Blowing Smoke

Andre Fladell doesn't change his clothes much, but he's made quite a splash in the national media

There's Andre Fladell in front of local TV cameras explaining how he mistakenly cast his vote for Pat Buchanan and why he's taking the matter to court. Note his blue-and-white­checked shirt. Casual yet working-class. There's Fladell quoted in the pages of prominent daily newspapers such as London's The Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, New York's Daily News, and closer to home, the Sun-Sentineland The Palm Beach Post. You can't see the blue-and-white shirt between the lines of Fladellspeak, but he's probably wearing it, or one like it.

And there he is again on CNN's TalkBack Live, giving town meeting host Bobbie Battista hell. Seems she can't figure out how to vote for Buchanan on the sample Palm Beach County ballot he popped on her, Rick Lazio­style. Of course she gets only about 30 seconds to try. Guess what Fladell's wearing.

Time and again the papers and TV have recounted the 53-year-old's story, which, like Palm Beach County's presidential vote, keeps changing. Only the shirt remains the same.

The rest of the country may have the impression Fladell is an indignant, disenfranchised, and sartorially limited Delray Beach resident, our own American Everyman cheated of his constitutional rights by a confusing ballot. Off camera and out of the dailies, he even swears like Joe Six-Pack: "You can't match up the fucking pinholes," he fumes at the butterfly ballot, almost shouting. Then he catches himself. "Wait, I'm going to clean that up. I'm going to calm down."

But the national media don't report that Fladell is a political Proteus with a drive to win at all costs. They don't know he is an independently wealthy activist and dealmaker who rewards his friends and bashes his enemies with Machiavellian gusto. They don't know the man who professes an aversion to all the hype surrounding his court case yet laps up media attention like a thirsty mutt at a muddy puddle.

So let's take a little time to get to know Fladell.

Fladell's tale of voting gone awry, repeated to friends, reporters, and anybody who will listen, goes like this: He walked into a voting booth in Delray on that now fateful day, November 7, 2000, and did what he's been doing for more than 20 years. Intending to vote for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, he punched the second hole, which usually belongs to a major party. Unfortunately he cast the ballot for Buchanan because the third hole was Democrat Gore's. And that's why Fladell, a proud Jew, became one of the first of nine Palm Beach County plaintiffs to file a lawsuit in circuit court the very next morning.

When did Fladell realize his mistake? His story shifts as subtly as the sand under his feet during one of his beloved beach volleyball games. On November 8, the day Fladell and attorney Howard Weiss filed suit, the Sun-Sentinelreported he had said the following: "I punched the second hole, then I realized what I had done. I came out of the booth thinking I was stupid, that I had just made a dumb mistake. Then I realized other people were making the same mistake."

That night, after the interview but before the Sun-Sentinel hit the streets, Fladell's version of the day's events changed. "When I went to the beach later that day," he told a national audience on Larry King Live, "many of my friends were there. We were at a restaurant, Boston's on the Beach, and they said the ballot was difficult and they had great difficulty with the presidential vote." (He now claims the Sun-Sentinel got it wrong.)

Fladell thought his buddies were just beefing. How could anybody not know how to vote? Only later did he realize the odds were good he'd screwed up, he told King. (He related a similar version of events to New Times a week after the election, leaving out the restaurant scene and contending he made the discovery while talking to another volleyball player on the beach, just before a game.)

What difference do the discrepancies make? Quite a bit, actually. If Fladell realized his error right after walking out of the voting booth, he could have asked a poll worker for help, he could have told others walking into the polls to be careful, he could have immediately added his voice to the growing chorus of people who believed there was something amiss with that damned butterfly ballot.

Instead he went to the beach. And then the hue and cry went up. First from Jewish condo dwellers, then Haitians, then everybody who'd ever had an inclination to pick up a sign and march.

As it happens Fladell has close political ties to Jewish condo dwellers and Haitians. Could he have seen a golden opportunity in their botched ballots for making some political hay and a way into this brightest of spotlights? "Only Andre will ever know," says Palm Beach County Commissioner Burt Aaronson, a Democrat and friend of Fladell's.

Fladell is almost offended by the suggestion that his court case is anything but one man's effort to reclaim his rights. "It happened," he says. "I voted for a guy named Buchanan. I got snookered."

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