic vote on Miami Beach,'" says activist attorney Victor Diaz. "That's exploiting the people, treating them like sheep who can be led to the slaughter."
Gutierrez denies that the meetings he helped organize are evidence of any sort of backroom political chicanery. "It wasn't meant to be a secret cult or anything," he offers. "It was just a group of Hispanics discussing how not to divide the community. They didn't want it to be a divisive election, with Hispanics going against another group."
In the last week of June and the first week of July, Gutierrez's group gathered to discuss the viability of Cruz and other candidates. The first parley took place at David's Cafe II on Meridian Avenue, the second at Gutierrez's Miami Beach home. Those in attendance at one or both meetings included Gutierrez, VIP Parking Systems owner Frank Pintado, David's Cafe owner Alfredo Gonzalez, vitamin magnate Manuel Rico Perez, former commissioner Abe Resnick, State Rep. Bruno Barreiro, as well as Simon Cruz and Matti Bower. When his name was mentioned as a mayoral contender, Cruz says he told the group that his candidacy might divide the city along ethnic lines, and he declined to be considered for the center seat on the dais.
Invited to the second meeting was a more enthusiastic mayoral hopeful, David Pearlson, who at the time had not yet entered the contest for mayor. He recalls that the ad hoc committee cited his favorable record of Hispanic appointments as one of its main reasons for supporting him in the mayor's race. Their assurances of support were "a contributing factor" in his subsequent decision to run, Pearlson says.
Once the circle had settled on Pearlson for mayor, discussion shifted to what would happen with Pearlson's empty seat on the commission. Sources who attended the meeting confirm that Bower expressed her desire to run for the position. But the majority of the group wanted Cruz to declare for that vacancy and asked Bower to run against incumbent Sy Eisenberg.
The outcome was apparently still undetermined when Bower and her husband left town over the July 4 weekend for a two-week vacation in North Carolina. While she was gone, Gutierrez convened another meeting, and the group decided to support Cruz for the open commission slot. On July 14, Pearlson declared his candidacy for mayor. The next day, while Pearlson's now-empty seat was still warm, Cruz submitted his paperwork as a candidate for it. Gutierrez himself is supporting both the Pearlson and Cruz campaigns, though neither has hired him officially. (As of last week, only Commissioner Nancy Liebman is paying for his services as a campaign consultant.)
Frank Pintado called Bower in North Carolina after the third meeting to give her the news. "I was very hurt and very angry," Bower recalls. "It depressed me, not only for me personally, but it hurt because I don't think they did the best thing for the community." She returned on July 19 and filed her statement of candidacy two days later -- not against Eisenberg, as she had been asked, but against Cruz.
Diaz, who was not invited to any of Gutierrez's huddles, doesn't see anything inherently wrong with concerned citizens getting together to discuss politics, but he hears the grinding of a political machine in these particular powwows. "It's fine to have meetings as long as people are free to do what they want in the end," Diaz says. "What's troubling is how we got to this -- the coercive, exclusionary, unseemly aspects of it. I wish it had been done in an aboveboard way."
Bower's 1995 campaign was supported not only by Gutierrez but by Diaz and political strategist Ric Katz as well. That coalition of behind-the-scenes types has now dissolved, however. Diaz remains in Bower's corner (along with publicist Randy Hilliard, who helped orchestrate the campaign against her two years ago). Katz and Gutierrez, on the other hand, are throwing their political acumen and connections behind Cruz.
"I thought in that  campaign, she was the right candidate for that race," Gutierrez says. "This year I felt, by running for an open seat, she could be an easy target, based on the fact that she was heavily attacked in the previous campaign. I felt that would be coming out again." He adds that Bower's move into the contest against Cruz also opens the very real possibility that a non-Hispanic candidate could enter that race before the September 5 filing deadline, hoping that Bower and Cruz would split the Hispanic vote. "I hope Matti sees that as a community divided we cannot succeed, and as a community united, we can always go forward," Gutierrez says. "I think if Matti would search her soul, she would see that Simon has a very good chance."
Ric Katz, who is working on the campaigns of both Cruz and Pearlson, agrees that Bower's time may have passed. "I don't think she can win this time," Katz says flatly. "I believe Matti maxed out in her last campaign."
Gutierrez has also referred to Bower's "baggage" from the last campaign -- specifically, her "ties to Portofino," the development company headed by German financier Thomas Kramer. As a member of the Miami Beach Housing Authority, Bower indeed voted to support the land-swap aspect of the much-maligned and now-defunct Portofino Agreement. She also received $750 in contributions from Portofino lawyers during her 1995 campaign, but returned the money when she discovered its source.
Victor Diaz scoffs at that reasoning for abandoning Bower: "If that makes her unelectable, then why are they backing Pearlson?" Like every other commissioner except Martin Shapiro, Pearlson voted for the Portofino Agreement; he also was the commission's most vocal opponent of the June 3 referendum that resulted in the scrapping of the Portofino deal. And Diaz asks: What about Gutierrez's own connections with Portofino? Between them, Gutierrez's public relations firm and his wife Maritza's ad agency received more than $100,000 in consulting fees as part of the highly controversial $1.5 million campaign against the referendum. "Those aren't ties," Diaz declares. "Those are handcuffs."
Bower says that the salient issue for her former political ally Gutierrez is not her lack of electability, but her lack of malleability. "It's hard for Gutierrez to feel comfortable with me because I question things he says," Bower allows. "He doesn't like that." For the past two weeks, Bower adds, Gutierrez and others have tried to persuade her to change her mind, again asking her either to run in another race or sit out this election. Thus far those attempts have succeeded only in steeling her resolve to go after what she sees as an easier target -- a seat with no incumbent.
"This is not democratic," Bower complains. "Cubans came here to get away from a dictatorship. I have the right to do whatever I want to, but don't try to intimidate me. I feel Armando was trying to intimidate me."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.