Like any true Surfside rager, Dorie Lurie begins her birthday party at 4 p.m. I've been warned that arriving even 15 minutes late could reflect badly on my character and possibly harpoon my nascent political career.
As soon as I walk through the front door of the little white-painted house on Abbott Avenue, the 82-year-old birthday girl grabs my elbow. Dorie is diminutive and feisty. She wears a short white hairdo, oval spectacles, blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers.
She fairly shoves me toward the center of her living room and shushes the few dozen partygoers. "He's running for commissioner!" she announces in introduction before looking at me. "Would you like to say a few words?"
Eyes turn to me expectantly. The crowd is a blur of gray hair, eyeglasses, and toothpicks holding half-nibbled cheese cubes.
The impromptu first political speech of my life starts out poorly. "I have decided to enter one more time into the fray," I declare, holding my right fist aloft. I don't know why I'm referencing The Grey, Liam Neeson's movie about maneating wolves. The partygoers furrow their brows. Then I add, "If elected, I will fire the town attorney."
That was the right thing to say. The little crowd hates Lynn Dannheisser, the tiny town's $181,000-per-year barrister. Somebody yells, "Huzzah!" A flute of champagne suddenly appears in my hand.
People grab petitions from my other hand and scribble their names. I need 25 signatures to officially qualify as a candidate for the May 1 election.
Surfside is an outwardly sleepy beach hamlet — population at last census: 4,700 — just north of Miami Beach proper. I've lived there since 2008. The place does dissension and intrigue like few towns that don't spell their names with the Cyrillic alphabet. Two rabble-rousing blogs — Save Surfside and the anonymous Who Controls Surfside Florida — frequently aim virtual torpedoes at town hall. Dannheisser has termed the bloggers "cyber-terrorists" who "burn crosses on your lawn." Faxes regularly churn into my newsroom warning of the "cancer of corruption" infecting the town.
Those missives almost certainly come from somebody at this birthday party. This is the rebel camp at war with town hall, and Dorie is the pearl-earring-wearing guerrilla leader. Think Golden Girls meets The French Connection.
And insurgency, it turns out, is delicious. There's a meat and cheese platter, a fruit bouquet, a cake, and a formally dressed bartender — the only person in the room who isn't twice my age — pouring three-finger cocktails.
As I plow through the spread, partygoers yank me aside conspiratorially. A frazzled-looking woman with wild eyes and copper hair tells me that Surfside hasn't been paying an obscure water tax.
A former Surfside commissioner named Orestes Jimenez — a Cosmo Kramer-lanky Cuban-American with a megaphone voice — impresses upon me the importance of snagging absentee ballots. "Politics is a machine!" he booms.
A woman named Phyllis, an elegant redhead with an air of cunning, tells me that she knows a man named Julio whose mother lives in a beachfront condominium building. This tidbit is invaluable, she says: "You need to get the condo vote."
This shindig is a splendid thing. In her emailed invitation, Dorie had informed me: "We are expecting 30-40 people. All Surfside voters! No town officials invited!" Indeed, this crowd is a cross section of Florida voters: Jewish, Cuban, elderly. Come November, the people represented in this tiny house will likely decide our nation's commander.
Dorie Lurie is a lifelong Democrat. Orestes Jimenez worships at the altar of Jeb Bush. But they're on the same team when it comes to their small town's nonpartisan politics. In my monthlong campaign against a local stay-at-home mom for a $1-a-year commission seat, I will enter a political world where $100 is a war chest and there's no such thing as a "viral" campaign — rather, votes are won over brandy and cheese in a constituent's living room — but there are still freelance consultants and managers offering chicanery for a price.
Dorie's husband Harvey is an extremely Zen fellow reminiscent of Rodney Dangerfield. As her birthday bash reaches full tilt around 6 p.m., he plucks a pineapple wedge from the fruit bouquet. It's half-dipped in chocolate. He announces, before taking a big bite, "This reminds me of a town divided."
