Sunday, November 22, 2015

Running for Mayor of Miami Beach, or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the People

Malefactors of great wealth

“. . . [these men] combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. . . I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country—the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.”

Theodore Roosevelt 1907

The  Miami Beach campaign is over. 11,000 of 48,000 registered voters have spoken, and Mayor Levine got over 6000 of those votes, and we got under 4000.  Encouraged by activists into the lions den, I emerged chastened, more humble, yet unbowed.  I realized some crucial mistakes, sorely needed debate preparation, and a media coach.  The debate coaching should have included being able to meet Philip Levine's spiffy song and dance routine, because I emerged with the knowledge that the political debate in this election, consisted of dumbed-down discourse, platitudes, non-existent "accomplishments," and a non-stop retinue of mailers, pamphlets, banners, advertisements and slick videos of Mayor Levine descending from the heavens, with a voice over Hollywood, echo-chamber narrator, his deep tones preparing the Mayor for the next Papal beautification.  "Mayor Philip Levine," it droned.

So the Mayor won, his great fortune deployed against me to protect his vested interest in the financial or political reward to be gained by the continued unfettered redevelopment of Miami Beach.  Along the way, I had the good fortune to meet many interesting, dedicated people, who sincerely had the city's best interests at the center of their idealism.  I wish to personally thank Daniel Ciraldo, Peter Erlich, Alex Fernandez, Randall Hilliard, Charles Urstadt, Clare McCord, Tonya Bhatt and last but not least, my faithful, loving wife Catherine who supported me throughout this entire speed-dating effort.

The editorial board of the Miami Herald, fecklessly endorsed Mayor Levine's candidacy as one that would, through "flashy TV ads” carve a more paradisiacal Miami Beach, a city that would inevitably succumb to his consolidation of power, his "vision" for its betterment.  They hoped for his ethical rehabilitation as well as less arrogance during his second term.  They confided to a colleague that I was "flat" in my presentation to them, the crux of which they affirmed in an intellectually dishonest editorial, praising me, questioning my experience (despite my twelve years of service) and toughness and endorsed the Mayor.  There followed in succeeding days, simply a printed list of "names only" endorsements   preceding the election.  People carried that list into the booth.  They did not think.  They did not read. Ten percent of the vote probably gone in a puff of editorial smoke, cavalierly brushing aside the PAC, the shakedowns and the ethical issues that should have mattered to good journalists.  Let's not even mention the early blackmail attempt reported to the MBPD, which later took only perfunctory steps to identify the perpetrator, despite a video identification by my campaign worker and a clear bank security photo of the messenger who dropped it off.

The mayor even attempted to have elected a intellectual dwarf who, sitting on the commission would have ensured an even more bullet-proof majority (he probably has one anyway). 
It might, however, be despoiled by a hard working candidate who was elected, despite the late endorsements of her opponents expressing fealty to the Mayor's slate.

The city charter is now effectively abrogated.  Miami Beach will be here for "hundreds of years," Mayor Levine has said.  After all, he sold his business for $300 million, so it must be true.  And he is even featured in an article in this month's "Vanity Fair."

Perhaps Mayor Levine is correct.  The city needs a Napoleon.  Too many pesky gadflies, tree-huggers, preservationists, sea level rise believers, self-appointed retired lawyers who appear at city commission meetings and "scream," the Mayor said, ever magnanimous, in victory.  Churchill needn't worry. The government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich--a true plutocracy backed by deep pocketed Russian oligarchs, constructing towers for hedge fund managers and ejecting the middle class. A town perhaps doomed to suffer the fate of looking like another gleaming, skyscrapered, hedge-fund Xanadu, a characterless zombie-like towered, Sunny Isles Beach-like entity where people believe that the sine qua non of status  involves an elevator ride to one's apartment in your Porsche 911 turbo.

Stay tuned for more demolitions of historic homes on places like Star Island, the Venetian causeway,
and on North Bay Road.  Keep watching the other parts of our city as big block white houses replace the buildings of mid-century Miami Beach as bulldozers roam with impunity carrying demolition orders.

December is my last month after 12 years of service on two city boards and my last month as chairman of the Historic Preservation Board following six years of service there. I hope against hope that the city commission appoints people of the same quality with whom I had the privilege to serve.  Insightful and aesthetically sensitive, we monitored almost 700 projects, most of which helped Miami Beach maintain its status as a predominant world destination.

