Grumbling from the Grassroots

The political demise of mayoral candidate Tim Smith heralds a new age in Fort Lauderdale politics

Tim Smith is a short, compact man with a quick boyish smile and the watchful, hungry look of a salesman prowling the front of a car lot. On Election Day last week, he arrived at his neighborhood polling place, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, promptly at 8:30 in the morning, hand in hand with his wife, Cindy. For an alert politician like Smith, it didn't take more than a split second to size up the scene. There wasn't another voter in sight. After four months of pounding away about his "vision" for Fort Lauderdale in a mayoral campaign billed as the first serious challenge to Mayor Jim Naugle in 12 years, the voters were staying away in droves.

Judy O'Bea, a Smith volunteer, sat in front of the polling place holding a placard. Both O'Bea and her husky, Timber, sported "Smith for Mayor" T-shirts. Smith bent over to hug O'Bea, and Timber, lolling next to her on the asphalt, let out a long groan.

"Ah, a supporter," Smith said.

"No," another placard holder said, "you stepped on his foot."

As the old saying goes, he shoulda stayed in bed. This was not to be Smith's day. Outflanked by the crafty Naugle, who succeeded in framing the mayoral race as almost exclusively a referendum on Smith's support for various downtown development projects and strapped by a well-intentioned decision to limit political contributions to $25, Smith's campaign unraveled before his eyes.

Had you listened closely, you could have heard it in the early-morning chatter of the overcaffeinated political operatives who gathered in front of the schools and community centers where people voted. They hungrily sized up the passing crowd -- or, rather, the passing trickle -- and they compared notes. Like politicians everywhere assigned the nearly impossible task of packing large numbers of warm bodies into the polling booths, they talked to one another in harshly pragmatic, even crude, terms.

Rixon Rafter, a Smith supporter who's president of a neighborhood association in the Victoria Park section of the city, greeted Smith in front of one polling place with a scowl, describing an encounter a few minutes earlier with a well-known activist. "He's pissed at you," said Rafter, his shirt a vibrating pattern of stars and stripes. "So I said, 'It's not going to affect the way you vote, is it?' and he said, 'As a matter of fact, yes; I'm voting for Jim.'" Rafter snorted dismissively. "I said, 'Get out of here, you asshole.'"

In front of Virginia S. Young Elementary School, where the voting seemed to be heavier than elsewhere, the pols huddled in tight groups, talking to one another in low voices while smiling sweetly at the passing voters. A woman from Mark Ketcham's campaign for city commissioner from District 2 grumbled about one of her competitors. "I could have kicked the shit out of him," she says. "I'm talking to this nice little Haitian guy, who wants to know what party the candidates are from. I said, 'It's a nonpartisan race, so we don't put party affiliation on the ballot.' So one of [Dean] Trantalis' guys says, 'He might want to know that your candidate is a Republican.'" (Ketcham was eventually edged out of the runoff by Trantalis and Jon Albee.)

Party affiliation might have been an issue in the Naugle-Smith race; Smith drummed away at Naugle's fragile commitment to the Democratic Party. Naugle is a registered Democrat, but he co-chaired George W. Bush's presidential campaign in Broward County, supported Jeb Bush for governor, and campaigned for every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon. Smith did his best to point out these facts to the voters.

One of Smith's biggest assets, though, was his stand on gay rights. He pounded away at Naugle's openly stated belief that homosexuality is a sin (regularly citing an October 2000 New Times interview with the mayor), and gay activists flocked to Smith's campaign. But it wasn't enough -- even for some gay voters. Back at Smith headquarters on Federal Highway, one of Smith's operatives complained bitterly to the candidate about a gay-rights advocate who was apparently defecting: "He said, 'I'm going to vote for Naugle because he's not afraid to admit what a homophobe he is.'"

Even on Election Day, though, the development issue wouldn't go away. A woman approached Smith to ask about the controversial Hyde Park Market site on Las Olas Boulevard, where voters approved a park but where developers are determined to build condo towers. The project has been in litigation for three years. "I don't know," the woman says. "On every piece of open space on Las Olas, it's build, build, build." Smith, who said he wanted to talk about other issues, like crime control and green space, looked depressed.

Around 10 a.m., Ron Gunzburger, a veteran political consultant who wasn't working for either mayoral candidate, came out of Young Elementary, where he cast his vote. Who would be the winner? Gunzburger gave a worldly little shrug. "Eh, I'd say Naugle, maybe 55 percent to 44 percent," he said without hesitation.

It was in the air, a drumbeat saying: Smith is going down.

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