Not for Sale ... Exactly

The weight of the moment is getting to Martin Shapiro. The wiry 63-year-old sits uncomfortably in his dark gray suit before the 100-odd residents, candidates, and press seated in rows of aluminum chairs within the whitewashed walls of the public Normandy Isle Golf Course clubhouse. He waits his turn to make his opening comments at this candidates' forum, the first official public appearance of his on-again, off-again, on-again campaign for mayor of Miami Beach. Precluded from running again for his city commission seat because of term limits, Shapiro must win the mayor's seat to stay in office. Two other candidates, Mike Calhoun and Leslie Martinez-Botet, sit on the fringes and are just that -- fringe candidates unlikely to be factors in the November 2 mayoral race.

Shapiro's real rival is the bullet-shaped, 44-year-old incumbent. "Neisen Kasdin has been a total failure as the mayor of Miami Beach," Shapiro declares, his dark eyes flashing like chipped obsidian as he launches his first salvo of the night.

Martin Shapiro has long fancied himself the watchdog of the public's money. His ten-year career on the Miami Beach City Commission has been marked by a tendency to be the lone dissenting vote, often against what he sees as profligate city budgets or unnecessarily generous pacts with private developers. On this early October night, the watchdog becomes an attack dog.

"He [Kasdin] supported a 13.5 percent increase in sales tax on everything except groceries and medicine," Shapiro recounts, referring to Kasdin's support of the penny sales tax. His voice is forceful but constricted. Despite a sprinkling of hisses from the crowd, Shapiro forges ahead. "He voted for an $8.6 million increase in city spending in this year's budget. He voted for an $85 million bond issue. I want to ask you, whose side is he on?"

As Shapiro sits down, visibly trembling from an adrenaline surge, about half of those assembled applaud. His stage fright, which exacerbates his Bob Newhart-esque stammer, is a bit puzzling, given his years of public service, the fact that he's a lawyer, and his tendency to play to the audience from his seat on the dais during commission meetings at city hall. That he would take the fight directly to Kasdin (also an attorney), who won the mayorship two years ago, after term limits ended his six-year run as a commissioner, is no surprise. Shapiro is trying to pull off an unlikely come-from-behind victory in this race, and he knows it. After having declared his candidacy for mayor early this year, he withdrew in May and instead entered the race for state representative for House District 106. Then in September, with less than two months to go before the November elections, he re-entered the mayor's race. In the meantime Kasdin had been plugging away at his campaign all year, and as of October 1, he had amassed a war chest of some $190,000. Shapiro's tally on October 19: $29,900.

Shapiro works that small-money image: He is "Not for Sale," according to the campaign slogan that began appearing on posters and newspaper ads mere days after his aggressive gambit at the nineteenth hole. With his campaign beginning in earnest so close to election day, he's stressing what he sees as his clear advantage in this race: his reputation as an independent voice for the people of Miami Beach. This is clear as he maintains his attack on Kasdin throughout the 30-minute question-and-answer session. He paints Kasdin as overfriendly with private developers, including Thomas Kramer, from whom Kasdin and two other candidates accepted illegal contributions in their 1993 city commission races. He also alleges a cozy relationship between the mayor and "certain lobbyists."

"Not for Sale" is a reputation Shapiro has nurtured during his long public service, first in Bay Harbor Islands, then in his adopted hometown of Miami Beach. Especially during his latest four-year commission term, Marty Shapiro consistently has positioned himself as an outsider who just happens to be sitting with those dirty old politicians. His frequent lone vote against big budgets and development deals has enabled him to strike the pugnacious posture of an anti-incumbency candidate, even though he's been on the commission longer than any of his colleagues.

Shapiro's general contrariness, anti-development votes, and power base among the aging but still influential bloc of dwellers from "condo canyon" could add up to a surprise victory over Kasdin's combination of moderation and big-bucks South Beach backers.

Yet Mr. Not for Sale has some vending problems of his own. Shapiro has tiptoed around a conflict of interest or two: Court and city legislative records prove that, at least once, Shapiro's legal representation of a condominium association conflicted with his duties as a commissioner. On one occasion he voted on an agenda item that had a direct financial impact on his private legal client. Shapiro's votes against a controversial proposed high-rise on Collins Avenue are also questionable. Although none of those votes took place while he was on a neighboring condo's payroll as its lawyer, his consistently negative stance against the Collins project coincided with his work for the condo.