I felt that I had an obligation to the dedicated community activists who so ardently supported me and who engaged an army of volunteers to fight a gigantically funded city political machine, headed by a twenty-first century Boss Tweed, despite whom, we defeated a major thrust into the treasured Ocean Terrace historic district.  Keep fighting folks, be on guard, be vigilant and protect our precious city, our young city, only a 100-years-old fragile lady, now more vulnerable than ever.

                                      *                      *                    *

We'll always have Paris.

I apologize for the absence of this blog since May.  Running for office has its constraints, and some of them include not offending anyone.  Those fetters are now removed. 

Our local problems seem minuscule compared to the debate now surfacing in the wake of the Paris attacks by bloodthirsty, mayhem-spreading Islamist terrorists, their twisted version of a religious ethos compromising the normally safe feelings we feel in major Western cities.  This climate where the practitioners of Islam refuse to speak out against the atrocities, is underwritten by a Saudi Arabia that practices the same brand of violence, subjugation of women, and religious intolerance, subsidizing a plethora of Mosques and radical Imams who preach hatred of the west.  Our values are perverse, our women are prostitutes and for this, we deserve to die grisly deaths while sitting in Restaurants or attending a rock concert.

Here politicians scramble to sound tough, prescribing remedies, such as limiting war-torn refugees from entering the states, and recommending (Donald Trump) that all Muslims be "registered."
Talk of this is reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Police patrol the center of New York City, Paris, and London, armed to the teeth with submachine guns and riot gear, a Gestapo look and security panic mode in tow.  And even here in Miami Beach, going to the movies even seems a bit risky, because targets here are softer than most places.  Metal detectors in theaters cannot be too distant from now.

Since I last wrote about the Republican candidates, they seem to have entered a new level of craziness.
Dr. Carson thinks that women should bear children of rape and incest, and that Jews would have shut down the Whermacht if they had been packing heat.  Never mind that the mighty German Army shunted aside the armies of France and Belgium and almost destroyed the British army at Dunkirque, except for the miraculous evacuation.  But Jews in the small villages, armed with handguns could have stopped it all.  Only Christians should be President, he says.  Really?  Does the Constitution mention that?

The Donald would build a "beautiful" wall on the Mexican boarder and deport 11 million aliens and their children, whether born here or not, violating the constitution.  He does not mention that immigration from Mexico is negative now, so the wall would keep them in, not out.

I could go on with this nonsense.  But I will stop for now.

Great to be back!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Republicans on the March, Democrats, and a Socialist, too. Get ready America.

A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.

H.L. Mencken

So now the race for the White House has begun.   A Kentucky Derby field, eventually diminishing to a Preakness and a Belmont horse race of Republican politicians all of whom have a new prescription of their vision for the future, of course tempered by political expediency, PAC money and a host of other issues, not the least of which should be how they will govern.  But the real issues reaching the American public will really be the distillation of focus groups, advertising slogans, negative ads, and last but not least the torrent of money from the Koch Brothers, and Sheldon Adelson,  who are, shall we speculate, interested in advancing their bottom line through bought politicians (through unlimited campaign contributions.)

All this a result of the disastrous Citizen’s United case, conservative Republicans justifying it all by claiming that it has unleashed millions to the Unions thereby balancing the equation.   In fact, it has not.  The flood of PAC and super PAC money has corrupted the system, lengthened and polarized  gullible voters with a flood of advertising from both sides of the aisle, 95% of which has no substance.

On top of all that, we have the warmonger class, the chicken hawks, here at home asserting that Iran should be bombed now and that if we do not bomb them now, we will be faced with a nuclear armed Iran, itching to explode the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem—to wipe out the Jewish State, interposing an Armageddon, an existential threat to the entire world.   John McCain and Lindsey Graham, among others are beating the drums as loudly as they can.   And, of course, denouncing any deal as another Munich, if you want to buy the argument of the false equivalence of Iran being another Nazi Germany.

CNN is already chomping at the bit, filling its 24 hour news cycle with repetitive irrelevancies such as Hillary’s hair color and the utterances of crazy people like Ted Cruz, who, I am assured by people who knew him at Princeton, was a brilliant debater.   He had, supposedly, the ability to take a side in an argument, it did not matter which, and argue the other side into submission.   Except he often outsmarted himself and came in second.   I hope, of course, that he has not the ability to fool most voters who should see through his creepy fa├žade.  He even looks like Joseph McCarthy.

