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LEADING MIAMI BEACH MAYORAL CANDIDATES RUNNING NOSE TO NOSE Until President Clinton Intervened in the Nonpartisan Race
Columbus Day 2013 By David Arthur Walters MIAMI MIRROR MIAMI BEACH—The leading contenders in the City of Miami Beach mayoral election are Michael Góngora and Phillip Levine. Three commission seats are also up for grabs. Thus far the campaigns have been desultory and media coverage sparse. If a thousand Miami Beach residents were selected at random and asked to at least three commissioners and the mayor, or the city manager, the city attorney, and the city building director, only one person could do so. An intelligent resident spoke to me yesterday about Levine’s run for mayor. He had never heard of Mayor Matti Bower, and thought Góngora was the incumbent mayor. He could not name a single commissioner. The sunny city on the beach is a small yet important city with a population of around 90,000 souls. The struggle for power is of keen interest to perhaps a hundred people who have a vested interest in who rules. They in turn influence a basically apathetic electorate. Less than five thousand voters routinely culled from the neighborhoods determine the outcomes of elections. The effectiveness of democracy depends on an educated electorate, yet the electorate is barely educated on the whole on political matters, and most people including the educated portion have grown cynical and indifferent given their experience with the political struggle for power, which
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may remain in the hands of a dominating clique for decades. People may worship absolute power in church, but a passion for politics, which involves the relative distribution of absolute power, is anathema at the dinner table and workplace because it results in arguments, hard feelings, and violence. Furthermore, many folks are just too busy working, taking care of kids, and watching the games to devote much time to researching the qualifications and conduct of the people who hold sway over the future of their families, so they leave that to the experts who rule according to their prejudices and biases. The City of Miami Beach, like 77% of cities in the nation, conducts its elections on a nonpartisan basis as if it should not matter whether the candidates are Republicans, Democrats, or otherwise. That means the ballot itself does not state what parties the candidates belong to, therefore the electorate, largely uninformed about most if not all the candidates, does not have the minimum benefit of knowing from the ballot what their basic political ideals are supposed to be. Nonpartisan elections are a consequence of the movement in the 20s towards running cities like businesses, or nonpolitically, because it was believed that filling a pothole has nothing to do with political parties. But it certainly does. A city official told me that the plan to have the police department’s internal affairs unit investigate complaints of misconduct against all city officials, not just police officers, was put on hold for the nonpolitical reason that there was no budget for the additional resources needed. But the reason for no budget allocation is political. The inspector general has declined to service the city, and there is only one cop in the corruption investigations unit, and he is assigned to task with the F.B.I., with its limited resources, so we must patiently await the next arrest of a few miscreants over whom there is little or no oversight. The City of Miami Beach also adopted the weak mayor, strong city manager form of government, recommended by reformers in the 20s to curb corruption and take politics out of city administration. The city manager is hypothetically like a business CEO subject to general direction of a part-time board of directors, the city commission, on which the mayor, a glorified commissioner, sits as a chairperson with no power of veto. So the city manager, who is supposed to be a nonpolitical business manager, and who is really the most powerful city official of all, is not even elected. How democratic is that? Kansas City Boss Tom Pendergast lauded the reform when it came to pass in his city, claiming that it made his job easier. It was indeed easy for him at the time to install his own councilmen and city manager. Jimmy Morales, Miami Beach’s current city manager, is a professional lawyer and politician. He replaced Jorge Gonzalez, a professional city manager. Gonzalez was suddenly forced into retirement after fourteen years by a faux opposition on the commission spearheaded by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson, who most strongly objected to the former manager’s negotiation with a development company for construction of what would be the grandest convention center in the country. Gonzales was soon hired as city manager by the City of Bal Harbour, where real estate development is also thriving. Wolfson, after endorsing sitting commissioner Góngora for mayor, switched his allegiance to Levine, a wealthy developer who has his own ideas and developers for the project. Levine said he looks forward to working with Morales. Perhaps a handful of people really understand what is going on with the project. Others, who have heard about it but have not had the time nor will to consider the details, say that whatever happens will be business as usual, i.e. traditional corruption.