And even given Shapiro's late start in fundraising, his railing against "Kasdin's political machine" and its money rings a bit hollow. There is in fact a significant "Anyone but Kasdin" machine, and it's cranking up to swell Shapiro's coffers. Among those backing Shapiro: developer R. Donahue "Don" Peebles, a former Kasdin supporter who has declared he will raise money for Shapiro this time around. He began to do so weeks before the commission voted for a zoning change that would favorably hike the building density for one of Peebles's properties. Shapiro voted for it, despite his rabid anti-development rhetoric. That he would do so on behalf of a major campaign donor suggests he's more willing to play politics as usual than his ads would like you to believe.

At 60th Street on Miami Beach, Collins Avenue divides in a Y-shaped intersection, into two northbound lanes and two southbound lanes. The triangular sliver of land in the crotch of that Y, and the empty parcels to the north of it, have been the crux of an ongoing battle between the City of Miami Beach and a private developer. That developer, Royal World Metropolitan, Inc., first filed an application to build a condominium tower called the Mirabella on the land in 1995. The site is still empty, and the fight this year moved to circuit court, where the developer alleges the city has tried to illegally restrict or eliminate its property rights.

Martin Shapiro's opposition to the Mirabella project is consistent with the anti-development stance he has assumed in the mid- and late Nineties, most notably through his lone "no" vote on the 1995 Portofino Agreement with Thomas Kramer. His battle against the Mirabella in particular has endeared him to many in the Middle and North Beach areas, especially those in the existing condos that adjoin the site. Many believe, quite reasonably, that a big condo in that location would worsen an already congested traffic situation -- and spoil a lot of nice views.

The president of the influential Council of Condominiums, Henry Kay (the veritable Generalissimo of the Condo Commandos), is convinced that Shapiro represents the interests of his troops in the 1999 election. "I can tell you without any hesitation that we are outraged, and have been for the past two years, with the response we got from Mayor Kasdin," Kay says. "He promised us the world [in his 1997 mayoral campaign], and he gave us a garbage can. Any condo owner voting for Kasdin is shooting himself in the foot."

As for Kasdin's opponent, Kay declares, "Martin Shapiro has been our standard bearer. He is our hero." He's also been the lawyer for the Maison Grande, the condo in which Kay lives, which stands directly across the street to the east of the Mirabella site.

In several instances Shapiro's legal work has brought him perilously close to conflicts of interest. He has served as the attorney of record for the Maison Grande Condominium Association in at least five cases, which are listed as mortgage foreclosures in the county records. Shapiro says they were more like collections than foreclosures. "Let's say a person was behind on their maintenance fees. The condo association would ask me to go to court to try to collect them," he explains.

The first such case lasted from December 1996 to January 1997. The next four came in 1998, the first running from May to June, the next three all beginning on the last day of July. The longest of these lasted until October 1998. According to the state's ethics laws, these stretches of time essentially were blackout periods, during which Shapiro should not have voted on any matter that could have had any conceivable benefit to his private client.

Shapiro does not often abstain from votes because of a possible conflict of interest, unlike his opponent, who also is an attorney with clients in the city he governs. In 1999 Shapiro has done so only twice, filing what the city calls a "Form 8B Memorandum of Voting Conflict" on two March 17 agenda items. Both pertained to a land-use change for the Ocean Parcel, a vacant plot of land in South Pointe. Kasdin, on the other hand, files such forms regularly. In 1997 his mayoral opponent, David Pearlson, made a campaign issue of the fact that, after he came on the commission in 1991, Kasdin begged off some 43 votes, mostly because he represented a client who would be affected by the vote. In the two years since his election as mayor, Kasdin has filed 22 conflict-of-interest forms.

Shapiro has not pulled out Form 8B over the Mirabella condominium development. Instead he has tried to turn the space into a public park. But during the nearly five years that Shapiro has fought the Mirabella as a commissioner, he has spent almost a year of that time doing legal work for the Maison Grande, a property whose value would surely sink if another large condo blocked its western views, and would surely rise if the city put a pretty little park on the Mirabella site. And Shapiro has not confined his crusade to city hall. In October 1997 Shapiro requested an emergency agenda item authorizing Congressman E. Clay Shaw (R-Fort Lauderdale) to seek federal and state funding to straighten Collins Avenue between 60th and 63rd streets, and "to initiate discussions with the Florida Department of Transportation [for] the possible acquisition of the Mirabella site and adjacent properties by such agencies."

