Breakfast Clubbing

In the landmark John Hughes- 80s Brat Pack flick, The Breakfast Club, a diverse group of misfits find commonality and friendship accompanied by Simple Minds’ Don’t You (Forget About Me)on a pumping soundtrack.

If you time-warped the motley crew into their adult future, maybe substituted in an actual education for what passes for that in today’s failed public schools, added a helping of savvy and maybe altered the theme song to an ode to today’s political leadership – maybe Don’t You (F&*7ing Forget About Us) – then what you have might, just might, resemble Miami Beach’s Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club (TMBC).

Today, the TMBC receives praise even from within Miami Beach City Hall.

However, unlike the 20-something year old high school kids in the Hughes movie, the TMBC isn’t static and hopelessly stuck in the past. Since it’s founding a decade and a half ago, the group has grown in membership, profile and – many quietly say – effectiveness and influence on regional political leadership.

Just this past Tuesday morning, almost 100 people attended the TMBC’s first-ever “field trip” to the Shelborne Hotel where Russell Galbut, president of Crescent Heights Development, hosted an appreciation breakfast for the group and presented members with a vision of Miami Beach’s future and his company’s possible role in it.

The event accentuated just how far the TMBC has come since its inception.

In the beginning

If there is one personality with which to associate the TMBC it is David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel & Restaurant Association and longtime civic activist. (There is, after all, no official group membership or even official titles.)

Kelsey recalls that the Breakfast Club’s founding corresponded with a pair of initiatives with which he was involved. One was the founding of his own association; the other was the failed mayoral campaign of colorful and challenging Andrew Delaplaine.

“At the time the club started, I was putting together the Association and it was a time when nightlife was under attack from the City and there were problems with code enforcement,” Kelsey says. “It also may have been something that came out of the Delaplaine campaign for mayor during which we were at least able to raise some issues.”

In talking with an activist friend, the idea of channeling the energy from the campaign into an ongoing citizen activist effort was raised.
“There needed to be a way to keep people involved, to give them a way for their voices to be heard,” Kelsey says. “I honestly don’t know what I was thinking about as a model at the time. I remember as a kid hearing about breakfast clubs where people got together to discuss issues.”

Initially the Breakfast Club meetings took place outdoors at the (long gone) Coral Café, but as the meetings became more popular, new venues were tried, with the group finally settling at Puerto Sagua Restaurant on Collins Ave. at 7th Street, where they remained for several years until eventually re-locating to David’s Café on Meridian, where they remain today.

Records are sketchy for the early years, but it is believed that the founding members included Kelsey, beloved now-deceased city activist Bea Kalstein, Peter Ehrlich, Vernon Garoway, Gil Zriny, Erica Brigham, and deceased former SunPost Columnist and political operative A.C. Weinstein.
For a group perhaps best known in the political arena, the TMBC’s founding philosophy was decidedly apolitical. TMBC was and remains non-partisan and does not endorse specific candidates or ballot issues. Its members run the gamut from hard-core statist liberals to legitimate conservative Republicans to committed libertarians.

“I made it policy in the beginning not to endorse candidates and not be connected to any party,” Kelsey says. “We wanted everyone to feel comfortable coming and being able to speak their minds. Rich and poor, gay and straight and all ethnicities and backgrounds. Whatever the spirit of South Beach is, it is embodied in the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club.”

Over time, some have tried to hone the group in a more partisan or ideological fashion but its neutrality has remained intact.
It’s a different type of philosophy that does keep the unofficial and ad hoc unified.

“I’m happy to be associated with [the members of TMBC] because they have been real civic activists,” says Harry Cherry, who has been attending meetings for over a decade and maintains the group’s valuable contacts list. “These are people who are really trying to make things better for everyone.”

Galbut, whose hospitality this week represents support from a Beach establishment not always friendly to civic activists in the past, has high praise for the group as well.

“They’re an outstanding group,” Galbut says. “They truly represent all parts of Miami Beach and they are a vocal and intelligent group. You go to the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club to take the pulse of the city. Their support is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”
Support, though, is an iffy thing for the group since officially it takes no positions. Despite often being associated with candidates or issues popular among key members and even those popular with an overwhelming percentage of the membership – the TMBC has remained above the fray.

TMBC Philosophy

While all are warmly welcomed at TMBC and perspectives and opinions vary within the group, Kelsey says the unifying factor is that supporters want good, clean government, accountability and fairness.

“In a lot of ways the club reminds me of the Tea Party movement,” Kelsey says. “There is a desire for clean government and better, more responsive and less oppressive government.”

Kelsey says that the parallels with the Tea Party surprise him.

“There were always people who were in favor of small, clean and efficient government and who are against waste and corruption – there just wasn’t a name for them,” he says. “There was just no name for it. There is still no formal organization to it, just as there is not formal organization to the Breakfast Club.”

From the beginning, local government was often the chief subject of the group’s collective questioning – and often its ire.
Longtime member Gil Zriny says that he prizes the TMBC’s independence and that it helps the group remain a true voice of the public.
“We both know how much influence and power the ‘good ol’ boy’ network has in government and our lives,” Zriny says. “The club’s lack of an agenda; which governments use to control meetings, also make it special.”