When you're older than the town you live in, you've usually accumulated a lot of cool shit. Dorie Lurie keeps hers on shelves and in boxes around her comfortable home. There are hundreds of donkey figurines, symbolizing her allegiance to the Democratic Party. A yellowed Miami Herald article from the '80s features a photo of her at a feminist rally; she's identified in the caption only as "the grandmother in the Gucci scarf." And there's the gaudy gold key to Surfside, given to her late first husband — and two-term mayor of the town — Eli Lurie.
She shows me a postcard that most people would probably deem the least cool of all the shit. It reads "Surfside" in classic block font, the letters illustrated with photos of the beach and a store-lined Harding Avenue. But it's sentimental to Dorie, she says, because "you can't get postcards for Surfside anymore."
There was a time when every Florida town had its own postcard. Each municipality was unique enough back then. Surfside, incorporated in 1935, had an in-plain-sight illegal casino called the Brook Club. The sultry singer Abbe Lane owned a sirloin joint on Harding Avenue. Dorie and Eli — they married in 1958, after he had already gotten wealthy running a business that installed antennas atop tall buildings, and built their house in Surfside — pedaled around their hamlet on beach cruisers.
They were in the town's garden club and chess club, and they ballroom-danced in the art deco community center on Collins Avenue. Eli became a commissioner in 1972, then mayor, and then vice mayor, ultimately serving 20 years in town government at a dollar a year. His greatest achievement: the Surfside minibus.
They raised a daughter named Elizabeth. She put cheeseburgers and shakes on the family tab at the local drugstore, Sheldon's. In those days, when you went to the beach, you took a number from town hall so they'd know you drowned if you didn't return it.
That was the old pigs'-feet-and-palm-fronds Florida, before DJ Khaled and face-eating zombies and Pollo Tropical. Over the years, Surfside has been nibbled by homogenization. The casino became Publix. Abbe Lane's steak house became Flanigan's. Sheldon's became an HSBC branch.
But the town — still full of affordable single-family homes a few blocks from a pristine beach — clings to its soul. It's Stepford with Jewbans instead of WASPs, surrounded on all sides by weirdo provinces: Indian Creek Village, full of the feuding ultra-rich. Bay Harbor Islands, fat-sucking plastic surgery central. Prada-worshipping Bal Harbour. The Trump-occupied territory of Sunny Isles Beach. The ranting 9 a.m. drunks of the gritty northern border of Miami Beach proper.
Thinking about Surfside losing its quaint identity and becoming like one of those places gives Dorie the vapors. So she does battle with the town commissioners who have in the past several years approved new beachfront hotels and voted to tear down the art deco community center for an expensive modernist glass building. She doesn't much like that they are now pushing for a massive parking lot that could conceivably bring Pauly D and Snooki types to Surfside's placid sands. Dorie has been shouted down at commission meetings, penned earnest editorials in the Herald, and circulated futile petitions to stem development in Surfside's little downtown.
Dorie is not waging the war alone. "Why do we fight?" says Phyllis, the 81-year-old bird-boned redhead I met at Dorie's party. Now she's standing in her doorway and nearly teary with passion. "Because Surfside was one of the first towns in Dade County with affordable single-family homes, and it may be the last. That's why we fight."
The insurgency had one representative on the four-person commission. Surfside lifer Joe Graubart served one two-year term, from 2010 to 2012, and spent it as the lone naysayer when it came to voting for new development in town. The 61-year-old, who was also vice mayor, wears a gray shoulder-length beatnik hairdo and thick-rimmed Elvis Costello glasses. His only regret, he says, is not chaining himself to the original community center so the bulldozers couldn't get at it.
Graubart's former commission seat is my goal.
A special election is scheduled for May 1. I've broken reporter code by throwing my hat into the ring, and another candidate has stepped forward: 39-year-old Michelle Kligman. The Herald, which will later accuse me of mocking the town, has wondered about the "sudden interest in [the] vacant Surfside seat."
