Members of the "Mitch Ceasar Mob" earn a steady paycheck for their political influence
In Democratic Party circles in Broward County, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Ask Norma Goldstein, a local Democratic Party official who works as a county-paid aide for scandal-ridden Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter.
"I'm not involved with them, and I don't want to be involved in them," Goldstein said of the scandals during a phone call last week. "I'm only involved with Stacy. You have to know Stacy, because it's to love her. I don't even read the papers anymore. I don't want to know. I don't believe in it. I believe in Stacy."
Goldstein exhibits the "see no evil" approach to politics. Some might even liken it to omerta, the Mafia's code of silence. If you never talk about Ritter's conflicts of interest involving her lobbyist/husband, Russell Klenet, it's as if they don't exist.
The state is investigating Ritter for numerous alleged campaign violations. And Ritter's Parkland home was renovated with $100,000 paid by politically connected fraud artist Joel Steinger. But those aren't the kind of things discussed by her supporters.
Such willful ignorance is crucial to keep the dominant Democratic Party machine going in Broward County, where elderly condo voters hold sway, not state and federal investigators and certainly not the media.
The dark heart of the machine lies in the Kings Point condos in Tamarac, where about 12,000 senior citizens live — and vote. It's part of a condo kingdom that includes other giant voting blocs like Wynmoor and Century Village. It is places like these that political coercion has been honed to a fine and friendly craft. It is also where Ritter is queen, cash is king, and bagels... well, they can only help.
The party leaders — even seemingly small fish like Norma Goldstein — have instituted a veritable pay-to-play system in the county. Want to win office as a Democratic candidate? You better pay someone. And in Goldstein's case, the payments are now being made by Broward County taxpayers at Ritter's order.
The cabal of insiders even has an unofficial name: the "Mitch Ceasar Mob," after the longtime leader of Broward's Democratic Party. Only the soldiers in this mob aren't young thugs but mostly little old ladies.
One of them is Goldstein, who lives in Kings Point and serves as a member of Ceasar's Democratic Executive Committee. She's also entertainment chairwoman at Kings Point as well as president of the 64-unit building in which she lives. Upon meeting her, you'd never suspect she was a political profiteer and facilitator for dirty politicians.
No, she's just a 76-year-old retiree from New York with frizzy orange hair and a voice reminiscent of George Castanza's mother on Seinfeld. In New York, Goldstein worked in ad sales at the Queens Forum community newspaper and once worked for a New York state senator named Jeremy Weinstein.
After coming here in 1995, she says she immediately became involved in Democratic politics and soon joined forces with Ritter. It was only fate. Kings Point took Ritter under its wing when she initially ran for office in 1996, says resident Joe Schreiber, who is the former mayor of Tamarac.
"I introduced Stacy around and helped get her into office," says Schreiber. "Once she was in office, she married Russ Klenet, a lobbyist. And she started working for him instead of for us. I just don't think she's honest. But people here don't care. They look at her and imagine her as their daughter. The only thing that is going to clean this up is the FBI."
Ritter first paid Goldstein in 2002, giving her $200 out of her campaign account for help in throwing a "thank you party," according to state campaign records. Goldstein says she had a "brainstorm" several years ago to hold the luncheons for candidates.
"People would call me and say, 'Norma, I don't know who to vote for,' " she recalls. "And candidates would call me and tell me they wanted to do a luncheon, and I decided to help them. I don't endorse them — I just get the people out to the luncheon so they can hear them and make up their own minds. It's a favor I'm doing for the candidate and the community."
But she gets paid, right?
"Not all the time. It depends on how I feel," she says. "It's a lot of work involved. Some candidate wanted to give me something years back, and I figured, 'Hey, with all my work, it's a good thing.' "
She apparently felt like taking the money from numerous politicians during the past several years. The list includes Clerk of Court Howard Forman and Circuit Court judges Renee Goldenberg and Steven Feren, among others.
That's right, even our judges are involved in these political shenanigans, which shouldn't be surprising if you follow the courthouse. Pedro Dijols, a former judge, presented Goldstein with a $200 tribute out of his campaign last year. Unfortunately for Dijols, his opponent, Bernie Bober, paid another Democratic Party official, Jack Shifrel, a whopping $10,500, most of it for "consulting." Bober won.
