By Anne Newport Royall
An overflow crowd nearing 90 filled the main dining room of David’s Café II on Lincoln Road Tuesday, sitting, standing and in some cases, eating breakfast with plates on their knees to listen to the first Mayoral Candidates Debate of 2011.
The rowdy crowd was in no mood for posturing or time-wasting and moderator David Kelsey began the meeting at the stroke of 8:30 a.m., even though one candidate, Laura Revero Leavy had yet to appear.
Alejandro ‘El Condor’ Arce kicked off the meeting by thanking this paper, The Miami SunPost, for their outstanding coverage of the issues and for publishing his letters. (We thank him for reading, and you too!)
Then, it was the Main Event: opening statements by the candidates, with Dave Crystal taking the lead. Crystal explained his candidacy, which began last October 13, as his response to “being fed-up with this government.”
“I am fed-up with projects being done twice, or thrice,” he announced. “I am fed up with government saying they do not have enough money for seniors but having enough money to send elected officials and members of the administration to exotic locations like Japan and Switzerland on vacation,” and as far as getting to be one of the lucky few to be employed at City Hall, “You are better off being from Hialeah than from Miami Beach if you want a job here.”
He continued that when he made the “difficult and not so popular decision to run against an incumbent mayor” he thought that City Hall was ripe with corruption, but now “I know,” he said, and cited the Ticketgate scandal with the New World Symphony and a sign proclaiming the coming of a new Holtz Tennis Center in Flamingo Park as examples of malfeasance.
Crystal ended his introductory remarks with the only item in his arsenal that is not a blank: the two year extra buy-in of the mayor’s pension based on her claimed comparable civic service with her career as a dental assistant. “There will be thousands of extra dollars going into her pockets. If you are fed up with what’s going on, the choice is Crystal Clear!”, he ended.
Steve Berke was next at the mike. He compared himself to Dave Crystal, saying he was “not as angry as Dave”, and declaring that Mayor Bower had done an “okay” job and that the City is “okay”, but we could be a lot better than okay.
He said he was not interested in attacking the current mayor, whom he deemed a “nice person, a fantastic woman” but he wanted to bring fresh ideas to the City and engage younger voters, through the use of comedy.
He reiterated his proposal to dedicate 100 thousand square feet of the Miami Beach Convention center to gaming and dedicate all of the revenue generated to lowering property taxes by 50 percent. “Truth is, we will have casinos in Florida one way or another’” and if we do not turn to gambling as an added source of revenue, he predicted that property taxes will have to be increased between “20 to 30%..But no one wants their taxes raised.”
With Miami Beach Police Sgt. Alejandro Bello, President of the Police Union in the room, Berke spoke about the “out of control” Miami Beach Police Department. In pointing out the recent incidents involving police in uniform up to no good, from running over tourists while drunk on the sand to beating residents and arresting other residents who reported the beatings, Berke noted, “One by one we are losing our reputation as a city where people want to come and feel safe.”
Berke saw no reason why the City could not rid itself of Urban Beach Weekend immediately, and called for the City to take control and sponsor a Veteran’s themed event. This, as well as his make- nice comments to the mayor, drew applause from the room.
Then it was the mayor’s turn to take her stand. She began by expressing the “warmth and love in this room from my first campaign. I have been mayor four years, and would love, with your vote, to be mayor again for my last two.”
She agreed with opponent Berke’s words of putting the future of the Convention Center front and center and her worries over what will surely happen at the Miami Herald site across the Bay. “I am philosophically opposed to gambling, but I have to let my things go and we need to sit down and discuss what is best for Miami Beach.”
“I was the first one to realize four years ago that we must do something about the Convention Center”, she said, “I sat down with the Visitors and Convention Bureau, I have gone to different places, to buy chocolate,” she joked, “and have seen other convention centers and know we are far behind. We don’t have the space or the things people are looking for” to attract more and better conventions.
To respond to the criticism of a homophobic police force, she noted that she created the Gay and Lesbian Task Force as a way to increase business opportunities for the GLBT community. As for the cops involved in the hate-crime against a homosexual, she said the City was forced to wait for action to be taken by State’s Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “As soon as there were criminal charges we dismissed” the officers involved, she crowed.
“Are we good enough?”, she asked, and answered “No; can we do better? We must and we are looking for a new chief (of police) and we will demand better,” she concluded.
The final candidate on the dais, Laura Leavy said she “signed up at the last minute to rescue my City. Let’s make a change, but change has not become visible to our residents. The future is uncertain and we must deal with these problems,” she said.
“I see the waste” Leavy stated, “Change can not come within an organization, it has to be someone like myself. I have no vested interest with anyone. Make the choice and vote for me,” she implored.
After the opening remarks, the restless crowd took hold to try and ask questions. Anyone making any kind of statement was heckled and if you took too long to ask your question you were driven off the floor. Roger Abramson was particularly impatient with the proceedings, wanting to hear the candidates address their strengths and weaknesses post-haste.
