The Camelot Factor
Anthony Kennedy Shriver's broad smile and Brahmin inflection are eerily familiar. The bushy hair, chiseled chin, and piercing eyes clearly identify him as kin to one of the world's most famous and intriguing clans. And though for the past thirteen years he has immersed himself in the realm of nonprofit organizations, he soon may be joining the family business: Shriver is considering a run for mayor of Miami Beach.
The 35-year-old father of three (soon to be four) was prompted to weigh a run for office after Mayor Neisen Kasdin announced in January he would not seek a third term. The November 6 election may be far from the minds of most residents, but it's a hot topic in political circles. Already two people have declared themselves candidates to replace Kasdin -- incumbent Beach commissioners Nancy Liebman and David Dermer -- and there is much speculation about other possible contenders, among them veteran state legislator Elaine Bloom (she lost her November bid to oust Republican Congressman Clay Shaw by less than 600 votes). Fueling the political chatter is a recent telephone survey reportedly gauging Beach voters' reaction to a Shriver candidacy. (Shriver, who vows to make up his mind in the next week or so, heard about the survey but says he had nothing to do with it.)
Casting himself as an outsider with no ties to the lobbyists and political consultants who hover around Miami Beach City Hall, Shriver candidly admits to not being familiar with pressing municipal issues such as streetscape improvements in South Pointe, redevelopment efforts in North Beach, or the $400 million in planned city improvements that have been backlogged for years. But that doesn't daunt him. After all, he points out, he's hardly a political neophyte. Civic activism and election campaigns have been an integral part of his life.
He counts a U.S. president and two senators as uncles. His mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, established the Special Olympics. His father, Sargent Shriver, was the founding director of the Peace Corps. Big sister Maria (a.k.a. Mrs. Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an NBC News correspondent, brother Mark is a Maryland state legislator, and his 21 living cousins on his mother's side -- well, they're the Kennedys, perhaps the most politically connected family on the planet.
"My family exposed me to service," Shriver says. "I grew up watching people -- from my father to my uncles -- having a desire to run. There are so many ways to serve, but the most important thing is to serve in some way, shape, or form." A resident of Miami Beach for almost a decade, Shriver, his wife Alina, and their children have been ensconced for the past five years in a Mediterranean-style waterfront home on Pine Tree Drive. "I'm going to live here for an extended period of time," he reports. "I feel a sense of responsibility to contribute in some kind of significant way."
During his senior year at Georgetown University, Shriver created Best Buddies International, a nonprofit organization that assists disabled and mentally retarded people in becoming self-sufficient. He graduated from college in 1988 with a degree in history and theology, then worked exclusively with Best Buddies, which moved its headquarters to Miami from Washington, D.C., in 1992. While the nonprofit has been his principal professional endeavor, he has dabbled in the for-profit business world. In 1994 he and friend José Ortega formed a homebuilding outfit called Shriver and Ortega Construction, though Shriver's involvement ended after a year. (The company is now known as CDC Builders.) Two years later Shriver founded Fast RX, Inc., a firm designed to provide physicians with a method for filling prescriptions in their offices. In 1997 he became president and chairman of Larkin Community Hospital in South Miami. He was part of an investment group that bought the 112-bed facility for $11 million. A year later the hospital was sold, and Shriver folded Fast RX. Also in 1998 Shriver began serving as an outside director with UniCapital, an equipment-leasing company, from which he resigned six months ago, shortly before it filed for bankruptcy. These were short-term business ventures, Shriver admits, adding that his true strength lies in developing new ideas, then letting others take over. "I'm an energetic, creative, entrepreneurial guy. I come out swinging," he says.
Responding to Shriver's political considerations, former Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber observes, "If he runs, it's a whole new ballgame. I think bringing a new vitality is a wondrous thing that brings excitement not only to the candidates but to the constituency." He notes that among elderly residents, Shriver would have an advantage. "The Kennedy name is looked upon with favor," Gelber explains. "It will bring out some people, particularly people of my generation. [Shriver] starts in good pole position; his family is an asset."
The family name is a liability in other quarters, however. Many Cuban exiles still blame President John F. Kennedy for the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. "I would say the name is a detriment," ventures political consultant and lobbyist Bob Levy. "The public thinks a lot about the Kennedy aura, but it gets crushed when it comes to the Cuban-American community. The sins of the father are paid by the son. As hard as it is to believe that Anthony Kennedy Shriver could suffer because of the Bay of Pigs, I think it's a real possibility." He adds that Shriver's outsider status could pose a problem in facing Dermer and Liebman, well-known politicians who have strong political allies.
The two commissioners also have the advantage of intimate familiarity with Miami Beach's electoral landscape, which has undergone dramatic changes in the past fifteen years, changes that could make it difficult for Shriver to find a natural base of support. Of the city's nearly 95,000 residents, the majority, 57 percent, are Hispanic; in the next five years that percentage is expected to rise by more than 10 percent. The change is reflected in the makeup of the commission. Not long ago it was all white and all Jewish; today four of six commissioners are Hispanic. And where the Beach once was a bastion of liberal politics in the Kennedy mold, its residents have grown increasingly conservative.
Liebman believes the allure of Shriver's name will mean less than his lack of experience in city government.
Dermer says it's too early to comment on Shriver's plans, but he does appreciate the value of a recognizable name. Like Shriver he grew up steeped in politics. His father, Jay Dermer, was a two-term Beach mayor, from 1967 to 1971.
But name recognition has not always made the difference in Miami Beach politics, a fact Dermer's mother, Yaffa, points out. In the 1967 election her husband beat incumbent Mayor Elliott Roosevelt, son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. "My husband ran against a Roosevelt and won," she boasts. "A Kennedy doesn't scare me."
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