In the case of Ritter, Goldstein has taken a whole lot more than just a couple of hundred bucks. In 2006, when Ritter first ran for County Commission, she upped the ante for Goldstein, paying her $2,381 for undefined "campaign services" and more than $300 extra for various reimbursements. Not a bad payoff.
Ritter paid Goldstein $9,000 in a seven-month period last year, all for "campaign consulting." Forget that Goldstein isn't a professional campaign consultant. Even Goldstein admitted she did no consulting.
"I gave out fliers," she says. "I walked with her. Uh, let's see, what else did I do? I guess I did everything you would want me to do."
When I asked if she believed she'd earned the $11,500 that state records show she's been paid by Ritter, she audibly gasped.
"You're saying I made $11,000? No way," Goldstein said. "I'm almost sure I was never paid that much. I don't even know what I made, but that doesn't sound right."
No, it doesn't sound right. That's way too much money for passing out fliers and walking around with someone. Wrong as it is, the practice appears to be legal, and the Democratic Party has no rule against its officials taking money from candidates. Now, though, the mayor has taken it a step further and put Goldstein on the county payroll.
That's right: Now the people of Broward County are footing the bill.
Goldstein confirmed that she's working part-time in Ritter's district office in Coral Springs, where she puts in 18 hours a week. At $20 an hour, that comes to $360 a week. So what does she do to earn that money?
"I coordinate her speaking engagements. That's my job," she says. "I call all the clubs. I set up times for her to speak. There's no politicking involved, just updating the community. I love Stacy in spite of all that is going on, which I can't believe."
So her sole job is to line up Ritter for speeches. That's sounds heavily political, if not outright campaigning. But Goldstein calls it "updating the community" and "education." We're not sure what Ritter calls it. Her office asked for written questions, and she hadn't responded by presstime.
The hiring of Goldstein by Ritter on the public dime is an example of the Ceasar Mob mentality at its worst. And it's an example of the mayor's sheer arrogance. But no wonder she's arrogant: She has an army of condo dwellers who refuse to acknowledge her wrongdoing.
Goldstein isn't the only profiteer; in fact, she's not even a prominent member of the Ceasar Mob. If Goldstein is a soldier, then the aforementioned Shifrel, another member of the county's Democratic Executive Committee, is a capo.
State campaign records show that Shifrel, who has called himself both a lobbyist and a political activist (nice combo, huh?), has pulled in $30,000 since 2000 from a dozen politicians running for state office alone. In 2006, Ritter joined in and tithed Shifrel $1,500 for her County Commission race.
He's a political jack-of-all-trades, not only providing political "consultation" but also selling political T-shirts, lapel stickers, and fingernail files, otherwise known as "tchotchkes." Where there's a buck to be made off his influence in the party and friendship with Ceasar, Shifrel will be there.
And if you think it's about political ideals, think again. Back in 1996, Shifrel took $2,500 from Big Sugar, which isn't exactly known as a great friend of the Democratic Party — especially its environmental wing.
Another Ritter favorite is Diane Glasser, underboss of the Ceasar Mob and Broward's longtime Democratic state and national committeewoman. Last year, Glasser was a superdelegate at the Democratic Convention. She's also a veteran political hustler and profiteer. A quick look at state races shows that she and her daughter, Lori Glasser, have taken in nearly $60,000 from candidates since 2000. That's a lot of tchotchkes.
She and her daughter have also collected money from city and county candidates, including Ritter, who paid Diane Glasser $1,500 in 2006. In addition to that, Ritter was one of Glasser's great benefactors when she was in the state Legislature, paying Lori Glasser and her company, Glasser Enterprises, $13,100 from 2000 to 2002.
You getting the picture? So long as you pay your protection money to the Ceasar Mob, you don't get any troubles from them. And you might just pick up a few hundred extra votes in Kings Point, especially if you don't forget the bagels (campaign records show that Ritter spent more than $1,300 at Westside Bagels to feed the ever-hungry condo community).
When Goldstein told me she was close to Glasser and considered her a good friend, I began listing some candidates who had paid her money.
"Stop," said Goldstein. "Don't tell me that. I don't want to know."
And the political wheels roll on at Kings Point, which is none the wiser.
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