As I have written previously, the American Electoral system is a creaking remnant of the 19th century, except it was better then, because party bosses picked the candidates, and we were spared two years of primaries, talking heads and assorted other imbeciles who have no idea where it is all going, but sit on pundit panels prognosticating and picking out who will prevail.

Rand Paul, for example, has now moved from being a libertarian isolationist to a semi-hawkish statesman wannabe.   This past week he sat with a bunch of Orthodox lunatics from Brooklyn, possibly telling them he is actually a member of the IDF and the Mossad, and also arguing at the same time that it was a mistake to take out Saddam Hussein and Mummar Quadafi.  I am not making this up.  This is not an acceptable position to the conservative base, but presumably he is already thinking about the general election.

Mike Huckabee is campaigning on his God and Jesus platform, clearly believing that the rapture is on its merry way, and that Jesus will return to the holy land and save Jews, who, incidentally will not qualify for heaven without converting to the true faith. 

Jeb Bush, trying to overcome the baggage of his brother’s destruction of Middle Eastern power balances, and the invasion of Iraq on WMDs that did not exist, proclaiming "mission accomplished," is not quite sure which path to choose.  He says his brother was a good President, but he also is stuck with the mess W. made, having to overcome the production  of a lot of maimed and disabled Americans who have families that do not want another war at a cost of another three trillion dollars that might be better spent repairing our 19th century infrastructure. In addition, the science challenged, religiosity litmus test position of his brother’s administration in the appointments at the NIH the CDC and other government scientific agencies of religious sycophants does not help big brother (no pun intended) to convince Americans that another Bush is suitable for office.    Tragically, though, he is the best the Republicans have.   

Chris Christie, an arrogant, pompous, scandal encased leviathan of political ambition, does not seem to be made of Presidential timber, an office that requires a temperate, even well-ordered ability to  relate to the voter.  Not one that is inherently abrasive, who tells people to "shut up" if they happen to inquire about a position or even a personal family issue.  Or, not to mention, a bridge scandal and political revenge baked into his obnoxious persona.  And now, the kicker, his three staff members who have been indicted yesterday over the George Washington Bridge scandal, and may yet implicate him as a vengeful, retribution seeking dude who very well knew what was happening or at least created an atmosphere that allowed it to happen.   Good riddance.

Scott Walker, who enraged working people for shutting down protests for a living wage, a man who disparaged the teachers union and other elements of Wisconsin society to advance his right wing political agenda.  He mentions nothing about income inequality or that the top 1% now control 90% of the wealth.  

Rick Santorum, a religious zealot, who does not understand the secular trend of American 21st century life, is considering another run, but he is yesterday’s news, thank goodness.  He thinks women should stay home and bear children, not much else.  He is a latter day Christian ayatollah and pretty stupid at that.  His understanding of the new demographic of America is staggeringly ignorant.

Rick Perry thinks that there is a conspiracy to take away everyone's  AK-47 assault rifles and is "studying up on Foreign Policy."  Perhaps this time he will  remember which country is which and which government department he will abolish.  It certainly will not be the Defense Department.

And let us not forget the Donald, who this week blamed the Baltimore riots on the President, referring to him as African-American, but in a demeaning context.   Can one imagine Trump as president “if he decides to run?”   He has a fix for the Baltimore situation, but does not say what.  Presumably he will unleash his concierges, headwaiters and croupiers to calm down the looters and rioters, when he emerges from his solid gold apartment on 5th avenue, leading his legions.  I hope they are at least his Miss Universe contestants.

Last but not least, there is Marco Rubio, a panderer who will say anything to get elected.  The thought of him becoming President is frightening. He talks about 21st century ideas, but is firmly stuck in the 1960s.  Gay marriage? No.   A woman’s right to choose? No.  Religion in the schools? Yes.   Immigration reform? Maybe.  Trickle down economics that have not worked?  Yes, for sure.  Repeal Obama care? Yes.   Any admission on the administration's progress on unemployment? No.  Any admission that the Auto industry was saved?  No.  Any acceptance of climate change as a threat to future generations, or that his home state Florida may soon be under water? "I am not a scientist.." Well what about the 99% of climate scientists say so?  "I am not a scientist, so I do not know."  How about is your steak cooked enough?   "I am not a chef." 

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, a socialist who caucuses with the Democrats, but is an independent, seeking the Democratic nomination.  Bernie, you are seeking the Democratic nomination, are you a Democrat? "No, I am an independent."   Bernie, you need to be a party member if you want to win the nomination.   If you want to win the lottery, buy a ticket.

