By Michael E. Miller
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Virgil Bolden loves to sit at a small round table under an old oak tree in the front yard of his home in the 1500 block of NW Fourth Street in Fort Lauderdale, wearing coveralls and watching the action.
Most days the action is slow. Neighborhood children wander up and talk to Bolden, a graying, round-faced man, who treats them kindly.
By the standards of the low-income minority neighborhood south of Sistrunk Boulevard, Bolden is affluent. He lives in a house that rises to two stories on one wing and presents four white columns to visitors approaching the entrance from the street. At least one and sometimes two Mercedes are often parked out front. Bolden also owns several nearby properties: a couple vacant lots as well as a lot with an empty but tidy structure that predates other homes in the neighborhood. Those properties have brought him trouble with his neighbor up the street, Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Carlton Moore.
About a year ago, Moore arrived at Bolden's door and asked him to sell his properties to the city. According to Bolden, Moore wanted the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to buy the properties, then make improvements. Moore also indicated he had friends who would then buy the improved properties. The CRA uses tax dollars to buy and improve blighted properties in a two-square-mile section of Fort Lauderdale.
"My property is in good shape; there was nothing wrong with it," Bolden says. When Bolden refused to sell because Moore offered less than he wanted, he says Moore lost his temper. He threatened to "get after me, put some pressure on me until I said I'd sell." Moore made good on the threat, too. Soon after, city code officials began to question Bolden about his home and his properties.
One day, Bolden says, his wife, Rose, confronted the code officials, who were going to cite the Boldens for allowing tree limbs to accumulate behind a fence on their property. Tired of the harassment, she lost her temper, and a fight broke out. The Boldens were arrested, she hurt her shoulder, and Virgil went to jail, where he remained for three days. Later, charges against the Boldens were dropped.
Bolden was so upset that until recently he has complained about Moore to anybody within earshot. He told neighborhood friends. He told long-time community activist Leola McCoy. He also told New Times. But when the paper asked him again last week about his problems with Moore, Bolden changed his tune and backed away from the story.
Now he says he's patched things up with the commissioner. "Carlton came to me, and we're doing something together on a lot I own over here" -- he nods his head vaguely up the street -- "so I got no more need" to tell that story, he says.
Bolden's tale is the sort that could dog Moore, who may have reached a crossroads in his 12-year political career, a crucial point when image and reputation will play a key role in Moore's future. Already a powerful figure in his district, Moore has the ambition to extend his reach, some friends and critics say. They predict the 47-year-old career politician will take his inimitable style of fiery rhetoric and occasional grandstanding into a fall fight for the highest political stakes of his life -- a seat as county commissioner from a newly drawn single-member district with a majority of black voters.
Moore has nothing to say on the subject and did not return repeated telephone calls to ask him about his political plans. But his critics are not reticent.
A small, energetic woman who has opposed Moore on many occasions, McCoy saw Bolden's tale as evidence of how the commissioner uses his political clout. "This is how Moore does things, and if he represents us to the county, that won't stop," McCoy says.
Moore's friends say his is the single most energetic voice for poor blacks, who have traditionally been excluded from the economic boom in Fort Lauderdale.
But critics such as McCoy point out that Moore has traditionally used his influence and position to acquire benefits for himself and his friends, family members, or employers -- they say money would be a motivation for his county commission run. As county commissioner in a local government with a $2.2 billion budget, Moore would wield far more power and influence than in his current political job in a city with a $300 million budget. His public-office salary would jump from about $20,000 to about $80,000.
"This is his big chance," says McCoy. "[So] he's trying to repair his bridges; he wants to keep his head down and look good."
Others say Moore may have too much baggage, too much of a reputation for self-interest to overcome this time around. "People on the street agree he's an excellent platform speaker, he's great on his feet, he's fast, he's witty, he's smooth and slick," explains Keith Clayborne, publisher of the Broward Times and a long-time observer of politics in the minority community. "But they'll also tell you he has a character flaw -- he's always wanted to be a millionaire."