Virgil Bolden loves to sit at a small round table under an old oak tree in the front yard of his home in the 1500 block of NW Fourth Street in Fort Lauderdale, wearing coveralls and watching the action.
Most days the action is slow. Neighborhood children wander up and talk to Bolden, a graying, round-faced man, who treats them kindly.
By the standards of the low-income minority neighborhood south of Sistrunk Boulevard, Bolden is affluent. He lives in a house that rises to two stories on one wing and presents four white columns to visitors approaching the entrance from the street. At least one and sometimes two Mercedes are often parked out front. Bolden also owns several nearby properties: a couple vacant lots as well as a lot with an empty but tidy structure that predates other homes in the neighborhood. Those properties have brought him trouble with his neighbor up the street, Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Carlton Moore.
About a year ago, Moore arrived at Bolden's door and asked him to sell his properties to the city. According to Bolden, Moore wanted the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) to buy the properties, then make improvements. Moore also indicated he had friends who would then buy the improved properties. The CRA uses tax dollars to buy and improve blighted properties in a two-square-mile section of Fort Lauderdale.
"My property is in good shape; there was nothing wrong with it," Bolden says. When Bolden refused to sell because Moore offered less than he wanted, he says Moore lost his temper. He threatened to "get after me, put some pressure on me until I said I'd sell." Moore made good on the threat, too. Soon after, city code officials began to question Bolden about his home and his properties.
One day, Bolden says, his wife, Rose, confronted the code officials, who were going to cite the Boldens for allowing tree limbs to accumulate behind a fence on their property. Tired of the harassment, she lost her temper, and a fight broke out. The Boldens were arrested, she hurt her shoulder, and Virgil went to jail, where he remained for three days. Later, charges against the Boldens were dropped.
Bolden was so upset that until recently he has complained about Moore to anybody within earshot. He told neighborhood friends. He told long-time community activist Leola McCoy. He also told New Times. But when the paper asked him again last week about his problems with Moore, Bolden changed his tune and backed away from the story.
Now he says he's patched things up with the commissioner. "Carlton came to me, and we're doing something together on a lot I own over here" -- he nods his head vaguely up the street -- "so I got no more need" to tell that story, he says.
Bolden's tale is the sort that could dog Moore, who may have reached a crossroads in his 12-year political career, a crucial point when image and reputation will play a key role in Moore's future. Already a powerful figure in his district, Moore has the ambition to extend his reach, some friends and critics say. They predict the 47-year-old career politician will take his inimitable style of fiery rhetoric and occasional grandstanding into a fall fight for the highest political stakes of his life -- a seat as county commissioner from a newly drawn single-member district with a majority of black voters.
Moore has nothing to say on the subject and did not return repeated telephone calls to ask him about his political plans. But his critics are not reticent.
A small, energetic woman who has opposed Moore on many occasions, McCoy saw Bolden's tale as evidence of how the commissioner uses his political clout. "This is how Moore does things, and if he represents us to the county, that won't stop," McCoy says.
Moore's friends say his is the single most energetic voice for poor blacks, who have traditionally been excluded from the economic boom in Fort Lauderdale.
But critics such as McCoy point out that Moore has traditionally used his influence and position to acquire benefits for himself and his friends, family members, or employers -- they say money would be a motivation for his county commission run. As county commissioner in a local government with a $2.2 billion budget, Moore would wield far more power and influence than in his current political job in a city with a $300 million budget. His public-office salary would jump from about $20,000 to about $80,000.
"This is his big chance," says McCoy. "[So] he's trying to repair his bridges; he wants to keep his head down and look good."
Others say Moore may have too much baggage, too much of a reputation for self-interest to overcome this time around. "People on the street agree he's an excellent platform speaker, he's great on his feet, he's fast, he's witty, he's smooth and slick," explains Keith Clayborne, publisher of the Broward Times and a long-time observer of politics in the minority community. "But they'll also tell you he has a character flaw -- he's always wanted to be a millionaire."
In other words, explains Clayborne, Moore operates as a political lobbyist for personal and business contacts. "He may have to sit this one out, mend his fences, and show there's a different Carlton Moore," says Clayborne. "But a [county commission] seat will be open again, and he could run in the next election."
Although Moore may be trying to smooth rifts with the likes of Bolden, he's finding himself mired in controversy arising from his city commission job. Polishing his image to lessen his reputation as a wheeler-dealer who first helps himself and those close to him could be a challenge.
Moore works privately as a vice president of McKinley Financial Services, a black-owned business that recently sought a federal Enterprise Zone loan of more than $200,000. Moore lobbied fellow commissioners to approve the low-interest loan. He also pushed hard for a similar loan of more than $120,000 for his sister-in-law, Dr. Carmen Shirley. Shirley presented her plan to renovate and improve her father's medical office on NW 22nd Road to city staff officials, who recommended that the commission accept the plan, which they did. Moore refused to abstain from voting for the Shirley loan when questioned by other commissioners.
At Moore's strong urging, city staffers also recommended that a loan application by another private investor, Courtney Case, be denied.
After a storm of controversy and an initial denial of Case's request for Enterprise Zone money to help build a business on Sunrise Boulevard, city officials last week agreed, over the strong criticism of Moore.
Moore said the money could be better used in areas that need business development more desperately, which was why he voted to provide low-interest loans to his sister-in-law and has lobbied for a loan to his boss, Jim McKinley.
That wasn't how he felt in 1993, however, when he and two partners opened a Blockbuster video store in a Sunrise Boulevard plaza. Moore won the franchise from Wayne Huizenga's company just before he voted for a controversial development project in which Huizenga carried a prominent interest. The city commissioner made much of the notion that his business would bring jobs and increase the tax base of a blighted area along Sunrise.
At the time Moore even promised to return 5 percent of his earnings in donations to help improve the neighborhood, but that never happened. Three years later, in 1996, Moore's Blockbuster failed, one of the only such failures in the video-rental company's history.
Meanwhile Moore's commission vote three weeks ago for a low-interest loan to his relative traveled the thin ice of Florida conflict-of-interest laws. Those laws appear to exclude sisters-in-law from the list of relatives who cannot receive public benefits sought by officials who are relatives. Fathers-in-law are not excluded from that list, however. Last winter the Shirleys transferred ownership of the property from Moore's father-in-law to his sister-in-law.
The commissioner's vote to bring low-interest city loans to his relatives also skirted the edge of federal laws determining how such money, which arrives in part from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, may be dispensed.
The federal regulations state that elected officials are prohibited from voting to promote a benefit from federal money "either for themselves or those with whom they have business or immediate family ties."
Seated under the old oak tree in front of his house, Virgil Bolden offers only two words to describe Moore's maneuvers to get his property and obtain city loans for a sister-in-law and employer: "just politics."
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Eastward down his street and over the roof of Carlton Moore's house appear the downtown high-rises that provide the most visual sign of Fort Lauderdale's booming growth. They also stand as a promise of big development to come.
So far, little of that boom has reached the low-income black community that surrounds Bolden's neighborhood, a fact which some blame on Moore. But not Bolden, not anymore: "I'm sorry, I'm trying to do business with the man."
Contact Roger Williams at his e-mail address: