The Strange Bedfellows of Miami Beach

It's still early in David Dermer's campaign for the Miami Beach City Commission. Plenty of flesh still to be pressed, luncheons to be attended, endorsements to be gathered, and issues to be advocated before the November election. For Dermer this is a different game entirely from the single-issue campaign he spearheaded earlier this year as chairman of the Save Miami Beach PAC -- a campaign that culminated in a resounding victory for a city charter amendment that requires waterfront zoning changes to be put to a vote. (The amendment drive was inspired by the so-called Portofino Agreement between the city and the development company controlled by German financier Thomas Kramer.)

Less than a month into his campaign, things have already gotten a little weird for Dermer. Last week he received the endorsement of a new entity called Miami Beach Unity '97, whose members include many who worked against Save Miami Beach in the June referendum drive. And two weeks ago a press release, purportedly issued by Save Miami Beach, proclaimed that the group had endorsed various Beach candidates, including Dermer. When that erroneous information was published in the weekly Miami Beach SunPost, the leadership of Save Miami Beach was forced to disavow any and all endorsements, even that of Dermer, its outgoing chairman.

Support for Dermer among the members of Unity '97, a coalition of prominent Hispanic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, is a bit perplexing, especially since Unity's slate of endorsed candidates also includes mayoral hopeful David Pearlson, the commission's most vocal opponent of the referendum championed by Dermer.

Dermer, a 34-year-old attorney and son of former Miami Beach mayor Jay Dermer (1967-71), made an unsuccessful run for the city commission in 1991. This time around he had a choice of four commission seats. Three of the races were either crowded or had a well-financed incumbent or both. The fourth seat (Group IV) had just been vacated by Pearlson and had attracted only one contender: Simon Cruz, a real estate banker and political newcomer.

Dermer chose to run in the Group II race against incumbent Sy Eisenberg. "I thought it was important to go against an incumbent who had supported [the] Portofino [Agreement] from day one," Dermer explains. "I had an opportunity to go against Simon Cruz, but I felt that would have been a very divisive race. I didn't want to divide the community, and I sincerely believe we need quality Hispanic representation. From what I know of Simon, he is a quality candidate."

Dermer's decision did not go unnoticed among Cruz's supporters. "I think he showed a lot of class in not running against Simon," says Armando Gutierrez, the campaign consultant who helped organize Unity '97.

Gutierrez acknowledges that he and others in Unity '97 opposed Dermer's group in the highly controversial June 3 referendum but emphasizes that Portofino is not the only issue in this political season. "In campaigns, your enemies of today are your allies of tomorrow, and your allies of today are your enemies of tomorrow," Gutierrez states matter-of-factly. "I think [Dermer] cares about the city, he cares about crime, he cares about traffic, he cares about parking -- all the major issues that everybody cares about. He seems to be genuinely concerned and realistic about what can be done." At an August 13 press conference Unity officials announced their endorsements: David Pearlson for mayor; Spencer Eig, Simon Cruz, and David Dermer for city commission.

Dermer is glad to accept the endorsement -- and stresses that Unity's support will have no direct impact on his agenda for controlled growth and governmental reform. "I think they know who they're endorsing," he says. "I'm the most defined candidate in this whole election because I took a firm position on an extremely controversial issue. The fact that now I'm involved in candidate politics and people within the Hispanic and Orthodox communities are endorsing me -- I'm very happy to accept that support. The issues of governance don't start and end with the referendum."

And if a Portofino-flavored endorsement for their outgoing chairman rankles any Save Miami Beach members, they aren't showing it. "I don't think any candidate could tell someone that he doesn't want their vote," concedes Charles Schaab, who is replacing Dermer as chairman. "And David was not seeking the endorsement of this group. We know they're not doing this out of the pureness of their hearts, but we're quite confident that David has made his views known to this group."

Others question the appearance of Dermer accepting the blessing of his one-time adversaries. "I said to David, 'These were your enemies. They were cursing you, you were cursing them, and all of a sudden now you're accepting their endorsement?'" recounts Joe Fontana, a Beach activist and candidate in the five-way Group I commission race.

Dermer's views continue to jibe with those of the group he once led. And though Save Miami Beach activists are still formulating their approach to the upcoming city elections (including whether to endorse candidates), two issues will be paramount: controlling development and reforming the structure of government -- scrapping the city manager system and at-large commission districts and instituting a strong-mayor, district system.

While the vagaries of politics are nothing new to Dermer, Save Miami Beach is moving into unfamiliar territory -- from the clarity of a single-issue battle to the murkiness of candidates and campaign consultants. "In order to cement the gains made by the residents in the referendum campaign, we need to engage in electoral politics," Schaab allows. "But it's got to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. We know this path is fraught with danger.


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