Citizen (Raising) Cain

Norman Braman is Mad As Hell and He Isn’t Going to Take it Anymore

It isn’t the first time that Braman, one of South Florida’s highest profile and most philanthropic private businessmen, has been angry with the Miami-Dade County powers-that-be.

The last time the local establishment really, really got under his skin was during the push for public funding of the new downtown baseball stadium. Braman was both praised by many members of the public, and excoriated by many beltway politicians and players (and, to be fair, a decent share of suburban baseball enthusiasts) for leading a campaign to stop the project as planned.

The stadium campaign didn’t succeed, but in leading the charge, Braman ingratiated himself with many South Florida good government activists and fiscal hawks.

This time, Braman is back and his target is Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez. In the aftermath of tax hikes on residents simultaneous with shiny new pay increases for county staff, Braman launched a petition drive to force a recall election of Alvarez.

As usual when the beltway structure is threatened, much of the regional power establishment has closed ranks in defense of the free-spending mayor. The same figures who had no problem with the county pay hikes and, in many cases, even the fortune being dumped into the downtown stadium, complain that a recall election is uncalled for and, ironically, that the price tag for the vote would be too high.

Others, including Alvarez himself, have asserted that Braman’s effort is just bitter carry-over from the losing effort to stop the stadium deal.

In a political fight laden with irony, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. Alvarez complains about the cost of a potential recall effort, even though a petition drive and vote was exactly how he consolidated massive power for his own position in 2006.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the [Miami-Dade County] budget. The budget is outrageous. It is wrong in so many ways, but in particular, it is morally wrong.” – Norman Braman

“The lawful and honest execution of the petition process is crucial to preserving the integrity of the democratic process in Miami-Dade County,” Alvarez wrote at the time.

These days, Alvarez’s opinion is not so much.

Regardless of where one stands on the recall issue, it is always a curiosity when one of a community’s leading and most influential figures breaks ranks from that community’s political and business establishments.

Braman is most certainly, one of South Florida’s most accomplished businessmen.

Norman Braman is a Philadelphia native who, after graduating from Temple University in 1955 with a Bachelor’s degree in marketing, embarked on a business career that has spanned almost 50 years.

He moved to Miami in 1969 with his wife, Irma, and two daughters, Debi and Suzi.  Starting with his first Cadillac dealership in Tampa in 1972, today he owns dealerships in Miami, West Palm Beach and Denver, selling everything from Rolls-Royces to Hondas.  He is the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, an avid art collector and fervent supporter of the State of Israel as well as local and national Jewish causes.

In addition to his professional accomplishments, Norman Braman is very active in the South Florida community.  He is one of the original Founders and for 20 years served as President of the Board of Trustees of the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial.  President Ronald Reagan appointed him as a member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and nominated him to head the Immigration and Naturalization Service.  He is Chair of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida, has served three times as Campaign Chair of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and once as its president. Additionally, he serves as Vice Chairman of the University of Miami Board of Trustees.    Braman is on the executive committee of Mt. Sinai Medical Center as well as on the board of directors of various organizations. He has also served as Chairman of the Host Committee of Art Basel Miami Beach since its inaugural opening  in 2002.

The Braman family has supported a wide spectrum of philanthropic activity.  In 2002 they announced a $5,000,000 gift to the University of Miami to establish the Braman Family Breast Cancer Institute and joined the Million Dollar Roundtable of the United Way in 1998.

SunPost had a chat with Norman Braman about what prompted him to lead the recall effort, the process, his personal involvement and what he hopes to accomplish.

MS: What is the state of the recall effort now? Where does it stand?
NB: We’ve collected many thousands of signatures and we are processing them and continuing to collect more. We have our own verification procedure. We have a long way yet to go. We only need just over 52,000 legally but we’re going to turn in 70,000 or 75,000. We know that the mayor and his people are going to do everything they can to prevent people from having the right to vote. In fact, he already announced that he is going to try to stop that from happening.

MS: What are the next steps in the process and the timeline?
NB: The next step is to get the signatures into the clerk’s office as soon as possible when we have enough. We have 650 days from the time the petition is validated and it was validated [about two weeks ago]. It took a while to get the printing done and everything. After that, the clerk’s office has 30 days to validate the signatures; then it goes to the county commission and the commission then has to call for the special election.

MS: What do you think the odds are that you will get enough support for there to be a special election?
NB: We’ll get the signatures. I’m extremely confident that we’ll get the signatures. This whole thing is to empower people in the community to have a chance to say yes or no. Everyone complains, so this is their chance to have their say. This is what democracy is.

MS: How personally involved in this process are you, given that just voicing support for the initiative would have helped?
NB: I am very personally involved in the process and I have to be in order for it to happen. It really is an enormous endeavor. Right now, it is taking 150 percent of my time.

MS:  What have been the reactions you have received from different groups – average citizens, friends and the political/statesman class?
NB: Last Saturday night at a restaurant I bumped into a guy who is a ‘leading figure’ in the community and he said to me that I was doing a great job. So I asked him why doesn’t he join in the effort. He said, “Because I’m chicken.” That has actually been the reaction from a lot of quote-unquote “Chamber of Commerce” people. Honestly, that hasn’t surprised me.
There have been a whole, whole lot of people who have come out in support, but those are average citizens. People think that it’s outrageous to have $132 million in pay increases and $174 million in new taxes. These are the kind of things that really have people upset and that’s what is bringing them out to support the recall effort.

MS: Has anything surprised you in terms of reaction from people?
NB: I have been overwhelmed and very moved by the support of people. I was at one of our offices the other day and I met this elderly widow. She broke down in tears because she was losing her house. I have heard from so many people, particularly older people – many of who are living on fixed incomes. The government just announced that again this year there would be no Cost of Living increase in Social Security benefits. The people who depend on that are just being battered.

MS: The big question is – why are you leading this recall initiative?
NB: Well, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the [Miami-Dade County] budget. The budget is outrageous. It is wrong in so many ways, but in particular, it is morally wrong.
There were so many other things too. The disaster with Jackson Hospital, the public-funded baseball stadium, cost overruns, the incredible debt that the community is assuming, the outrageous salaries of county staff and in particular the county manager’s office…
The mayor has two SUVs but asked for $800 a month to lease a BMW to ride around in.
Enough is enough.

MS: At what point do you feel that a recall is warranted as opposed to waiting for the normal election cycle to just change administrations?
NB: My hope is that this will be the spark that leads to reform. There has to be reform. The County Charter must be changed. There need to be term limits.
Reason two is that this community can’t afford two more years of this mayor.
One of the complaints out there is that a special election will cost four or five million dollars. But that is a relatively miniscule amount of money compared to the budget and the waste.

MS: Who has come forward in terms of high profile people to support the effort?
NB: There are definitely recognizable people who have come forward to be supportive. I don’t really want to get into that though. The information is out there.

MS: One of the criticisms that has been leveled at you is that, if you want to be the one to make tough decisions on budget issues, why don’t you run for office yourself. How do you react to that?
NB: I don’t want to be the one. My desire is to empower the people of our community to get involved and to be able to have a say. That’s it. I don’t want to be king-maker. And I absolutely have no interest in running for office.

About Michael W Sasser

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