The Next Ex-Mayor

After two years in office, West Palm Beach Mayor Frankel has little to show except blocked streets

For the first 39 minutes of a meeting back in December with north-end residents, Mayor Frankel stayed relatively calm. She ran through the agenda, called on those with their hands up in the City Commission Chambers. She didn't mention that the homeowners in the room had been complaining for months that Frankel was doing nothing to curb crime in the north end. She ignored the fact that most of these people backed her predecessor in the election. Then, just when it seemed as if the meeting might wrap up without a tirade, the steamroller got moving again.

"I want to say this very respectfully," Frankel growled into the microphone. Sitting at a small table in front of the commission dais in a licorice-black suit, Frankel brought up the e-mails that north-end residents had been sending her staff, complaining about a supposed crime wave -- a crime wave that, Frankel insisted, doesn't exist. "We are human beings," Frankel said, the temperature of her tirade slowly rising. "When do we say to ourselves there is nothing we can do to please anybody?"

Mayor Frankel was in denial about the drug problem in the city's north end until she saw it firsthand.
Colby Katz
Mayor Frankel was in denial about the drug problem in the city's north end until she saw it firsthand.
Restaurant owner Richard Amann tried to nail Frankel down on a time line.
Restaurant owner Richard Amann tried to nail Frankel down on a time line.

Bravely, Debra Neger, president of the Northwood Coalition of Neighbors, clutched a cordless microphone beneath her chin. She sat in the audience in a peach pantsuit. "The point is," Neger said carefully, "that we don't feel safe up there."

Frankel was going to hear nothing of it. "I am mayor for the entire city," Frankel cracked into the microphone, "and not just for one neighborhood."

North-end neighbors left the meeting with the impression, some said, that the rumors about the despotic mayor were true.

But again, Frankel challenged expectations. In the following months, she made inroads to repair her image in the partly gentrified neighborhoods north of downtown. After the meeting, Frankel visited north-end parks where drug dealers work from benches and saw prostitutes patrolling Broadway. Since then, there has been a more visible police presence, and there is even talk of opening a substation.

Realtor and long-time north-end resident Bob Beaulieu says Frankel still has a ways to go. But, Beaulieu adds, Frankel is responsive now to crime north of downtown. "I think she finally sees that there's a problem," Beaulieu says. "At times, she can be a little rough around the edges. Diplomacy might not be her strong point."

Frankel's progress with the north-end residents seems to be indicative of changes she has made in the past few months to her style. Mitchell even concedes that Frankel has controlled her temper. "I don't think I've seen her get angry during a meeting in a while," Mitchell says. "In private, I think she's still the same old Lois, but at least she's not doing it at meetings anymore."

The mayor's ability to control that temper could be key in her reelection campaign, which she officially kicked off without fanfare in April by filing paperwork with the city clerk. Meanwhile, Mitchell says, she herself has been repeatedly asked to run by Republican Party leaders and West Palm residents. So far, she hasn't decided.

Likewise, former mayor Graham seems to be considering a run. "Two years out, I think it's crazy for the city to be thrown into a discussion of elections," Graham said. "There are a lot of people who ask me to do it. I have not made any decisions."

For her part, Frankel says she's unconcerned about who challenges her. The election will be a referendum on her ability to get things done in the next two years, she says. "I have to do the best job that I can do, and I don't really worry about who's going to run against me."

A couple of days after Frankel's meeting with the builders and restaurant owner Amann, Frankel helped kick off a community charity walk-a-thon in the north end. Former state Rep. Sharon Merchant, a Republican foe of Frankel's in the House, introduced her this way: "If you have Lois on your side, good luck for you. But if you don't, watch out!"

From the back of the stage, Frankel smiled openly.

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