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What a few people may know is beside the point of getting elected. Statistical studies prove that nonpartisan voters, lacking information, vote along ethnic lines. A notorious case on point is the election of Steve Rocco to California’s Orange County Unified School District Board in 2004. Rocco did not campaign or otherwise publicly face his opponent anywhere. His website presented a conspiracy theory asserting that Andy Kaufman, a famous comedian, was still live. The only other source of information was an auto-biography that he published with an advertisement promising revelations of political and corporation corruption, and murder, behind the “Orange Curtain.” He won by 8 points. The Hispanic name of his opponent, Phil Martinez, a local PTA president with teacher’s union backing, was apparently a negative factor in the choice by the dominantly conservative electorate. Three or four thousand votes win an election in Miami Beach, which has a population of 88,000. Ethnic groups are historically best at getting out the vote. In Miami Beach, then, one might predict a win for Góngora over Levine. But do not count the chickens before they are hatched. The current mayor, Matti Herrera Bower, is Hispanic, but the commission normally has a Jewish majority. Hispanics opposed to corruption may agree with the stereotypical view that Latino governments and Catholics are more corrupt and unstable than Anglo governments and Protestants, and may recall that Byzantine Catholic and Muslim potentates alike have engaged Jews to administer their governments, so they may vote for Levine. Phillip Levine, a wealthy businessman and developer who sports a degree in political science from the University of Michigan, is a kindergartner in the political arena. He has put nearly a million dollars of his own money into a campaign to obtain a position that pays $8,000 a year. However, he is no slouch when it comes to business: he turned $500 pocket money into millions in revenue handling media for cruise lines, selling and merging companies along the way, and then he went into real estate development. He is proud of his involvement in former President Clinton’s Global Initiative organization for wealthy benefactors, and the fact that the Secretary of Commerce drafted him onto a task force on tourism in 2010. The latest dirt is that he bilked taxpayers out of millions of dollars developing Sunset Harbour in South Beach. But is that not what businessmen are supposed to do, cut costs, especially to increase profits? And rumor has it that he is a friendly fascist who wants to run the city undemocratically as if it were a big corporation. He reportedly wants to get rid of the committees that provide community participation in political decisions, committees upon which the part-time commissioners depend for information. Thus far Levine appears to be a naïve, unresponsive candidate who lacks communication skills and mishandles media despite his success as a minor media mogul. Given his experience in the tourist industry, and the fact that Miami Beach is a prime international tourist destination, we would expect to see the city depicted as a cruise ship with him at its wheel bringing millions of visitors to the beach. But we do not see much of him and hear next to nothing specific about his platform, if he has one, giving us cause to wonder what happened to the million dollars of his own money he has invested in the campaign. He implied nonsensically that he is so influential that all he had to do to stop a big development planned for Watson Island, but unwanted by Miami Beach, was to give top-dog developer Jorge Perez a call and ask him to back out of it.
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We hear that his political satan threatened to sue a former journalist for the Miami Herald out of malice for begging askance of Levine. He reportedly insisted that she was no longer a shielded journalist but a blogger and therefore illegitimate. That is truly bad news because the city already has too many bullies in high office. The worst thing a candidate can do is get between people and free drinks. I attended Levine’s fundraising event at Romero Britto’s art gallery on chic Lincoln Road, sometimes referred to by residents as LR (Legal Robbery). Cheese cubes, crackers, and veggie bites were served up along with a few bottles of cheap wine, the access to which was blocked off during a shallow speech emphasizing his intention to fight corruption, with no details on how he would conduct the fight. Levine, unlike Góngora, has had difficulty raising funds from the community; therefore he called the Britto event a “friend-raiser” instead of a fundraiser. I introduced myself to him in a friendly manner because I was ready to welcome change for the better given my experience with the ruling clique. I offered to privately present him with my opinion on how he could most effectively deal with the impression people have of him, that he is inexperienced and superficial. He was not interested; he brushed me off to speak to a lady who identified herself as an investor in a bank; she inquired about the very subject I had offered advice on; his response was pathetic. He did not respond to any of the questions I emailed him; his political satan must not consider me to be a legitimate press member or worthy resident. Frank Del Vechhio, a former fighter jet pilot and retired lawyer whose activism has afforded him with the reputation of a political sage, was present at the event in support of Levine. I remarked that high political offices might as well be auctioned off to the highest bidders with the proceeds going into the general fund. He said that would require a RFP (Request For Proposal), so I asked him to write one up. Maybe he will. Levine professedly represents the revolutionary avant-garde, which is purportedly pure, while Góngora purportedly represents the old guard, which is reputedly morally and/or criminally corrupt. But informed people are not so stupid that they cannot see through the faux opposition. The real opposition comes from the minor candidates, but reality will be inconsequential this time around. And when the real opposition does perchance win, the reality of that opposition disappears soon after the candidate takes office. Michael Góngora is a young lawyer, Florida’s first openly gay elected official, currently a city commissioner with many years of experience serving the community on the commission and on various committees and boards. To mention a few, the Miami Beach Community Development Advisory Committee; the Miami Beach Zoning Board of Adjustment; the Miami Beach Design Review Board; the Miami Dade County Value Adjustment Board for Property Tax Appeals; the Miami Beach Condominium Reform Task Force; the Miami Code Enforcement Board; the Miami Beach Special Master (Magistrate) court; Miami Beach Mayor's Blue Ribbon Tourism Post 9/11Taskforce. His proudest achievement is the creation of Miami Beach’s Sustainability Committee with its green initiatives in Building and Housing, Solid Waste Management, Water Conservation and Quality, Energy Conservation, Alternative Transportation, Natural Resources and Ecosystem Management, Community Outreach and Participation, Green Procurement, Economic Development and Planning, and Air Quality and Climate Change.