Kelsey says that the TMBC has something that sadly isn’t all that common in communities today, where vested interests and political manipulation are standard operating procedure with even the best-intended citizen efforts.

“There’s a sincere interest in having open and honest government,” Kelsey says.

Despite the group’s acclaimed apolitical nature, early critics were quick to marginalize the group. Within Miami Beach City Hall, some apparently did not like being questioned. This was particularly so because many people associated with the clubs from inception to today are, individually, vocal critics of aspects of government.

“There was definitely hostility directed at the club within political circles at the beginning because it was seen as a threat,” says one source that did not want to be identified but who was close to city politics for many years. “A lot of the bad government that was going on depended on being kept quiet. Now, all of a sudden, there was a group meeting a few blocks away that was challenging the status quo. They were seen as insurgents.”
In political circles, the source says, the group was diminished, its core members routinely insulted, and the group as a whole categorized as being a lapdog for one outsider politician or another.

Of course, as history has it, many of those same political persons have ended up making their case one way or another as an invited guest of the group.

“Times change,” the same source says.

If smirks were audible, there would have been a cacophony.

Evolution

TMBC began essentially as a social group, a place for people to discuss local issues of the day with others also passionate about the community.
Over the course of many years now, though, its core structure has changed with a significant speaker being the focus of the weekly meetings.
Marty Shapiro (then a Miami Beach City Commissioner) was one of the club’s first guest speakers, thanks to the efforts of the late Bea Kalstein, who in many ways remains the spiritual impetus of the group.

Shortly after its founding, activist Mike Burke joined the group and soon after took on the duties of moderator as well as the task of inviting guest speakers, which he did with great success until stepping down three years ago and turning the responsibilities back to Kelsey. Burke and Kelsey, along with Kalstein, are generally credited with building the group’s reputation among the politically savvy of Miami-Dade County and making the Breakfast Club an institution on the beach.

Inviting a guest speaker soon became a regular feature of the meetings, and over the years speakers have included a veritable who’s who of local, regional and state elected officials, leading statesmen, journalists, community leaders and influential government administrators.

When Burke stepped down as moderator the club reached a crossroads. Kelsey says that he realized that the group could perhaps be co-opted by outside interests and stepped back in – just in time for the 2007 City of Miami Beach elections.

“I decided to maintain it, it floundered for a couple of meetings, and then I started putting guests together again,” Kelsey says. “That’s when we started the candidates’ forum.”

That forum, which invites candidates to elected office to come and address the group, became a staple of the organization and an important step for would-be political leaders. It has grown to include candidates for offices beyond Miami Beach as well. The new Marlins stadium issue came along soon thereafter and both major figures in Miami-Dade politics and mavericks like Norman Braman appeared before the group.
It wasn’t always pretty for speakers, despite the genial nature of TMBC members.

“It was amazing that some candidates had absolutely no clue about how the government works or even how the commission is structured,” Kelsey recalls. “Some people really didn’t have a clue and they want to sit up there and make the rules.”

Cherry says that sometimes-savvy speakers would have something to say, and sometimes not so much.

“Some came and educated us and others got educated by us,” Cherry says.

Whether related or not, the creation of the candidate forum corresponded with a late renaissance for the group. Today, the TMBC attracts regular attendance greater than in most of its past, meetings are widely noticed via email, and prominent members Cherry and Howard Kaufman maintain donated audio system and new website, respectively.

“The whole thing has taken on a more mature aspect,” Kelsey says.

Into the Future

Today, the TMBC receives praise even from within Miami Beach City Hall.

“Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club is comprised of a dedicated, informed group of activists who are up to speed on the issues and interested in knowing their elected officials,” says Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Gongora. “The residents that attend are not afraid to ask tough questions and put you on the spot for your position.  I have always appreciated the candor and commitment of the leaders involved.  David Kelsey is doing a good job of bringing in interesting speakers on all kinds of all sorts of different topics that impact the beach.  From elected officials to developers, it is always a lively debate with the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club.”

Praise also comes hand-in-hand with respect. At this past week’s special meeting at the Shelborne, for example, Beach Commissioner Jerry Libbin debuted his plan to address the city’s budget crunch without additional widespread tax hikes.

Upcoming scheduled speakers also illustrate the group’s buoying reputation: Gwen Margolis, Bruno Barreiro and Miami International Airport Director Jose Abreau, among others.

In the future, Kelsey says he wants very much for the group to continue in the same direction its been headed.

“The informal, non-partisan, non-structure…is good…it opens the group up to all types of people,” he says. “I don’t know how much longer I can do what I do – it takes a lot of work. But I enjoy it.”

Pursuing the goal of good government will also continue.

“Hey, hope springs eternal that good things will really come about one day,” Cherry says.

With that kind of optimism, the unofficial membership of the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club might just find some commonality with those crazy John Hughes kids in that quarter-century old movie who, to this date, certainly haven’t been forgotten.

For information on the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club: here.

About Michael W Sasser

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