In January 1998 the city approved its 1998 legislative agenda, which included an item about the Mirabella site. The agenda states that both the state and federal transportation agencies had declined to buy the land and straighten Collins, but that the issue was not yet dead. Shapiro's votes on the emergency item and the legislative agenda took place at a time when he was not actively representing the Maison Grande. He did, however, resume working for the Grande one month after the legislative session ended in 1998.

The owner of the Mirabella site, Royal World Metropolitan, Inc., filed suit against the City of Miami Beach earlier this year, alleging that the city was illegally trying to block its right to build on privately owned land. On September 13 Royal World's attorney, Toby Brigham, filed a motion to block Shapiro from discussing the case in his capacity as a city commissioner at a closed "executive session" commission meeting scheduled for the next day. City Attorney Murray Dubbin responded that, because Shapiro was not presently retained by the Maison Grande, there was no conflict of interest.

Brigham says he respects Dubbin's opinion, but thinks that, in the absence of an actual conflict, the appearance of one is undeniable. "When it came to my attention he had represented the Maison Grande, it seemed to me that it created, let's not call it a conflict, but a preference, whether or not he represents them now," Brigham says. "When you have represented a group that prefers not to have [the Mirabella], your judgment is going to be swayed because of, I guess, loyalty."

Shapiro still thinks the Mirabella project must be stopped, and doesn't see any problem with his having opposed it. "If there's one thing I'd like to accomplish before I leave this commission, it would be getting together state and federal funds to acquire [the Mirabella] site," he says. "I don't see any conflict at all. I'm still fighting for that, and I'm not involved with that condo association anymore."

On two other issues that have come before the commission, Shapiro's representation of the Maison Grande has created the appearance of divided loyalties.

•In June 1996 the city administration proposed a plan by which 50 to 60 older condominium buildings would be retrofitted with up-to-date sprinkler and fire-safety systems. Residents of those condos rose up in opposition, led by Henry Kay, whose home at the Maison Grande was (and still is) in need of new sprinklers. When this issue went before the city commission in March 1998, Shapiro proposed an agenda item to grant the condos a no-interest loan to pay for the retrofitting. The plan passed, though Shapiro was absent for the vote. That May he began representing the Maison Grande in the first of four foreclosure suits that year.

•On September 9, 1998, the commission passed, by a 7-0 vote, a sanitation-impact fee for all commercial businesses. As defined in the agenda item, the impact fee applied to all condominiums on the Beach, including the Maison Grande, which Shapiro was representing as an attorney. Oddly Shapiro was unaware the fee would apply to any condos. In a February 1999 memorandum to City Manager Sergio Rodriguez, Shapiro noted that he had "received numerous complaints about the fee being charged to condominiums and townhouses. I voted for the ordinance based upon my understanding that it applied only to commercial businesses."

In fact he should not have voted at all. He eventually got a revised version of the ordinance on the agenda that would exempt townhouses and condos. Rodriguez, in his staff report on the ordinance, agreed that townhouses should be exempt, but recommended retaining the fee for condos. The measure passed 5-2, with Kasdin and Commissioner Simon Cruz voting against it. "That cost the city $180,000 we didn't have," Kasdin laments.

Martin Shapiro is noticeably calmer at his legal practice on 41st Street in Miami Beach than he was at the Normandy Isle Golf Course. "I think I came on a little more aggressive than I might have liked," he allows, with a sheepish grin. "But I'm running out of time. I've got to make a case here," he says, then laughs. "I've always been looked upon as an outsider and underdog."

But as he sits, legs crossed, in an unused office on the first floor, he is no less relentless in bashing Kasdin as a tax-and-spend guy, and as a friend to big-ticket developers, including Thomas Kramer. "In those four years of voting on Kramer's Portofino deal, I can't recall a single vote by Kasdin that didn't make Thomas Kramer grin from ear to ear," Shapiro says.

The vehemence with which Shapiro has opposed the Kramer deal is indicative of the often lonely stands he has taken against his colleagues in his ten years on the commission. After having served on the town council of Bay Harbor Islands for ten years, he moved to Miami Beach and was elected to a two-year term on the city commission in 1989. He ran for and won four-year terms in 1991 and 1995; when the commission voted in 1996 to limit commissioners to two consecutive four-year terms, the city attorney ruled that Shapiro could complete his four-year term, but would have to vacate the seat this year.

It was during his most recent four-year stretch, after winning a tough battle against Matti Bower's 1995 bid to become the first Hispanic on the commission, that Shapiro began to cement his reputation as either a fearless populist or a knee-jerk naysayer, depending on who you ask. His "no" votes on the Portofino deal, and his opposition to numerous other high-rises, have put him in a position to capture many of the 6000 or so voters who pushed through the Save Miami Beach charter amendment in 1997, and put him at the forefront of the city's anti-development sentiment that year.