“My strength is my leadership,” Leavy offered, “As a married woman with five kids I am certain I would be a great leader. My weakness is I get frustrated when things don’t happen, like with the convention center, or dealing with the bums on the street” she answered.
Bower offered her skill to “bring people together” as her strength and her weakness as being “more holistic than detailed.”
Berke, on the other had said his biggest strength is also his weakness” I am not a politician,” he confessed, “I have a problem lying and I tell dirty jokes.”
“My weakness? My inability to mask my anger,” offered Crystal. “Mortgaging your children’s future makes me angry. For my strength, my academic and professional background in finance and economics.”
When asked by artist Stewart Stewart why any of them want this job that pays so little, the current mayor replied, “What do I get out of this miserable pay? For my first 20 years here I was an activist with the schools for no pay. I am the ‘People’s Mayor’, the residents mayor, who voted me in. I have been in service the whole time, even when I was a dental assistant, I was providing a service. I give with all my love, and the service I provide to the residents, to the poor people, the service I give is my reward,” she said.
Berke said that the City needed someone who is honest in office, while Leavy repeated her goal to “optimize my City. I want the world to know this is the best place to live, the best place to visit, the best place to raise a family. We must get rid of the bad reputation we have.”
“Matti Bower for President,” Commissioner Ed Tobin shouted from the front door.
Seniors activist Stanley Shapiro asked his boilerplate candidate question about money and backers, “We want to know because it is your supporters who give you credibility.”
Leavy admitted she has “not raised much” and countered with “the more money you raise the more money you spend and you spend negatively, but I cannot discuss who is supporting me right now.”
“Laura is right,” agreed Bower. “It is not about money, I did not start raising money until after I qualified (post-Labor Day); I have a little bit of money from a lot of people, small money from everyone.”
When Shapiro pressed for more details, Bower shot back, “Stanley, you gave me money!”, which drew laughter from the club.
Berke who said he “did not run around in political circles” counted several Miami Dolphins and other professional athletes as his contributors. He says his ability to raise funds has been hampered by “fears of retribution” from the current elected officials. so people do not donate. As of the most current reporting, Berke lists $4343.40 in contributions, including a $2590.50 loan to himself and $3807.61 in expenses.
Bower took issue with Berke’s list of supporters, ‘He comes walking in today with three young beautiful girls. I asked him if he knew any young men, because I want to walk in with young men, and he told me he did not know any. Now he talks about all these football players!”, she laughed.
Crystal also complained how difficult it was to raise funds against an incumbent and claimed $50,000 in donations while ribbing that Bower had indeed collected lots of money before Labor Day, raking in over $30 thousand in the second quarter of 2011 alone.
In fact, Crystal’s most recent campaign finance report lists only $9,358.00 collected to date, much of it from out of town, and $1500.00 coming from Leroy Griffiths and his Club Madonna. He has spent $6,726.41 on consulting, mailings and other small campaign-related expenses.
Bower does indeed hold the biggest war chest with $39,143.00 being accounted for by treasurer Maria Beatriz Gutierrez, who is the current longtime aide to District 5 County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. Bower’s contributor list is long with residents, including Planning Board Member Henry Stolar and his wife Suzanne, Erotic Art Maven Miss Naomi Wilzig, La Gorce Pinetree Homeowners Association Grand Dame Rosemary Hansford, nightlife impresario Steve Polistar, MBCDC staffer Denis Russ, the husband of Market Company vendor Claire Tomlin, cartoonist Marion Del Vecchio, and her husband, SOFI activist Frank, Dr Stephen Mandy, president of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association, noise activist Dr. Morris Sunshine, fellow commissioners Ed Tobin, Deede Weithorn and Jorge Exposito, visual pollution activist Charles Urstadt, former commission candidate and current member of the Parking and Transportation Committee Jo Asmunsdon, Real Estate Developer Don Peebles, Historic Preservation Board Member Jane Dee Gross, wife of former commissioner Saul Gross, former State Senator Dan Gelber, Bill Goldsmiths’ Gator Development, attorney Aaron Tandy, former Miami Beach City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, Dr. Ronald and his wife Susan Shane, and Mango’s Tropical Café. Much of the money was raised at a house party held at Commissioner Jerry Libbin’s Normandy Island home the Tuesday after Memorial Day, Bowers’ only expenses to date have been paid to Political consultant, Randy Hillard and his consulting firm, Washington Square Partners for a $2099.50 mailing.
In wrapping up the rambunctious meeting, Roger Abramson chided the challengers for “never serving on any board, never being a commissioner” before filing to run for mayor. “These are flash in the pan candidates!”, he declared.
Berke noted that Bower did not have any experience before she was first elected to the Commission over 12 years ago and noted that none of the current commissioners had elected official experience before achieving their current slots. “Are we doing enough? No. Can we do better? Yes!” and with that the club disbanded and awaited out a surprise rain that kept everyone inside milling around and discussing the performances of those wanting to hold center chair in November.