Blowing Smoke

Andre Fladell calls himself a "Democratic operative for Gore." Is that why he filed a lawsuit?
Joshua Prezant

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-Sentinel and 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-Sentinel reported 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."

Fladell has been politically active in Palm Beach County since 1979, when he arrived from New York. A veteran of anti­ Vietnam War protests in the late 1960s and a former leader of student activists at Hofstra University, he didn't waste any time seeking influence. One of the first things he did in South Florida was to run for mayor of Delray Beach. He lost that race and decided to work behind the scenes forever after. He shrewdly organized the condo associations in the southwestern part of the county, parlaying this fractious group into a cohesive voting bloc and making himself a player.

When he realized wealthy farmers in the western part of the county held considerable power, he courted them, too. Over the years he's groomed many a protégé, both Republican and Democrat, in the "election campaign business," which he distinguishes from candidacy. Asked whom he groomed in the business of "developing issues, teaching issues, developing candidates," he says none of the names is well known.

Fladell relishes the spotlight. His office is plastered with newspaper clips calling him everything from "Prince Andre" to "Power Broker in a T-shirt." (New Times wrote an extensive profile of Fladell in December 1999 titled "Politics as Blood Sport." The first page of that clip, which describes his volleyball victory over muscled twentysomethings, hangs there on his wall. The following pages of the story, some of which are less complimentary, do not.)

He helped oust Florida Rep. Barry Silver, a Democrat and former friend, from political office in 1997. Silver was adamant about opposing some new development, and that, the former representative says, upset Fladell's developer friends. "When I spoke out on environmental matters, he changed his opinion of me rather quickly. He was friends with the people paving over Palm Beach County."

Nonsense, replies Fladell. "I am on the record for 20 years taking the strongest stand against developers in the history of this county. The difference between us is I don't think every developer is a bad guy."

Last year Fladell convinced Palm Beach County's school board that superintendent Joan Kowal should be fired for her autocratic management style. And he had the guts to go after the first black ever to sit on the Palm Beach County Commission, Maude Ford Lee. He claimed she's a racist and explained his move simply: "I detest racism." He lost that fight, at least for now, but not a bigger one: Newly elected U.S. Senator Bill Nelson benefited from Fladell's counsel and support to win a close victory November 7 in Florida.

All of this political fire comes from a man who sometimes blows a lot of smoke.

Shortly after his CNN appearances, Fladell professed to New Times that he owns only "three shirts with buttons on them." And the one he's been wearing on TV lately, that blue-and-white­checked number still out in the back of his car, "is about to stand up on its own."

But if he's wearing the same shirt over and over, it's not for lack of choice. He has four closets full of clothes at his 6000-square-foot bachelor pad. Most of his wardrobe, he contends, isn't appropriate for TV. "I have some incredible stuff, but not the kind of thing you would wear to a normal function. I have sequined football jerseys, crushed-velvet stuff, really out-there stuff, entertainment clothing, leather patch vests with things hanging from them." He also has a collection of bowling shirts with other people's names sewn on the pockets, security guard getups, even women's apparel. "You can go out and be somebody different," he says. "You can be different things, be lost in the crowd."

On November 11's TalkBack Live, which was taped at Palm Beach Atlantic College, Fladell played the indignant Everyman. He quickly seized control of an interview with host Bobbie Battista when he whipped out a sample ballot and the instructions mailed to Palm Beach County voters before the election. Then he invited a surprised Battista to try to vote for Pat Buchanan.

"How did I get on trial here?" she stammered after having trouble with the ballot. "How did I get on trial?"

Fladell nailed her. "How does it feel to be called confused? You know, you must be confused, because you couldn't follow the instructions approved by both parties on the sample ballot." Playing to the delighted crowd, he added, "I agree. She doesn't have common sense, apparently."  

His point: that Battista was just as confused as thousands of Palm Beach County voters, including the litigious Fladell, who claim to feel insulted by the Republican suggestion that they might not be too bright.

Palm Beach attorney J. Reeves Bright, a Republican who was also a guest on the show, is skeptical of Fladell's claimed screwup in the voting booth. "I've known Andre for 20 years," he told Battista and her CNN viewers. "It's the first time he's been confused. And I say to anybody who says, "I know I didn't vote for the right person': Why did you leave the voting booth?"

That's a good question.

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