Over potato chips and Scotch at Dorie's house, I ask Graubart why he didn't seek a second term. He says it's because he didn't want to be associated with the overdevelopment that is pulverizing the soul of the town where he grew up. "Why does Surfside have to march in lockstep with everywhere else?"
I stagger out of Dorie's daylight bacchanal and count in dismay the signatures on my petition to officially enter the commission race. I am still about a half-dozen short.
The 25 signatures are due to the town clerk the next morning, so my political career could die an unborn fetus. Petition in hand, I knock on doors. The front yard of the first house I approach features ceramic figurines of children in 1930s tramp outfits chasing each other around a gardenia bush. When I knock, a woman in a nightgown and curlers cracks her door, keeping the chain intact.
I start to explain my mission. "¡No te conozco!" she screams — I don't know you! — and slams the door in my face.
Later, I learn that crooks have been posing as utility workers to dupe local elderly folks into letting them enter their homes, where they then raid their jewelry boxes. And I am a somewhat large, perpetually sweaty 29-year-old man with booze on his breath. Earning the trust of this populace seems unlikely.
But as I wander home, I get a call from Orestes Jimenez — better known as OJ — the booming former commissioner from Dorie's get-together. OJ explains that the lady, Maria, who just banished me from her porch called him in alarm, and he explained to her my purpose. "Go back!" OJ yells.
Soon Maria is pouring forth apologies — "lo siento, lo siento..." — as she plunks me into a comfortable armchair while she signs my petition.
After that, OJ leads me on a tour of Surfside's abuelitas. Dropping his name works like a password to biscotti, cafecitos, photos of grandchildren, and precious signatures. OJ prepares me with each woman's nickname. He tells me which ones have Alzheimer's. By the time I head to the clerk's office, I have 37 signatures. When it comes to winning over the plastic-covered-furniture and telenovelas demographic, OJ is my David Axelrod.
In the weeks that follow, he becomes my off-and-on campaign advisor. We meet in his home office. It's adorned with large flat-screen TV sets, American flags, a clock branded with the Surfside seal, and photos signed by local police officers. OJ came from Cuba on the Pedro Pan airlift in 1962 and served as town commissioner from 2004 to 2006. He throws a giant book labeled Florida Statutes on my lap and tells me to get acquainted with it. "That's the bible, man!" he says. He urges me to spruce up my image — maybe get some primary-color polo shirts like his. His fluffy little dog nuzzles my sneakers.
OJ keeps warning me to stay away from a certain character. "There's a river rat in town!" he says in his conspiratorial whisper, which is around the decibel level of Gilbert Gottfried at a roast. "He's a mercenary! All he cares about is the money!"
I'm intrigued. And when I return to New Times HQ one afternoon, the editorial assistant says in a harried voice that a man called half a dozen times that morning. He boasted of having guided six Surfside commission candidates to office, and demanded to speak to me.
His name is Paul Yavis. A quick search of campaign finance reports shows that in the gleefully insane political landscape of Miami-Dade County, he is a low-rent Karl Rove. Aspiring politicians from Miami Lakes to North Miami Beach to Homestead have paid him fees ranging from $55 to $890 for services they've listed on their campaign reports as "absentee ballot work," "phone bank," and simply "campaign."
In 2007, businessman Luis Salom paid Yavis $250 for "consulting" on a Miami Beach commission race that he lost by a scant 10 percent. Four years later, Salom pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years of probation for selling unregulated chocolate to Panama using bogus USDA insignia.
Two years later, Yavis billed Earl Rynerson $330 for "staff help" in his Fort Lauderdale mayoral run. Rynerson was whipped in that race after Fox News accused him of racking up a credit card bill on a bondage-themed porn site. (Rynerson denied the naughty charges.)