He clearly believes his stance on development gives him plenty of ammunition against Kasdin. "I don't consider Neisen a public servant," he snipes. "I just think he has some other agenda. He's basically a downtown business guy who likes to mingle with the county establishment, business establishment, and political establishment, and gaze out over Miami Beach from his twentieth-story office on Brickell Avenue."

Not surprisingly the current mayor has a different perception of who's the real insider. "If you look at the record," says Kasdin, "he's been the developer's best friend." Kasdin points to a number of occasions when Shapiro voted in favor of developers, including a recent vote over the increase in zoning density for Don Peebles's Bath Club project. "It's just highly cynical and hypocritical of him."

Term limits precluded Shapiro from running for his commission seat in 1999, so last January he decided to run for mayor. Two months later he bailed out, deciding instead to run for the statehouse seat now occupied by Elaine Bloom (D-Miami Beach). (Bloom is making a run for the U.S. House of Representatives.) "It wasn't indecision," he stresses. "I felt I could perform a valuable service for this community in the state legislature. As time went on, and the city elections were coming up, I began to fear for the city's welfare with Neisen Kasdin looking to be a sure bet for re-election without significant opposition. I was hoping there would be someone else to step forward to take on Kasdin's political machine, but for personal reasons, family reasons, other candidates were not in a position to do that."

The candidates he refers to are two of his commission colleagues, both of whom were first elected just two years ago: David Dermer and Simon Cruz. Either would have been a viable candidate, especially the 36-year-old Dermer, an effective orator who likely still has some momentum from the Save Miami Beach referendum he spearheaded, and which gave him an easy victory in 1997 over incumbent Sy Eisenberg. (One Beach political observer, who asked not to be identified, said Dermer could "tear Kasdin a new asshole" if he decided to run.) But 1999 has been a rough year for Dermer personally. His wife, Elyse, filed for divorce in January; the court battle has dragged on throughout the year, with a trial date set for November 1. The 42-year-old Cruz, for his part, spends his free time chasing his one-year-old twins.

Once it became clear that neither of these young guns wanted to take on an uphill campaign against Kasdin, Shapiro jumped back into the mayor's race, with Dermer's backing. "I'm very proud to have the endorsement of David Dermer in this race," Shapiro says. He points out that Dermer's presence has given him a like-minded ally on the commission, something he'd never had before. "For many years I struggled alone on the commission; it's great having an ally on the dais now," he says.

Does Shapiro have a chance to make up for Kasdin's tremendous head start? He thinks so. "I believe Kasdin's support in the community, while it may be a mile wide, is an inch deep."

Not everyone agrees. "In reality only one person has a chance to win," says Ric Katz, who directed David Pearlson's unsuccessful campaign against Kasdin in 1997. "I think Marty will put up a good fight, and people who are angry at Neisen will fuel some of that fight. But Neisen's smart, and he's not taking Marty for granted. He should be a fairly easy victor."

Shapiro stresses it's not such a big deal that Kasdin currently has a 10-1 advantage over him in campaign funds. The two examples he cites of big-money campaigns that lost, not coincidentally, also serve the purpose of bashing Kasdin: the Save Miami Beach referendum, in which the Kramer-backed "no" side raised some $1.5 million, the victorious "yes" side about $9000; and the failed penny sales-tax campaign, in which Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and his allies raised $1.9 million and lost by a 2-1 margin.

There are enough people out there who, as Katz says, are "angry with Neisen" and could give Shapiro a last-minute infusion of cash. One powerful player in town, developer Don Peebles, has pledged to do just that, right before the commission was to vote on an increase in zoning for a property he owns at 59th Street and Collins Avenue, near the Mirabella plot and the Maison Grande.

Don Peebles is best known in Miami Beach as the guy who finally made the so-called African-American hotel a reality. In 1990 the city snubbed the prepresidential Nelson Mandela by failing to officially recognize his visit. The disrespect shown to this world-renowned leader infuriated black Americans nationwide, and several activist groups declared a boycott of the City of Miami Beach.

As a gesture of reconciliation, the city in 1993 committed itself to facilitating the construction of a new convention hotel that would have black ownership. The Royal Palm Crowne Plaza, a 422-room convention hotel now under construction at 15th Street and Collins Avenue, is that building, and Don Peebles is that owner.

