By Michael E. Miller
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By Chris Joseph
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As she ducks into a peach-colored skyscraper in downtown West Palm Beach, Lois Frankel suffers a moment of confusion. "I have no idea what this is. Do you know what this is for?" Frankel, the city's imperious mayor, punches the penthouse button in the elevator, trying to remember the nature of the event she's about to attend.
"The builder's association? Is that right? I have so many of these. I can never remember."
Upstairs, 75 contractors sit at round tables in the Governor's Club of the Palm Beaches. The private dining room is a sea of charcoal and navy suits. Frankel arrives midway through the meeting of the Developers Business Alliance. She grabs a mic and saunters up to the podium. For anybody who has followed Frankel in her West Palm Beach rounds, it's clear that it doesn't matter where she is; she begins nearly every speech the same way.
"No matter where I am, I get the question. And the question is what?" she says in a voice spiked with weariness. "'When will the roads be done?' The rule is, if you exercise and eat right, then maybe in your lifetime."
The joke gets halfhearted chuckles. The builders are hungry; their chicken Françoise lunch is still in the kitchen. Besides, in a city where road construction has nearly choked the life out of its downtown, the torn-up streets of West Palm are far from funny. These builders have a lot to lose if the city continues to struggle; developers are planning 8,000 new condos in downtown, and there are jobs waiting to be started. Sensing the crowd's cranky nature, the mayor promises that most of the work will be done by August.
"What year?" somebody calls out.
Frankel knows where the blame belongs: far from City Hall. "Russell Engineering. Remember that name." It's the Fort Lauderdale-based construction firm running the agonizingly slow Dixie Highway project. "I'm not telling you whether you should hire them or not, but if there's a job you don't want done..."
Then she issues a warning. The work is far from complete. Just this month, the Department of Transportation began work turning major downtown corridor Olive Avenue into a pit of sugar sand for a project that could take a year or more. DOT will then attack Interstate 95 overpasses, working on every single West Palm stop at once. "So you know what?" she says. "Get a helicopter." Nobody laughs.
After her speech and a couple of bites of crème brûlée, Frankel makes her way to an appointment with Richard Amann, a restaurant owner who needs to be delivered the same message she has just brought to the builders. Nowadays, it's a major part of Frankel's job. Plug away -- all day long, if necessary -- trying to convince people that things aren't as bad as they are.
En route to Amann, Frankel strolls past another construction project on Banyan Road. She flashes a cynical smile. The roadwork has been weighing on her, she says. It dogs her. Every time she goes to lunch, goes to a ribbon-cutting -- hell, every time she steps outside -- somebody accosts her. "I can't walk alone. I have to have someone chaperone me." She has tried to make light of it. For Halloween, she dressed up as a Bob's Barricade -- one of those all-too-familiar striped sawhorses with a blinking orange light.
Still, she knows what the consequences of all this construction could be. "The road-construction issue could definitely be the death of a politician," she says in a rare moment of self-doubt. "But I don't believe -- I don't think, at least -- that it will be my demise."
Frankel has reason to fear that fate. Halfway through her first four-year term as mayor, Frankel can claim few visible accomplishments. Downtown currently seems to have more traffic cones than pedestrians, and the big plans promised during the campaign have gone nowhere. The convention center hotel, a remade waterfront, a new library and City Hall -- all of it is still no further along than the drawing board. Exactly where the plans were when she was elected.
Meanwhile, Frankel has earned scorn for what critics say is an often-misguided, hair-trigger temper. Her public feuds with everyone from club owners to the entire Palm Beach County Commission have gone so far as to hold up major projects -- from the convention center hotel to the Scripps Research Institute.
Then there's her fierce, tension-driven treatment of employees and constituents, which Frankel both denies and defends. "As mayor, if I lose my temper three times in hundreds or thousands of meetings, that what's repeated," she says. But then she defends her tough attitude: "As a woman, I will be called a bitch. But in the position I have, it comes with the territory. Any mayor is going to be an intimidating figure if they're doing their job."
Once the speaker of the Florida House and a failed Democratic candidate for governor, Frankel's political career now rests on her ability to get her agenda carried out. Frankel kicked off her reelection campaign in April. With less than two years left in her term, there's not much time to fulfill the promises she has made to a struggling city.