Grumbling from the Grassroots
Tim Smith is a short, compact man with a quick boyish smile and the watchful, hungry look of a salesman prowling the front of a car lot. On Election Day last week, he arrived at his neighborhood polling place, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, promptly at 8:30 in the morning, hand in hand with his wife, Cindy. For an alert politician like Smith, it didn't take more than a split second to size up the scene. There wasn't another voter in sight. After four months of pounding away about his "vision" for Fort Lauderdale in a mayoral campaign billed as the first serious challenge to Mayor Jim Naugle in 12 years, the voters were staying away in droves.
Judy O'Bea, a Smith volunteer, sat in front of the polling place holding a placard. Both O'Bea and her husky, Timber, sported "Smith for Mayor" T-shirts. Smith bent over to hug O'Bea, and Timber, lolling next to her on the asphalt, let out a long groan.
"Ah, a supporter," Smith said.
"No," another placard holder said, "you stepped on his foot."
As the old saying goes, he shoulda stayed in bed. This was not to be Smith's day. Outflanked by the crafty Naugle, who succeeded in framing the mayoral race as almost exclusively a referendum on Smith's support for various downtown development projects and strapped by a well-intentioned decision to limit political contributions to $25, Smith's campaign unraveled before his eyes.
Had you listened closely, you could have heard it in the early-morning chatter of the overcaffeinated political operatives who gathered in front of the schools and community centers where people voted. They hungrily sized up the passing crowd -- or, rather, the passing trickle -- and they compared notes. Like politicians everywhere assigned the nearly impossible task of packing large numbers of warm bodies into the polling booths, they talked to one another in harshly pragmatic, even crude, terms.
Rixon Rafter, a Smith supporter who's president of a neighborhood association in the Victoria Park section of the city, greeted Smith in front of one polling place with a scowl, describing an encounter a few minutes earlier with a well-known activist. "He's pissed at you," said Rafter, his shirt a vibrating pattern of stars and stripes. "So I said, 'It's not going to affect the way you vote, is it?' and he said, 'As a matter of fact, yes; I'm voting for Jim.'" Rafter snorted dismissively. "I said, 'Get out of here, you asshole.'"
In front of Virginia S. Young Elementary School, where the voting seemed to be heavier than elsewhere, the pols huddled in tight groups, talking to one another in low voices while smiling sweetly at the passing voters. A woman from Mark Ketcham's campaign for city commissioner from District 2 grumbled about one of her competitors. "I could have kicked the shit out of him," she says. "I'm talking to this nice little Haitian guy, who wants to know what party the candidates are from. I said, 'It's a nonpartisan race, so we don't put party affiliation on the ballot.' So one of [Dean] Trantalis' guys says, 'He might want to know that your candidate is a Republican.'" (Ketcham was eventually edged out of the runoff by Trantalis and Jon Albee.)
Party affiliation might have been an issue in the Naugle-Smith race; Smith drummed away at Naugle's fragile commitment to the Democratic Party. Naugle is a registered Democrat, but he co-chaired George W. Bush's presidential campaign in Broward County, supported Jeb Bush for governor, and campaigned for every Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon. Smith did his best to point out these facts to the voters.
One of Smith's biggest assets, though, was his stand on gay rights. He pounded away at Naugle's openly stated belief that homosexuality is a sin (regularly citing an October 2000 New Times interview with the mayor), and gay activists flocked to Smith's campaign. But it wasn't enough -- even for some gay voters. Back at Smith headquarters on Federal Highway, one of Smith's operatives complained bitterly to the candidate about a gay-rights advocate who was apparently defecting: "He said, 'I'm going to vote for Naugle because he's not afraid to admit what a homophobe he is.'"
Even on Election Day, though, the development issue wouldn't go away. A woman approached Smith to ask about the controversial Hyde Park Market site on Las Olas Boulevard, where voters approved a park but where developers are determined to build condo towers. The project has been in litigation for three years. "I don't know," the woman says. "On every piece of open space on Las Olas, it's build, build, build." Smith, who said he wanted to talk about other issues, like crime control and green space, looked depressed.
Around 10 a.m., Ron Gunzburger, a veteran political consultant who wasn't working for either mayoral candidate, came out of Young Elementary, where he cast his vote. Who would be the winner? Gunzburger gave a worldly little shrug. "Eh, I'd say Naugle, maybe 55 percent to 44 percent," he said without hesitation.
It was in the air, a drumbeat saying: Smith is going down.
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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