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Góngora is not wealthy but he is of noble descent and is as generous as he can be. He serves up good liquor and food at his political and nonpolitical events, and he readily forgives people who offend him. He likes to party which is plus in South Beach. He has accumulated some “baggage” as politicians are wont to do. All but one of his faults was quickly forgiven and forgotten by the electorate: he tried to advance the lobbying of the prestigious law firm he works for, Becker & Poliakoff, which cost him an election. As for his venial political sins: The Ethics Commission fined him $2,000 for failing to report a $3,000 bundle of contributions from strip club owner Leroy Griffith, who craves a liquor license for his totally nude Club Madonna in South Beach. Griffith would later accuse him of soliciting a contract for his political adviser Randy Hilliard in exchange for help with Griffith’s licensing quest, but the Florida Bar dismissed the complaint for want of probable cause. Griffith is sore at Góngora, yet the record shows that Góngora did try to help his cause from time to time, and failed because of a longstanding feud between Griffith and other city commissioners—the strip club owner most recently sued the city for allegedly trying to extort $30,000 from him to pay the legal fees of a former commissioner’s wife, Jane Gross, whom he had sued for libeling him while her husband sat on the commission opposing his effort to get the prohibitive ordinance changed. Góngora is sometimes faulted for getting people’s hopes up on certain issues but then not following up, and for being a weathercock that turns with the wind. That is to say that he is a politician. Yet he has gone against headwinds on several occasions, and his initiatives are popular. His chief personal assets are his friendliness, his willingness to communicate with individuals and to accept them as they are even if they are critical of his behavior. Recent gossip has it that Góngora has a Nevada corporation, headed by his mom, raising funds for him, but his mom resigned. What that tidbit means is unknown at this time. The press and other prominent institutions including a labor union have endorsed Góngora not because he is nice or naughty but because they believe he will win. Who wants to bet on a losing horse? Of course his virtues are recited and his vices ignored by the editors, as is customary when endorsing great men. Still, there is no such thing as virtue without vice. Orthodox Zoroastrians, whom Pierre Bayle admired for their logic, have two gods, and swear that the good one will win out over the evil one in trillions of years. The issue is the imbalance of good and evil, and the fact that Góngora is a very likeable guy, although sometimes naughty, and that he likes to embrace everyone indiscriminately weighs heavily in his favor. Now this news flash just in on Columbus Day: former President Clinton, who is probably unfamiliar with Miami Beach, Góngora and his record, yet is grateful for Levine’s involvement in his Global Initiative organization for wealthy benefactors, has interjected national partisan politics into Miami Beach’s nonpartisan election with his endorsement of Levine for mayor of the City of Miami Beach. Local media announced that that might be the spoiler for Góngora, who has thus far not mentioned his party affiliation, relying instead on his hands-on experience and the history of his accomplishments. According to the 2010 census, roughly 54% of the Miami Beach population is Hispanic. NonHispanic Caucasians constitute 41%, of which 49% or around 20% of the total population are
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Jews. 61% of Miami Beach Jews are Democrats and the majority of Hispanics are Democrats as well. President Clinton is a gigantic Democrat, said to have been the best “Republican” President in history, so that might render the ethnic factor as well as what else people know about the candidates largely irrelevant. Del Vechhio, where is that Request For Proposal? If city offices can be purchased, the city might as well get the proceeds from the auctions. ##
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