Among those commissioners who supported Peebles's eventually successful bid for the project, as well as the ten million dollars in city redevelopment agency money he received for the construction, Kasdin was one of the leaders. Peebles showed his gratitude by generously contributing to Kasdin's 1997 campaign. According to Kasdin's finance forms from that election, Peebles and people or entities connected to him gave some $6000 to the campaign.

How much has Peebles given Kasdin this year? "Not one dime," Peebles says emphatically.

Peebles says his dissatisfaction with Kasdin has grown since the 1997 election, and crystallized when the developer approached the mayor to secure his support for Peebles's next project in Miami Beach, the Bath Club. This beachfront low-rise private club at 5937 Collins Ave. stands in the middle of mid- and high-rise condominiums, and fell on hard times in the Eighties and Nineties. Peebles bought the property in June 1998 and wants to bump the zoning density up a notch so he can both preserve the existing structure and build a condo and thirteen-story resort-hotel tower on the same site.

But when he began making the rounds of the commissioners about his prospects for a zoning increase at the September 29 commission meeting, Kasdin told him he wouldn't support the proposal until Peebles went to the surrounding community for their input on the project.

"I was very disappointed that Kasdin has not stepped up to the plate on this issue," Peebles says. His assessment is that Kasdin simply wanted to defer voting on something as potentially unpopular as an increase in zoning so close to an election. "I think he made a terrible mistake, and that just amplified the perception that you can't get a straight decision out of him," Peebles says. "The Bath Club vote should have been a no-brainer."

When the Bath Club issue came to the commission for its first reading, the public hearing was delayed from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. on that Wednesday night. (The meeting had begun at 9:00 a.m.) Commissioner Susan Gottlieb left the meeting and requested the Bath Club issue be deferred; it wasn't. When it finally came to a vote, the tally was 5-1 in favor of the increase in zoning, with Kasdin being the lone dissenter. (Zoning changes require five votes for passage). After the meeting Kasdin denied his opposition had anything to do with a lack of political will on his part. "We had letters from two neighborhood groups in the area asking us to oppose the project, because they wanted to meet with [Peebles] and learn more about it," he explains. "I just didn't think it should be rushed through."

Kasdin points out the irony of David Dermer and Martin Shapiro, the two commissioners most closely associated with the Save Miami Beach movement, not only voting for an increase in zoning on waterfront property, but voting to take that vote at 11:00 p.m. "[Down zoning] is something that Shapiro has professed to be a champion of," Kasdin says.

Although Peebles says he had mostly made up his mind before that vote, he now is sure who he will back for mayor. "Marty clearly is the better candidate for the city," Peebles asserts. "He and I differ philosophically on approaches to growth, but what you get with him is a sense of fair play."

What Shapiro gets is cash. Peebles and companies associated with him have already given at least a couple of thousand dollars. He says he will be campaigning for Shapiro and contributing more to his effort. "And I will encourage other people to do so."

The issue flaired again at a commission meeting on October 20, when Peebles accused Kasdin of voting against his Bath Club proposal because he had given money to Shapiro. Dermer even suggested that if Kasdin had withheld support for that reason it would be extortion. Kasdin says if anything is improper about the Bath Club deal, it's "a developer giving at least $6000" to a candidate when he has a project before the commission.

At least one Beach political insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Peebles had made up his mind to back Shapiro before the Bath Club vote. In a conversation two weeks before that vote, the source says Peebles admitted to him he was "disappointed" with Kasdin, especially because of his lukewarm response to the Bath Club, and he was going to support Shapiro. The source says Peebles asserted he could raise $75,000 for Shapiro's campaign.

That conversation and others Peebles has had with potential contributors in Miami Beach, combined with a vote for a zoning increase by Shapiro, has led to grumblings that Peebles bought the vote of Mr. Not for Sale. "I'm in shock that his vote can be bought that clearly," says one Kasdin backer, who asked to remain anonymous. "This is like the worst thing that could happen to our city."

At the intimation that Peebles's deep pockets influenced his vote, Shapiro bristles. "I absolutely had no idea that he was going to support me [before the Bath Club] vote," he says. "I've never asked Mr. Peebles for assistance. He called me the week after the Bath Club vote and expressed his support for me." He also points out that the second reading of the zoning change, at which the final vote will be made, has been scheduled for after the election.

The project itself, Shapiro says, doesn't seem to be the kind of thing even a rabid anti-development guy like himself should necessarily oppose. "The proposed [square footage] is vastly lower than anything in the area," Shapiro notes. "I think it's a fairly moderate project."

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Ted B. Kissell
Contact: Ted B. Kissell