Mysteriously wealthy Russian émigré Isaac Feldman paid our hero $100 for managing his 2010 Sunny Isles commission campaign. Singer lost and a year later was indicted for allegedly masterminding a scheme that used pretty girls, date-rape drugs, and fake South Beach nightclubs to separate tourists from thousands of dollars in credit card charges.
Those are just the losing examples. The sitting politicians who have hired him for their successful campaigns include Homestead Mayor Lynda Bell and Miami Lakes Councilwoman Mary Collins.
In 2009, the then-62-year-old "river rat" — who lives in Surfside — was allegedly so heated up by a disagreement with then-vice mayor Marc Imberman concerning the town library that he harassed Imberman's son at Publix, where the 17-year-old worked ringing up groceries.
The police were called. Though he wasn't arrested, the town stripped him of his coveted title of chairman of the Surfside education committee. "It's a lie!" Yavis boomed dramatically during the town hall meeting where he was punished.
I phone Yavis, and on a bright weekday morning he saunters from his apartment to my place a block away. He's a sinewy dude in a mesh safari hat, a T-shirt reading "recall," and shorts. He grins widely, exposing a row of missing lower teeth. Yavis is carrying a flash drive that he says holds the key to winning my election. It contains a list of Surfside's absentee voters. We haggle and I give in, agreeing to pay him $50 for it.
As I download the list from the flash drive to my computer, Yavis runs through his credentials. "I spent 30 years working for both the CIA and the Mafia," he tells me in a booming, declaratory voice to rival OJ's. Apparently neither organization pays well. "I'm poor but I'm not broke," he reasons, later adding that he lives on his "Obama checks," meaning social security.
After the information transfer, we head to a picnic table in my back yard to talk. My landlord is an 82-year-old Bulgarian exile who escaped the Communists, and he has trimmed the bushes to spell the acronym of his peasant insurgent group: БЗHC. Next to this covert topiary somehow seems like the perfect place to have this conversation.
Some of his advice is free. He tells me how to exploit my Hispanic heritage to get the Cuban vote — without admitting to anyone that I'm Mexican. "When a Latin opens the door, you should say, 'I'm Gus Garcia-Roberts!' like that," Yavis tells me. "When it's a white person, say 'I'm Gus Garcia-Roberts!'" (Yavis is a pro at harnessing the Hispanic voting block. He's running for a spot on the local Republican Executive Committee using the nickname "Pepe.")
I take some notes. Yavis tells me we're off the record. I tell him we're on. He tells me we're off. I tell him we're on. He keeps talking.
He tries to sell me on his deluxe package. He will call every voter in Surfside and convince them that they need an investigative journalist in office. He will go door-to-door. He will wear a T-shirt with my name on it. "Five hundred bucks, and I'll win this thing for you," he pitches. "Two hundred fifty up-front and two hundred fifty when we win.
"If we don't win, then I didn't do my job," he says, but then clarifies, "but I'm not giving back the first 250."
I turn him down, but not because I don't think he'd earn his money. Mine is a self-funded campaign. And if I get elected to my $1-a-day seat, I plan to keep all interactions on the record. Which would probably kill any extracurricular moneymaking activities like shaking down developers.
But I continue to hear pieces of news about Yavis — that he screamed about his water bill at a Miami Beach town hall meeting and that he got into a shoving match with a TV cameraman. He calls my cell phone one afternoon and tells me that even though I didn't buy his services, I still have his vote. Then I hear him and a passing pedestrian begin hollering at one another. Yavis spouts mischievous nonsense about Latin American dictators and the U.S. president. "¡Pinochet, sí! ¡Obama, no!" There's something else undecipherable about Hugo Chávez, some scuffling sounds, and then a dial tone.
A couple of weeks before the election, Town Manager Roger Carlton calls and invites me to meet with him at his office.
My election team doesn't like it. Carlton is the dreaded establishment. Phyllis calls him, with disdain, Surfside's "daddy rabbit."
