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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?'"
Gunzburger has now turned his energies to Politics1. The site is crystal meth for political junkies. It contains information not only about the Gores and Bushes of presidential politics but on slightly less familiar candidates for the top office in the land. Such as Jack Grimes, an independent who bills himself as the "Leader and Director of the United Fascist Union" and wants to restore a new world order based on the governmental style of Imperial Rome. Or Clifford R. Catton, another independent, who is making a second bid for the White House. According to Catton, he is running for President because postal employees have been stealing his mail, suppressing his "First Amendment rights to raise up a NEW Christian denomination."
In all, Politics1 details the ideologies and presidential prospects of more than 250 potential candidates (including some 47 Democrats and 59 Republicans), the vast majority of whom you're never going to hear about from Cokie Roberts. House and Senate races are sketched out in equally excruciating detail.
Gunzburger, an avowed political junkie himself, contends that his motivation for highlighting the fringe candidates of presidential politics is more than just laughs. "If you just listened to the ideas coming from the major parties' front-runners, the chances of hearing an original thought are few and far between," Gunzburger notes. "So we get this bland mélange of recycled ideas, and it disserves a republic that that is the only discussion of ideas." Gunzburger points out that social security was an idea originally generated by socialists and that many of the ideas in the Republicans' "Contract With America" were first floated by the libertarian Cato Institute.
The site has also, according to Gunzburger, attracted the attention of several large media companies (though he won't say which ones) interested in purchasing Politics1. Although the site presently loses money, Gunzburger expects eventually to cash in on his labor. "Is it a business?" he asks. "Yes, it is a business. And do I expect to make a respectable amount of money on this? Yes, I do."
Later the same day, Gunzburger is stirring the local political pot at the Embassy Suites in Fort Lauderdale. The occasion is the annual election of officers for the Dolphin Democratic Club, Broward County's oldest gay political organization.
While Gunzburger is openly gay, that makes his nomination from the floor for the post of president no less surprising for the crowd of about 80. Gunzburger rarely attends Dolphin meetings and over the years has flitted back and forth between the Republican and Democratic parties. Pictures of Presidents Reagan and Bush adorn his office. He describes himself as a "compassionate libertarian" and has little truck for knee-jerk liberalism.
But that doesn't stop him from giving the Dolphins a dressing-down this evening with what he calls his "Howard Beale/angry man" act. Over the last year or so, the Dolphins have more often resembled a group of squabbling four-year-olds than a political organization. Infighting among board members has paralyzed the group, and membership has dropped.
"Actually I wasn't even planning to come tonight until I got the newsletter," Gunzburger begins his speech for president, brandishing a copy of the Dolphin club's newsletter. Inside the pamphlet, Gunzburger points out, is a scorecard for board members. All the trustees aligned with the present leadership received grades of A or A+ for their conduct. Everyone aligned with the opposition camp received a grade of F or F-.
Gunzburger condemns the petty bickering and invokes the past glories of the Dolphin club. Then, having made his point, he withdraws his nomination for president. "It's time to start the healing that's needed and stop the little personality fights," Gunzburger declares. He leaves the stage to applause and catcalls.
The wise sage Obi-Wan Kenobi has, for now, spread peace among the Dolphins.
Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org