The would-be next mayor of Miami Beach is in his element: A vodka swishes in his left hand, a tipsy Swedish model with razor cheekbones leans against his shoulder, and a dozen of South Beach's beautiful people listen raptly as he describes getting laid.
It's past midnight on a Friday outside the Townhouse, a boutique beachfront hotel, and Steve Berke, a 29-year-old with dark, gelled hair, is clad in a half-buttoned plaid shirt and his trademark unlaced vintage Nikes.
"I had sex with this girl recently who was 19 and she was all, like, 'Come all over me! Come all over me!'" Berke says to his friends' laughter while taking a swig of vodka. "I'm 10 years older than her, and I'm shocked she's talking to me like that. And then I realize: She grew up watching hard-core porn on the Internet while I was trying to steal my dad's Playboys. It's amazing how growing up online has changed people."
It's a story that might sink the campaign of any other politician — but Berke didn't exactly graduate from the Marco Rubio Finishing School for Former Boy Scouts. Recently, the Yale grad, two-time All-American tennis star, and reality TV contestant has eked out a living by telling raunchy jokes in Miami clubs and making parody videos on YouTube, where his top clip, featuring a half-nude Dutch model advocating legalized pot, has notched nearly a half-million hits.
That's not to say his candidacy is a lark. He has a legit platform: decriminalizing weed, building a casino, and lowering property taxes with the new revenue. And his strategy is sound. He's raising money from clubs and bars, and energizing young voters who usually skip city races. Then there's his degree in American studies from New Haven's best Ivy League school and his past competing against the likes of Federer, Roddick, and Hewitt.
Most important of all, though, is his campaign manager and Svengali: the legendary Roger Stone, a GOP dirty trickster with connections to Watergate who helped Ronald Reagan and both Bushes get to the White House. More recently, he engineered the surprising win of Republican Sheriff Al Lamberti in Broward during the 2008 Obama landslide.
The odd pair aims to take over more than just Miami Beach City Hall when elections are held this November. They're filming the race with a production company, hoping to lure a network into buying the first campaign custom-built for reality TV. In a country where Sarah Palin ignites a movement by hunting moose on the Discovery Channel, and Glenn Beck makes millions with a televised Howard Beale-style road show, it just might work.
The last election for Miami Beach's top job in 2009, after all, drew just 7,500 voters, and incumbent Matti Herrera Bower's administration hasn't won fans as property taxes have risen during an economic free fall.
"Steve wouldn't be doing this if he thought he was going to lose," says Gabriel Goldstein, a tennis teammate from Yale. "He's not wired that way. He's so damned competitive he thinks he can pull this off."
Steve Berke is the rarest of SoBe species: a third-generation Beach resident. His grandmother immigrated from Chicago in 1933 when the city of Miami Beach ended at Lincoln Road and the Venetian Causeway had only recently linked the beach to the mainland. Berke's father, William, was born in 1945 and grew up in a mansion on Pine Tree Drive.
Miami Beach was a different universe then, William Berke says. "In the 1950s, as a little kid, I used to go swimming in the canals," he says. "They were all so full of fish. It was a beautiful, natural place before all the development and pollution came in."
William left for almost 20 years, studying medicine in Illinois and later teaching English in Mexico City, but he returned to Miami Beach to set up a general family practice in the mid-'70s. He soon met a young Persian-American dermatologist named Alam Farzad and fell in love.
They were married in 1979, and their only son, Steve, was born two years later. The young family moved into a waterfront house in the Keystone Point neighborhood of North Miami, just across the bay from Bal Harbour.
William knew Steve was a gifted athlete when the boy was just 3 years old. They were at the house of a neighbor who was pitching to his 6-year-old son. "He said, 'Why don't you give it a try, Steve?'" William Berke recalls. "The bat was way too big for him, but he smashed the ball right over a fence. His hand-eye coordination was always amazing."
By the time he was 7 years old, the younger Berke was entering elite tennis tournaments. At age 14, he won a national title in his age group and represented the United States in a world tournament in Japan against future pros Roger Federer and Lleyton Hewitt. When he was 16 years old, he represented the United States again, along with Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, making it to the quarterfinals of the world tourney.