The Political Dance

Open mouth, insert high-heeled foot: If you're speaking at a swanky dinner for a gay community organization, it's a sure bet your audience will be filled with die-hard liberals, right? Not if it's the Dade Human Rights Foundation.

At its October 19 fete, the eight-year-old foundation celebrated its expansion into Broward County by rechristening itself the Gay and Lesbian Foundation of South Florida and honoring New York Sen. Hillary Clinton with its National Impact Award. The bulk of the 1300 people inside Hollywood's Westin Diplomat warmly cheered along at Clinton's none-too-subtle digs at George W. Bush, particularly enjoying her reference to "another Bush recession" and the current president's efforts to roll back not just her own husband's environmental safeguards but even "those of Theodore Roosevelt."

It was a different story, however, at a more intimate predinner affair for the foundation's big-money VIP donors. Many in this socialite -- and decidedly Republican -- crowd were close friends of Southern Wine and Spirits' Lee Brian Schrager and had been drawn to the event only because he was receiving the foundation's Humanitarian Award.

As Clinton delivered a spirited tirade against Gov. Jeb Bush, there was some serious gnashing of teeth around the room -- a gathering that included one of Jeb's regular golfing buddies from his Miami businessman days. "You should have seen the looks on people's faces when Hillary started calling for higher estate taxes," recalls one woman in attendance. "Let's just say nobody was running up afterward to give her a big donation."

Strange bedfellows aside, there is a larger point here. The foundation's purpose is to raise money for local gay groups. To that end, tapping into Miami's tonier philanthropy base is just common sense (and was the red-faced justification offered to Rosie O'Donnell, from whom the National Impact Award was rescinded when Clinton became available, according to foundation sources). But cozying up to South Florida's philanthropic aristocracy could also be a Faustian bargain. Let's hope the foundation doesn't lose sight of its core mission: funding precisely those gay outfits that, sadly, many wealthy donors and civic leaders find disconcerting.

Gore-Graham in '04! Since Florida Sen. Bob Graham staked out a vehement antiwar position regarding Iraq, even warning his colleagues they would have "blood on their hands" unless they delayed an invasion in favor of eliminating more pressing terrorist threats, he's become an object of media adoration. The Herald in particular has emphasized Graham's impassioned moral posturing; guest columnist and WPLG-TV political reporter Michael Putney practically fit the senator for a halo."Some years ago when Graham had his eye on higher office, his ambition seemed to neuter his ideas. They and he were bland," Putney wrote. "Now that he's not running for anything, he has found his voice and a vision -- and bite. At just the right time."

The right time indeed. Graham's Dr. Strangelovian shift to the right of President Bush -- even calling for pre-emptive air attacks on Hezbollah terrorist camps in Iran, Lebanon, and Syria -- has placed the senator within striking distance of the Oval Office, or at least the smaller desk down the hall.

Speculation is percolating among Democratic insiders that Graham is angling for the party's vice-presidential slot. The race may still be more than a year away, but presumptive Democratic presidential aspirants are already raising their profiles and campaign war chests. Both Republican and Democratic analysts agree that Florida is destined to be just as crucial an electoral battleground in 2004 as it was in 2000, which is why the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has been pouring resources into Bill McBride's attempt to unseat Jeb Bush. "There won't be anything as devastating to President Bush as his brother's losing in Florida," crowed DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe to the New York Times last week. "To have a governor in [Florida] in a presidential year for money, message, and mobilization will help us tremendously."

Adding a popular Florida senator to the 2004 White House slate would sweeten that equation even further, particularly when it's a hawkish pol like Graham, someone able to balance even Gore's recent peacenik proclamations.

Moreover Graham's rigid pro-embargo line on Cuba -- not to mention his thundering away about Fidel Castro's alleged bioweapons when even the Southern Command head Maj. Gen. Gary Speer publicly pooh-poohed such a charge -- could siphon off Cuban-exile votes from President Bush.

The senator himself, up for re-election in 2004, certainly isn't complaining over all the West Wing conjecture. "He feels there have been many benefits to his increased exposure over the past year," Carson Chandler, Graham's deputy press secretary, told Kulchur. "He remains very happy in the Senate, and while he is keeping his options open, his foremost focus is, as always, working for the people of Florida."

A source close to North Carolina Sen. John Edwards's nascent presidential bid laughed off that statement: "Sure, sure, Bob Graham doesn't want to end his career with a vice-presidential swan song -- and Gore's going to New Hampshire to watch the leaves change color. Everybody plays coy in public, but they're talking about it, and not just to us."

Referring to Graham's much-publicized chairing of the Senate Intelligence Committee and its ongoing post-September 11 hearings, this figure added, "He's already on television more than any of the so-called front-runners. Whatever you think of his judgment, you'd have to be crazy not to consider him for the [presidential] ticket."

The best news money can buy? If local community groups -- gay or straight -- are hard up for cash, they may want to take a cue from Island Magazine TV, which would appear to offer an interesting lesson in gaming the system. The hour-long Haitian-American public affairs show, carried in many parts of Miami-Dade by cable provider AT&T, was cited by county Commissioner Dorrin Rolle as one of the chief reasons he was nearly forced into a runoff election last month by Haitian-American activist Lucie Tondreau. The African-American Rolle handily outspent his opponent -- $340,000 to her $39,000 -- but he griped to the Herald that local Haitian media, which he claimed told "Haitians to vote Haitian," effectively gave Tondreau $300,000 worth of free advertising.In what was apparently -- ahem -- a coincidence, barely 24 hours after his narrow re-election, Rolle wrangled a $110,000 grant for Island Magazine TV from a late-night county commission budget session. Why, reasonable people might ask, is a for-profit television enterprise receiving public tax dollars? Is Rolle attempting to buy off a potentially hostile media outlet before the next election cycle? And if this is all kosher, can Kulchur get a county grant too?

A curious Kulchur placed a call to Island Magazine TV owner Jean Philippeaux. Is receiving $110,000 from Dorrin Rolle going to affect your program's coverage of him?

"I don't care for your tone at all," stammered an audibly rattled Philippeaux. Voice rising, he continued, "I refuse to answer such a leading question!"

Rolle, who in May pleaded no contest to two conflict-of-interest charges brought by the county's Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, seems to share Philippeaux's distaste for Kulchur's "tone." He declined to return calls on the matter.

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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