OJ says, "He's just trying to get in your brain, man!"
I've read some of Carlton's columns in the Surfside Gazette, which is sort of the town's English-language Granma. He often laments the lack of laws available to squelch bloggers taking "unfounded" shots at town officials. Such cyber-critics, Carlton wrote in one recent issue, "ignore the impact on your family when these folks call you corrupt and uncaring in the new forms of unaccountable communication that our electronic age has created."
I like to imagine that he pens such columns on his front porch after dipping his quill in sweet tea. I agree to meet him.
The "daddy rabbit" greets me in his expansive corner office in town hall. He's a large fellow in a business suit, with a white beard on a big, bovine face. I can't quite place the likeness, until he mentions he once won $50 in an Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest at Flanigan's. "Of course," he adds, "because of my position, I couldn't accept the money."
Carlton probably won't miss his doppelganger winnings. He used to be a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin. Since then, he's overseen the City of Miami's street parking and served as the city manager of South Miami and Miami Beach. He's been Surfside's manager since 2010, and the town pays him $145,000 a year.
But Carlton doesn't really come across as the municipal Darth Maul that my team has made him out to be. He's more like an uncle who's interesting even if you aren't drunk. He lives with his wife in a Brickell high-rise because they like the urban life, but he talks in a yearning way about his North Carolina country house, in a region so sparsely populated that a six-vote election was once decided with a coin toss.
But things get weird when he broaches the topic of my supporters — namely Dorie Lurie. "If she had been around in his day," Carlton intones, "she would have been a compatriot of the Marquis de Sade."
That description seems a little harsh for a lady with a ceramic donkey collection. But Carlton says Dorie once lured him to her house with the promise of a civil meeting. When he arrived, she was waiting with a cadre of fellow insurgents, all ready to berate him about a recent zoning decision the town had made. "I told her," Carlton intones, his steely glare now ruining the Papa Hemingway thing, "never to ambush me again."
Everybody in town hall knows from the signatures on my petition that I am a member of the Dorie Lurie revolution. Carlton doesn't hide his hope that I lose.
"If you're defeated," Carlton tells me cheerily before showing me out, "that will mark the end of the days of Dorie's influence in this town."
Around the time I meet with Carlton, Michelle Kligman's signs start popping up around the neighborhood. "Experience matters," they read passive-aggressively.
Along with the rest of Surfside's political world, I first laid eyes on Kligman at a commission meeting in mid-March. The town's elected leaders had just announced a plan for a special election to address the open commission spot. I was considering my next move when a woman — handsome with dark brown hair and cloaked in soft fabrics — beat me to the podium.
"I'd like to put you somewhat at ease and assure you that at least one person will be submitting their candidacy for commissioner," she announced. "And that is myself."
Kligman went on to brag about having lived in Surfside with her husband for seven years, raising two kids, and having former experience in government as an assistant to City of Miami managers. She's also a licensed psychologist.
Her name has an easy, nefarious roll off the tongue: Kligman. After I declared my candidacy, she regularly beat me to the punch. Whenever I learned that she had outmaneuvered me in some way — filing her 25 signatures far in advance of the deadline while I showed up at the last minute, or submitting her financial reports on time while I was fined $31 for tardiness — I balled up my fist and muttered "Kligman!" the same way Jerry says "Newman!" on Seinfeld.
An opportunity comes to swiftboat her. Members of my camp inform me of an issue with her last name. She was born Michelle Piña, but when she was married several years ago, she didn't file paperwork changing her voter registration name as required.
"If she's under both names, Gus," Phyllis posits one day, before adding with gravity, "isn't that fraud?"
Probably not. But OJ's Florida Statutes tome suggests that such a name snafu might have violated the dreaded 101.045(c). My team encourages me to contact the Florida Division of Elections about tossing her name from the ballot. But I don't want to win like that. In fact, by the final week of the election, I'm not sure I want to win at all.
