By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
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By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Ron Gunzburger has in his hands a smoldering news tip.
The editor, publisher, and sole writer of the Politics1.com Website recently learned that a long-time conservative Republican U.S. congressman is rumored to be retiring from the House of Representatives for fear of being outed as a homosexual. Not exactly the second coming of Watergate, but in the Age of Monica, the story would certainly have legs.
It could become a journalistic coup for the two-year-old Politics1.com Website. While some members of the punditocracy might lambaste Gunzburger as the next sordid manifestation of Matt Drudge, the average Joe would undoubtedly be logging in to check out what all the fuss is about.
Gunzburger initially justified the story in his head. The tip is newsworthy, he reasoned, because a politician is essentially being blackmailed out of office. The seedy sexual information is beside the point.
But Gunzburger killed the story.
"I think a few years ago, had I been doing this then, I probably would have run with it going, 'That's a good story,'" Gunzburger says from his office in the law firm of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott overlooking the New River. "And it was a good story. But now, maybe it's a kinder, gentler Ron Gunzburger."
In other words the man long labeled the "Darth Vader of Broward politics" because of his cutthroat political consulting and incendiary direct-mail pieces now claims he has gone soft. Since January 1998 the 36-year-old former assistant attorney general, son of Broward County Commissioner Sue Gunzburger, and veteran of more than 70 political campaigns, has concentrated his efforts on establishing Politics1 as one of the premier political sites on the Internet. It has been praised by Brill's Content and Newsweek (not to mention Pat DiNizio, lead singer of the Smithereens and apparently a U.S. Senate candidate from New Jersey).
To hear Gunzburger tell it, he's transformed himself from Darth Vader into a figure more akin to, say, Luke Skywalker. He ponders this image, eventually discarding Luke, as well as Han Solo. "I'd rather be the more sage Obi-Wan Kenobi," Gunzburger concludes.
In recent months Gunzburger has scored a couple of mini journalistic triumphs with his e-mail newsletter, The Politics1 Report. He broke the national story that the George W. Bush campaign had secured several Website addresses, such as bushpataki.com and bushengler.com, that provide insight into the Republican presidential aspirant's running-mate predilections. Many larger news outlets cited Politics1 in rehashing the tidbit. Gunzburger scored again with a follow-up noting that the now defunct Forbes campaign had reserved a few Websites of its own, all featuring some variation of the names Forbes and Jeb Bush.
Joy Mack says that one reason she sought Gunzburger was because of his reputation. "I'd heard of Ron," she says. "Or I had heard people complain about him. And I said, 'That's the guy I want.'" Mack notes that she can't afford to play softball in the notoriously uncivil politics of Hollywood. "What are you gonna do, sit there and complain about what your opponent's doing?" she asks rhetorically.
Gunzburger is perhaps most notorious for his work on Ken Wolf's 1994 campaign against incumbent Cary Keno for the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. With a week to go before the primary election, the Wolf campaign inundated potential voters with mailings depicting Keno as lax on crime and loose with taxpayers' dollars. One flier showed a picture of a scantily clad Vegas showgirl along with a faux hand-written note from Keno thanking taxpayers for funding his junket to Sin City. In reality Keno had gone to Las Vegas for a National League of Cities convention and covered many of the expenses himself.
"That was the lowest of all the low blows," says Keno. Wolf garnered more votes than his opponent in the primary but was easily defeated by Keno in the general election.
Keno notes that Gunzburger later had the chutzpah to ask for his support in running (unsuccessfully) for county judge, as if no bad blood had passed between the two. "He gets into slash and burn, and to him it's all business," says Keno.
But Gunzburger claims his days of vindictive personal attacks are behind him. Watching the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle, he says, and the parade of deer-in-the-headlights witnesses giving evasive answers forced him into a crisis of conscience. "I realized that when I was in similar situations -- and I'm not going to rat out specific candidates -- in the past, I helped candidates do things that I think certainly were inappropriate, or unnecessary, or sometimes exceedingly malicious," he says.
Gunzburger recalls one politician for whom he worked who was greeted by an idealistic campaign worker after a speech. The young volunteer expressed how proud he was to campaign for the candidate and then hurried off to pick up the politician's car. "[The candidate] turned to me as soon as the guy was two steps away with a little smile and says, 'Can you believe he bought that crap?'"