NORTH MIAMI BEACH -- It is a consuming regret that I never met Orville Redenbacher; the only time I popped a corn myself a Dr. Scholl's product was involved. Save for that oversight, I have covered the gamut of life experience in a fairly thorough way. Yet my one stint as a campaign manager in the 1996 Congressional race remains an unsatisfactory memory; some neighborhood activists resented me as an interloper -- I was commuting from Cincinnati to New York -- and I was bumped from my post before Election Day.
So when I was approached by Jay R. Beskin to manage his campaign for one of the 13 County commissionerships here in Miami-Dade County, I stifled the impulse to huffily say I only do Federal. After years as a disillusioned Diogenes, I found an honest politician. He had served for nine years as a city commissioner in nearby Aventura, then cast a vote to apply term limits to himself. He and I have some differing political views, but we took to each other immediately and work well as a team.
Although he is challenging a powerful incumbent, who is sitting on a pool of money from land developers, I believed that he could and should win. My reasoning was simple: as far as I could see, every single time that the people had expressed an explicit will on a subject, the incumbent had voted AGAINST. Disavowing the will of the people on a regular basis is generally a formula for defeat.
Here are the three starkest examples. In the previous commission term, a groundswell of grass-roots pressure, including a referendum that covered some aspects, led to campaign finance reform. Political donations by private individuals only, maximum $250. Developers and lobbyists could no longer deliver multiple donations from long lists of shell corporations. Additionally, any candidate who had received a number of small donations could receive some fifty thousand dollars in public financing.
Our opponent personally made the motion to repeal those laws. The roof fell in... and the ceiling was raised. Corporations were readmitted, individuals promoted to $500 and new requirements placed public financing beyond the reach of most challengers. One developer with multiple corporate identities was able to give twenty-five separate $500 checks. This was a clear smack-down of the will of the people.
Then there is the 63rd Street flyover (or overpass). Long before I moved here, I was here once a year as a tourist and I loved driving Collins Ave. south-to-north along the ocean. Heading back southward, you have to drive Harding Ave., the one-way parallel street. Traffic moved quickly through the busy intersection at 63rd Street, because the flyover absorbed the bulk of the east-west traffic to and from the beach. But somewhere in a Department of Transportation file was buried a report that had advised against the flyover way back when.
A couple of years ago, a local developer began building a high-rise for which the flyover posed some inconvenience. He dug up the old report and asked the county commission to knock it down. When they started murmuring in assent, the municipality of Miami Beach screamed; among other things, it keeps a smooth flow of traffic to the only area hospital. They succeeded in getting the matter on the ballot for a non-binding referendum. Sure enough, the people voted to save it. Our opponent and her friends disregarded the vote and gave the developer his victory.
In the third story, a huge development was going to eliminate a golf course near Ives Dairy Rd., at the northwest tip of the district. Four hundred people came out to the commission meeting to oppose it; in local terms, that is the equivalent of a Tiananmen Square uprising. The incumbent stood up to their onslaught and voted with the developer.
Still, our battle is steeply uphill, and I am daily discovering why. Because the county is the Invisible Man of the American political pyramid. Ask anyone where they live, they tell you neighborhood, city, state and country. I grew up in the borough of Brooklyn, New York, only vaguely knowing that it was called Kings County. Racking my brain now, I can't recall if there was a County Hall nor any service or fee that was transacted directly with county government. When I married my ex-wife in Chicago in 1979, I did get the license from the County Clerk. That's about it.
Even a county the size of Miami-Dade with 2.2 million residents and an annual budget of nearly $7 billion -- more than eleven states -- is hardly noticed, governmentally, by its inhabitants. Most people do not realize that the county runs the airport, about which they grumble incessantly. (Here's a classic we dubbed the Train To Nowhere. The commission paid for a train to run between the terminals -- two years before the track will be ready. Trains, however, rust if they sit unused. The county is now stuck paying $54,000 a month to a company that takes the train for rides around an empty track to keep it fresh and well-oiled.)
This is The Emperor's New Clothes in reverse. Instead of politicians donning false mantles that prove invisible, we have politicians wearing real soiled mantles who escape notice because they occupy the invisible layer of government. Perhaps we need to rethink this nationwide, because as things stand in the public consciousness, da county don't count. I'm done with the corn but I'm in danger of growing a callus.
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