Grumbling from the Grassroots

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

Smith's campaign headquarters was an empty garage, where the owner had left a vintage 1945 Cadillac limousine parked against one wall. By noon, with the building's roll-up doors pulled open in front and back to let the breeze in, the place had the feel of an open-air village gathering place. Volunteers collated turnout information or just sat on couches and shot the breeze. A few miles away, 50 volunteers manned a get-out-the-vote phone bank in a Coldwell Banker office store on 17th Street.

The consensus at headquarters was that turnout seemed a little higher than predicted (some campaign workers were predicting no better than 10 or 11 percent), and that was supposed to be good for Smith. Habitual voters tend to be older and, because they've voted for Naugle in the past, more committed to the incumbent. "Old people are more comfortable with the old slipper," Smith said after conferring with his campaign leaders.

"Of course, until tonight, it's all Ouija Board stuff," pointed out volunteer Robert Rodriguez, running his eyes over a sheet with the latest numbers.

Hal Peterson, a senior flight attendant for Northwest Airlines, seemed to be Smith's most eager supporter. "If you think of the world as a spiritual place, he's a very old spiritual being," said Peterson, a smiling bald man in a Smith T-shirt. At that moment, Peterson was showing a friend around -- David Masenheimer, who had just quit the cast of the Broadway production of Les Miserables after playing Javert for two and a half years. Masenheimer says that when he left New York City the day before, the temperature there was 15 degrees.

"See?" Peterson exults. "This is paradise. And Fort Lauderdale will really be paradise after Tim gets elected. You'll see."

But by midafternoon, the political veterans standing around Smith headquarters, like marketing consultant Jay Taylor, were starting to look more and more skeptical. "I see no fire out there whatsoever," Taylor said, as Smith's mom, Margaret Smith, a career U.S. Food and Drug Administration employee, took snapshots with a throwaway camera. "There are usually trends, but I haven't been able to find any trends. There's a little too much personality at play. It's: 'Tim's a nice guy, so I'm going to vote for him.' 'Jim plays golf, and I play golf, so I'm going to vote for him.' That sort of thing."

At 4 p.m., Smith disappeared for a couple of hours. He was getting his thoughts together for later on, he said when he returned. "I wrote a victory speech," he said, "because I didn't want to jinx myself." He shrugged. "But I can convert it if necessary. You have to be practical."

A half hour after the polls closed at 7 p.m., the open-air gathering at Smith headquarters was abuzz with 150 volunteers and friends. But after the first results were flashed on a video screen by campaign coordinator Terry DeCarlo, the outcome became clear. Naugle was already up by more than 1,500 votes with fewer than a third of the votes counted. The energy seemed to seep out of the room.

"It doesn't look good," conceded Peterson, his ebullient smile erased from his face.

As the lead increased to almost 3,000, Smith, standing with his arm around Cindy behind a table where the results, phoned in from the Broward County elections office, were being assembled, looked like someone who had come home to find his safe emptied and his belongings trashed. His 13-year-old son, Timmy, hollered across the room: "Hey, Dad, can we still get 50 percent?" Tim looked at him sorrowfully, shook his head, and mouthed the word "no."

In the end, even Gunzburger's dire prediction turned out to be too rosy, as Naugle swept up 61 percent of the almost 18,000 votes (a 17 percent turnout). Finally, at 10:15, it was time to get up and make that speech -- that converted speech -- to his supporters. The words were much the same as in any losing campaign. Heartfelt thank yous. Silver linings ("For sure, we've driven a stake through the heart of all that homophobia"). A tribute to his long-suffering wife. A pledge of support to the victor.

"This was the grassiest grassroots campaign that ever came to town," he said.

In a city with a skyline that gets more crowded by the day, grassy grassroots may never again be enough.

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