Maybe it's the late financial report and the fine that changed my mind — along with the realization that public service isn't journalism, where a deadline can be massaged by offering to buy your superior a shot and a beer. Maybe it's Roger Carlton's pointedly soul-numbing descriptions of the commissioner's job, with its 500 pages of dense legal briefings a month and meetings that stretch from 7 p.m. until the wee hours of the morning.
But mostly it's Kligman. Throughout the campaign, I've wanted to hate her. But every time I run into her, she smiles sweetly, introduces me to her young son — everything short of offering me freshly baked brownies. She has lived in Surfside longer than I have, and owns property here, and maybe experience does matter, I find myself thinking.
When you qualify to run for office in Florida, you sign an oath declaring that if you win, you will serve. I intend to honor that promise. But I decide to make a campaign video so off-kilter that if Surfside elects me after watching it, I'll know the town is yearning for chaos.
With a New Times videographer in tow, I spend a Friday afternoon engaging in some shenanigans — shotgunning a beer, going door-to-door with an oversize fake check so the viejitas think I'm the sweepstakes man, knocking on Kligman's door to challenge her to a debate, and interviewing a dog. The denouement arrives when I approach the fancily scripted welcome sign to Bal Harbour, Surfside's haughty neighbor to the north. As cars whiz by, I straddle the sign and hump it twice.
The videographer slows down the resulting footage so viewers can hear my grunting. (You can experience it at "The Gus Garcia-Roberts for Commission Campaign Hits.")
It turns out Surfside doesn't like mixing frivolity and politics. The rambling watchdog site Who Controls Surfside Florida rescinds its endorsement.
"We will not endorse him because we believe he is an immature buffoon looking for an audience," writes the anonymous blogger. "If he gets elected, it will be either due to default or [because] people [are] so fed up that they will vote for any new face."
The morning of May 1 — Election Day — Kligman and her extended family have formed a sort of sign-waving guerrilla camp in the town hall parking lot. Vans circulate with pro-Michelle posters strapped to their sides. On the other hand, the only supporter I bring to the polls is my dog Murray.
My opponent pets him and says we should set up a play date with her dog Freud. I apologize for making her life hell in the past month. "Oh, that's OK," she chirps. "I actually enjoyed the race."
I try one more tactic. I stand on busy Harding Avenue, just ahead of a ubiquitous police officer with a radar gun, and wave a sign reading "Speed trap ahead. Vote Gus." Brake lights flicker en masse, but I don't notice any of the ungrateful bastards making U-turns to cast ballots.
Then I head back to town hall and vote for Kligman. So does my fiancée.
I'm at Flanigan's gulping three-dollar gin and tonics when somebody tapes the results to the door of town hall.
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Kligman: 333. Garcia-Roberts: 86. That's almost exactly an 80 to 20 percent split. It's the most sound walloping in town memory.
In its Neighbors section that morning, the Herald runs an election recap featuring a strange lead about Kligman campaigning so hard she turned pink. The daily snaps that I "mocked the town." Even the Sun Post weighs in, comparing my loss to that of New Times columnist and Miami-Dade County mayoral candidate Luther Campbell. "Memo to Chuck Strouse," the Sun Post writes to my editor. "Politics ain't working out so well for you folks, eh? Better stick to journalism."
I do have one victory to cling to. A couple of weeks after taking my beating, I'm back at Dorie Lurie's house. Former commissioner Joe Graubart, whose resignation sparked the special election, is there. We're drinking Harvey's Scotch and toasting Michelle Kligman's success. ("I think she knows how to say no!" chirps Dorie, which, when it comes to development in town, is all she wants in a politician.)
Having been born in Surfside, Graubart has lived in the shadow of the unwelcoming, designer-frocked neighboring town for 61 years. He says to me while heaping a chip with sour cream dip: "You know how long I've wanted to hump that Bal Harbour sign?"