Her High Hopes

Councilwoman Judy Paul wants Davie to look like the Old West. Lobbyist Judy Stern is prodevelopment. Is the town big enough for the both of them?

On March 10, Paul won the District 4 election by 74 votes, took her council seat, and immediately discovered her legs were too short to reach the floor. She now rests her feet on a stool and props a pillow behind her back to keep from sinking into the big council chair.

Despite her victory the Stern wars continue: Following an EMS workshop, Stern filed a public-records request demanding Paul's private notes, and at the new council's goals-setting workshop a big sign announced, "Lunch compliments of Judy Stern Consulting."

"I didn't eat her sandwiches," Paul defiantly proclaimed, "but it indicates that Judy Stern still has control over individuals at town hall."

The nefarious sandwich strategy! Clearly it was time to give the devil her due.

Command center for Stern's evil empire turned out to be a windowless room in an office suite shared with a real estate firm along a strip of warehouses and auto repair shops in eastern Davie, near the cluttered intersection of State Road 441 and Griffin Road.

Understatement not being a Stern trademark, the office decor included, in addition to a photo of her conversing with President Clinton, a framed Miami Herald story with the headline, "When Judy Stern phones, politicians take her calls." But the best indicator of Stern's status in Broward County politics was a photo featuring super power broker Hamilton Foreman, for decades a dispenser of campaign megamoney and influence. In the photograph he's smiling and has his arm around Stern, a sign that even if she is driven from Davie, she probably won't lack for clients.

When a visitor arrived, Stern was talking with a slightly lesser power, the mayor of Davie.

"Say hello to Harry," she chirped toward the speaker phone, which sat next to the picture of her with Al Gore.

"Hello, Mayor," the visitor said.
"My office is making me sick!" boomed Harry Venis, whose voice then started to crackle and fade.

"I told you to get rid of that cheap phone and get a Bell South phone," Stern commanded, referring to one of her clients, for whom she lobbied to have cellular telephone towers built in Davie.

For once ignoring her, the mayor continued: He'd had respiratory problems, traced the cause to "sick building syndrome" in his town hall office, where he'd ordered the ceiling tiles replaced after discovering the town had been restaining old ceiling tiles, storing them and using them again and again. Stern commented: "That's Old Davie for you."

In the Stable of Fame of Davie politics, Stern and Venis share a saddle for the campaign of 1997, when Venis, then a councilman, won the first direct mayoral election in Davie history with Stern as his campaign manager.

Among the campaign hurdles they jumped were revelations that in June 1996 Venis, an accountant and professional wrestler whose nicknames include "Dirty Harry," had been caught by police leaving a Dania massage parlor. After initially claiming that he only had been getting a massage, Venis later admitted in a sworn statement that several times he had visited a prostitute there for sex.

In what became known as Davie's version of the "Bill Clinton strategy," Venis apologized, said he and his wife had worked things out, that he loved his family, and that his town council record spoke louder than his police statement. This strategy was aided by having a weak opponent, Paula Twitty, owner of a medical-equipment business, who was fined $130,000 by Medicare for audit irregularities. Politics in Davie being subtle as a branding iron, that discovery resulted in a Venis-Stern campaign flier depicting Twitty's face behind jail bars.

In the recent council campaign, Stern helped the losing incumbent Terry Santini, remembering, "The firefighters came out in cars following us around, snapping pictures. It was just typical immature behavior."

According to Stern's analysis, the Davie results represent less a return of power to the people than the effectiveness of targeted special-interest politics. Rattling off the variety of unions represented by Councilman Weiner's Miami law firm, Stern said the Weiner-Paul forces engineered special campaign mailings to union members. "I've used that strategy in Pembroke Pines, going after the special-interest group, reminding them, 'Hey guys, this is one of our own.'"

Noting that only about 4300 of Davie's more than 33,000 registered voters bothered to go to the polls, Stern said: "I think it shows that people are basically content with their lifestyles here.... But you have to look forward and build your economic base, because the taxpayers don't want to support the entire community, the level of service they want. Homeowners aren't going to want to pay for it."

Stern also worries Davie is not taking advantage of being home to the South Florida Educational Center, a 650-acre complex that includes the campuses of Nova Southeastern University and Broward Community College, and branches of the University of Florida, Florida Atlantic University, and Florida International University.

Said Stern: "You have one of the largest educational sections in South Florida, and it's not being promoted properly on the town's behalf. You have to start creating some business incentives to get corporate headquarters here and tying in the educational complex so you can attract the medical community, research community, pharmaceutical companies.

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