Hillary and Bill are going to make a fine President and First Gentleman if they can overcome their integrity issues.  Whitewater, Benghazi, and now we have the email “scandal.”    I do not think they will make Mount Rushmore, but they may be the best choice we have.  At least they have some ideas that might make the country functional, or semi-functional, depending upon one's point of view.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Auschwitz 70 years After

            Prisoners were forced by the Nazi Guards to stand before the gallows and watch as a child hung from a noose, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.  And we had to look him full in the face.  He was still alive when I passed in front of him...
Behind me, I heard the same man asking,
"Where is God now?"   And I heard a voice within me answer him:
"Where is He?  Here He is--He is hanging here on the gallows."

Elie Wiesel

                              Growing up with a secondary survivor.

            My father, Bernard Wieder, 18, arrived in America in 1923 with big plans to bring his entire family here from the same small Hungarian town, Maramoros Sighet, where Elie Wiesel was born.  He worked in Miami Beach as a busboy and then as a waiter in 1923 at the Nemo hotel in the winters and gambled at the dog track and horse tracks. He bought some striped pants and promoted himself to headwater.   Miami Beach had only two policemen then and one of them was let go in the summer.  "Nothing for the other one to do." he said wistfully. Miami Beach extended no further north than 5th Street.  He met my mother, who was vacationing with her mother, in the 1930s at the Miami Beach Kennel Club on 1st Street.   Her family did not like him, because he was not formally educated.   He was self-educated, though, saying that he would read the New York Times, not the Forward when he first arrived to America "to learn English."  He moved easily between Miami Beach and New York, where he had various jobs, eventually becoming a successful hotel owner in Sharon Springs, Lake Mahopac, as well as in Miami Beach.

But I do not want to get ahead of myself.  

The US Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924, announcing "Jews Keep Out" a year after my father arrived at Ellis Island.  Dad had 6 brothers and sisters, conscientiously sending insulin to his diabetic father, until September 1939, when the war erupted with Hitler's panzers crushing Poland.  As it happened, Dad had married my mother in November 1938, planning to take her to Hungary to meet his parents.  Of course, that never happened.  All his family perished except two younger sisters who managed to survive Auschwitz.  They arrived in New York in 1946, and built lives for themselves, living in Brooklyn until they died in the 1990s. 

How that happened is a story of courage.
            In 1948, my father had returned to Miami Beach to live and became active here, participating in the construction of the louche Shore Club Hotel in 1950. I was an 8-year-old, swimming in the pool when the police raided the cabanas housing bookies in green eyeshades, who had always given me candies.  Banks of black telephones lined the tables. "Here kid, take this chocolate," they said, semi-annoyed that I was distracting them from their calls.  They knew I was the owner's son.  Dad was partnered with another much wealthier man, whose also 8-year-old daughter was my swimming playmate.  Her name was Priscilla.  We lived two blocks away, in an post-war modern two-story apartment house, and during the hurricane of 1950 a two-by-four board crashed through the window almost killing my sister, aged 3 or me.   I screamed, "Mommy! Mommy!," running in terror to her room.  Mom was an optimistic stoic, extremely comforting.

            My father was involved until the early 70’s in many Miami Beach iconic hotels, including the Martinique, which he sold in 1974.  My father had completely transitioned in post-war America to the hotel business, after working in Long Island City at the Sperry plant making Norden bombsights during the war and also working as a dress salesman for my mother's brother, a successful 7th avenue dress manufacturer and hotel owner who was connected to people, some of whom were characters of Damon Runyonesque proportions, later appearing before the Kefauver committee investigating the rackets in New York City.  One individual, particularly influential, was instrumental in helping my father achieve his goals of getting his sisters to America.  He personally knew congressmen and that was what Dad needed for his mission of mercy.   Mr. Al Cobb (name changed) had taken the 5th amendment a hundred times when called to testify before the Kefauver committee.  If you wanted to move a dress out of your stitching factory, you had to use his trucking company, its tentacles spread all over the garment district.

