Jesse Gaddis has been a gambler since his grade school days in Indiana, when he shot craps and played poker in a pool hall. For much of his early adult life, he was a professional cardsharp on merchant marine ships and anywhere else he could get a game. In 1960, when he was 28 years old, Gaddis made his way to Fort Lauderdale, where he continued to wager, but on politicians rather than cards. And he has won big during the past 40 years, building his Yellow Cab Company into a dominant force that controls three-quarters of Broward County's taxis.
Gaddis lost in historic fashion Tuesday, however, and he can blame it on a couple of bad recent bets. The Broward County Commission agreed to break up a taxi monopoly at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport that Gaddis has held for 26 years. The surprise unanimous vote was orchestrated by Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion, whose successful motion to open the airport taxi concession to all Broward cabs was vigorously supported by Commissioner Ben Graber. Eggelletion and Graber won their commission seats last year by defeating, respectively, Gaddis favorites Carlton Moore and Norman Abramowitz. Usually an astute political player, Gaddis also underestimated taxi driver Gerlyn Cadet, a Haitian immigrant who organized Yellow Cab drivers and lobbied hard to open the airport to competition.
Gaddis took the vote with a poker face. "I won't lose any sleep over this," he said after watching the commission meeting on television in his Fort Lauderdale office. He pointed out that the vote is only the beginning of the debate. A special committee must now hammer out the details of a new taxi system at the airport and receive bids from private management companies that will vie to administer the system. While Gaddis told New Times before the vote that there was "no way" he would bid to run the system if the airport were open to all cabs, he now says he would consider it. "It's going to a committee, and that's where the decisions are going to be made," he concludes.
But even as he downplayed the defeat, Gaddis acknowledged that airport competition would surely take some economic steam from the cab company that he began 41 years ago with his brother Donald (who was murdered while smuggling drugs in 1978). Starting with a service station and 13 cabs, Gaddis has mixed shrewd business skills with a penchant for handicapping political campaigns to develop a stranglehold on the local cab industry. He now controls 545 of the county's 745 taxi permits.
Gaddis has also helped start and has bankrolled the careers of several local political stars, including two of Broward's most prominent officials, commission chairman John Rodstrom and Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne. While Gaddis doesn't like to talk about his campaign contributions, he concedes that he has doled out more than $1 million to candidates over the years and doesn't deny it might be twice that. "You can't be a businessman without getting involved in politics," he explains. "And a politician can't get elected in Broward County without a lot of money."
Last year Gaddis, his family, and his business interests gave at least $8000 to Moore and Abramowitz collectively. He contributed nothing to Eggelletion and Graber, two former state representatives who say their push to end the airport monopoly wasn't about political payback. "This has nothing to do with revenge," Graber says. "I would be doing this even if Gaddis had contributed to my campaign."
The genesis of Tuesday's vote may have been in last year's redistricting, which added two seats to the commission in an effort to bring more racial and ethnic diversity to its membership. Eggelletion ran against Moore (now a Fort Lauderdale city commissioner) in the new District 9, which includes the heavily black area of northwest Fort Lauderdale. During the race Eggelletion criticized Moore for his close relationship with Gaddis and vowed to try to end Yellow Cab's monopoly.
Eggelletion's success Tuesday was the culmination of some deft political footwork by the freshman commissioner. It was particularly unexpected because the commission had voted unanimously May 1 to preserve Gaddis's control of the airport, in effect. Though that vote would have allowed other companies to submit proposals to replace Yellow Cab, only Gaddis's operation met the necessary qualifications. (The May 1 vote came after a long and contentious debate on another issue, Eggelletion says, and he didn't realize the implications at the time.)
Last week Eggelletion began working with airport staff to design a new open system. Airport managers, including county aviation director Bill Sherry, were on record against opening the airport to competition, asserting Yellow Cab runs an efficient and cost-effective operation there. The airport made $363,000 on the deal last year, and Yellow Cab has done a good job, county officials say. Opening the airport to others would likely cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars and reduce the level of service, the officials argued.
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Eggelletion doesn't buy that argument. "I don't agree with those numbers," he says. "Dade County made far more than we did in revenues on their system. What you have is an airport in Broward County that doesn't want to take on the responsibility of a modern system. They are saying they can't do it. I'm saying, "Hell, everybody else can do it; why can't we?'"
Just before Eggelletion introduced his motion Tuesday, he spoke briefly with Cadet, the leader of a large group of Haitian drivers who contract with Yellow Cab and have been complaining for years that Gaddis is a tyrannical boss. Cadet and Eggelletion joined forces during last year's campaign, and Cadet has recently been lobbying other commissioners on the airport issue. Cadet says the monopoly has forced him and hundreds of other drivers to accept unfair contracts with Gaddis. They claim to work long hours for little pay and argue that the county's deal with Yellow Cab -- which remains in effect through December -- makes it extremely difficult to start a business that could compete with Gaddis's.
Gaddis counters that Cadet and his fellow Haitians waste their time at the airport rather than taking advantage of Yellow Cab's unparalleled countywide dispatch service. "They just want to take their bedrolls and dominoes out to the airport and wait in line an hour or two to get a ride," Gaddis complains. "I'm not the source of their unhappiness; I'm just a symbol that they've come up with.... I represent some type of oppression. I want to have a good relationship with my drivers. Do you think I like it that they hate me?"
Though he may not be able to run all the taxis at the airport after his contract runs out, Gaddis asserts that his company will still be the biggest game in town. And sounding like a poker player with a good hand, he predicts drivers who leave his company will return sooner or later to take advantage of his dispatch system. "I won't have to pay the county $400,000 a year, and I won't have to pay for the dispatchers at the airport anymore," he says, as if he's relieved at the vote. "Hell, I won't have to pay anything."