            It was through this connection that Dad was able to circumnavigate the American anti-Semitic immigration barriers to allow his sisters and 21 others from his home town entry into the United States, including posing as a Colonel in the US Army to get to Europe just after the liberation, and find his sisters.  How he accomplished that is a story rife with intrigue. Dad had managed to obtain a “commission” as a US Army colonel, involving a trip to Washington, DC and a visit to a congressman who shall go unnamed and the details of which involved an exchange of, shall we say, consideration.  Dad was introduced to some people at the War Department, received a brief orientation, a few uniforms festooned with eagles, and was told that if he was discovered, “we do not know you.” With his commission in hand, and MATS transit orders (military air transport command) he returned to New York, and headed to Roosevelt field to depart for Europe.  He boarded a C-47, later known as a DC-3, flying to Gander, Newfoundland, Shannon, Ireland and on to Paris.   At the time, no commercial air traffic was available from New York to France, where he was headed.  Arriving in Paris, he set up his headquarters at the Hotel California, on the Rue de Berri, across from the New York Herald tribune and near the Etoile.  It was from there that he needed to requisition an ambulance, a jeep and a driver to get to Hamburg and Bergen-Belsen.  How he did all this required huge confidence and an abundance of testosterone.  He knew that he did not want his sisters in a DP camp, where conditions were devastatingly filthy, and with many of the prisoners in near-death condition. Even George Patton had remarked that the Jews there were like filthy animals, the stench overwhelming.  Patton, despite his military genius, was in line with the fashionable Antisemitism of the time and the racist mien of America.  Dad knew that his two sisters could not survive much longer.

            On route to Bergen-Belsen, he made the mistake of dropping into an officer’s mess (Colonels and up) and was almost discovered, because he was not properly attired.  “I’m sorry, sir but I cannot admit you here in these clothes,” informed an MP.   He was in fatigues and dress uniforms were de riguer. He promptly exited, fearing discovery.  From then on, as he told us later, he stuck en route to enlisted men’s mess.

            Undeterred, however, he was going to get his sisters to America; they would not have to wait for a year or two for a visa.  Not his two sisters, 60 and 70 pounds each. Not the emaciated remnants of the young and beautiful sisters he had remembered, and in his mind, abandoned.  Not the sisters who suffered because he did not act earlier. Not the sisters who were still now, under British occupation living in squalor and the walking dead.  They told him about the gassing of their siblings and their mother.   My grandfather died before that of diabetic shock, in 1940.  “He was lucky,” Dad later told me.

            Dad was about 5’10, with black hair and green eyes.  Many people, especially women, said he was the spitting image of Spencer Tracy, and photographs reveal some of that, only Dad might have been a bit better looking.  He had an easy time with women.   While in Paris, he arranged for the Hungarian women in town who were there either through his efforts or some other means, to come to his hotel room for baths.  He had hot water, a precious commodity.  Through a common cousin and Auschwitz survivor, Olga Lengyel, (author of "Five Chimneys,") He met my future wife’s family in Paris and they housed my fragile aunts and his niece at their apartment while they were waiting for visas to come to America. Those visas were, I think, also provided through “the 7th Avenue connection.”   Twenty years later, when I travelled to Europe for the first time as a student, he told me to look up his old friend, a Paris physician, who later became my father-in-law.   My mother-in-law, still lucid at 100 years of age told me how charming and probably promiscuous my father was during those times.

            My first memory of him was as a three year old, with my mother calling me to the phone for, in those days, was a "transatlantic call." He had been gone 18 months, leaving my mother to tend to me alone.  

            So my father was a survivor also, even though he spent the war in America.  After the war, after he returned home,  he thought about Auschwitz every day, he spoke about it every day, read about it continually and until the day he died, carried that torment and guilt with him of being unable to save his family.  He cogitated in a darkened room, chain smoked, had his meals sent in, and at times, could not speak to anyone.  As I grew up, I did not nearly understand the depth of his despair.  He developed a schizophrenic relationship with religion. He popped Phenobarbitals. He wept for years. He spoke of a bloodthirsty God that he rejected because God was either "powerless or evil."  He never overcame his depression and he visited it upon my sister, my mother and me.  He needed us to be nearby, he was warm and financially generous to us, but emotionally he was not there. In the end we gravitated toward our mother who tried to protect us from his emotional storms.

            I did not have the skills then to talk to him, to convince him it was not his fault.  That only one in a thousand people would have had the courage to do what he did.  I think often how different it would be if I could just talk to him one time now and tell him it was not his fault, not my fault that his guilt should abate, that he could let it go.  But it was not to be. It is too late.

            As a child and now as a grown man with my own grandchildren, I still cannot reconcile my Holocaust-torn relationship with my father, the damage it caused to our relationship and the scars from it that I carry to this very day, 70 years after Auschwitz.