Mike Smarro offers a smile as he takes drink orders from behind the bar at Georgie's Alibi on a sunny February afternoon. A handsome, muscular 36-year-old wearing a baseball cap and a stylish 5 o'clock shadow, Smarro has been finding the upcoming election hard to ignore.
Since the beginning of the year, campaign signs have littered the parking lot of the popular gay bar on Wilton Drive in Wilton Manors, advertising the mayoral candidacies of current Vice Mayor Scott Newton and political novice Joe Grano. Both men hope to succeed Jim Stork, the city' s current boyishly good-looking and widely popular mayor now making a run for U.S. Congress.
Newton and Grano have been walking neighborhoods regularly, talking to citizens about development, the future of the Wilton Manors Police Department, and what each man would do should he be elected. They've also squabbled a bit, with each candidate accusing the other of stealing signs or putting them up improperly. But so far, the two men have ignored what appears to be the big pink elephant standing outside City Hall.
Grano likes boys. Newton digs chicks.
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Wilton Manors, with an estimated 30 to 35 percent of its 12,775 citizens being gay, has created a political landscape that exists in the pink. In 2000, the city became the second in the nation to elect a majority-gay city council, following the landmark achievement by West Hollywood, California, in 1997. In 2002, Wilton Manors then became the first city in the nation to have an openly gay mayor succeeded by another openly gay mayor.
This year, the three candidates vying for City Council seats are all upfront about their sexual orientations. They're out and proud. In fact, Newton will be the only straight man on the March 9 Wilton Manors ballot.
So the situation begs the question: Despite having served as the city's vice mayor in a popular administration, does a married heterosexual with three kids even stand a chance of being elected in the queer Island City?
Smarro sets a Samuel Adams draft down on the bar and smirks, shaking his head slowly. "Whether he's gay or not doesn't have any effect on the way I'd vote," the Georgie's Alibi bartender says. "I think we're past that phase. We're not going to vote for a candidate because he's a cute boy. It's about the issues."
And, indeed, a number of issues are swirling around this small-town election. Early in the race, the city's gay powerbrokers, including Stork and Georgie's owner George Kessinger, backed Newton for the top job. Around the same time, Grano filed his papers to run. The candidate, who would be the third consecutive openly gay mayor in Wilton Manors, then neglected to mention a few mistakes from his past: a crack habit, a grand theft charge, and a litany of traffic offenses.
It's the latest political drama in a tiny town that has gone from redneck to gay in less than ten years. The rainbow renaissance in this small Broward municipality began in 1997, when Kessinger opened his airy gay bar in the Shoppes at Wilton Manors. It was a risky venture. Few gays lived in Wilton Manors at the time, preferring to rest their heads a few miles south in the downtown Fort Lauderdale enclave of Victoria Park.
But Georgie's Alibi caught on fast. "Gays started moving to Wilton Manors just to be closer to the Alibi," recalls Mike Mayberry, a Wilton Manors resident and political columnist for gay bar guide 411 Magazine. "If you now look at ads for roommates or rental properties, you'll notice that a selling feature is proximity to Georgie's. They'll mention that before central air."
Wilton Manors has changed significantly in the past decade. According to 2000 census data, same-sex partners head 13.9 percent of the city's households, compared to 6.5 percent in Key West and 5.1 percent in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, Wilton Manors is the fourth-gayest city in the United States, after Provincetown, Massachusetts; Guerneville, California; and West Hollywood.
The demographic shift to gay households has coincided with a considerable rise in property values, with average home values in Wilton Manors now 64 percent higher than they were in 1990.
The gay political transformation followed on the heels of the booming real estate market. In 1998, Gary Resnick won a City Council seat to join long-time Councilman John Fiore as an openly gay city official. During the next election, in 2000, Fiore became the city's first gay mayor, and the election that year of Craig Sherritt created a majority-gay City Council.
"I'm a humble man, so I won't take credit for the renaissance," says Georgie's owner Kessinger. "But, yeah, I believe we were part of it. Wilton Manors is much different now than it was when we first opened."
The political tide in the city has shifted so drastically that heterosexual candidates could be at a disadvantage. Although gays may not admit it, Mayberry says, they tend to have unspoken biases toward gay candidates. "The proof is in the people that file for office," he says, referring to the fact that four of the five candidates this year are openly gay.
For that reason, Newton, who owns an auto-upholstery business in Oakland Park, has catered to the gay voting block in order to portray himself as a gay-friendly candidate. Indeed, he held his fundraising party at Georgie's. "It's hard to say, 'Joe Grano's gay, so he's got an advantage,' " Newton says. "I have a lot of gay friends too, so why does that give him any advantage over me? I think you're narrow-minded if you look at the race that way."
That strategy appears to be working in Newton's favor, as Grano so far has played down the politics of sexual orientation. "I do not believe I have to be gay to be mayor of this city," the HIV-positive Grano says. "I'm a candidate for mayor who just so happens to be gay."
But that's a big mistake, says gay political columnist Mayberry. "If you were a Polish politician in Chicago," he says, "you would obviously go to a lot of Polish affairs and you would make sure that everyone knew you were Polish. It would solidify your ethnic base. It seems to me that Grano made a tactical error. He didn't solidify his gay base."
And Grano needs that base more than ever. The gay candidate's checkered past, which includes drug and grand theft charges that were later dismissed, has been dredged up. His last arrest was on May 12, 1997, when Grano rode his bicycle to 629 NE Fifth Ave. in Fort Lauderdale at 11:52 p.m. A Fort Lauderdale police officer stood in the parking lot, working undercover as a drug dealer in a sting operation.
"I need a dime piece," Grano reportedly told the undercover officer, referring to $10 worth of crack cocaine.
"I got that for you," the officer said, according to the police report, then showed him a piece of crack cocaine in a small baggie.
"I ain't never seen you here before," Grano said. "What are you, a cop?"
"I just moved here, and I've never seen you before, but money has no identity."
The undercover officer held out his hand, and Grano took the drugs. He then handed over $10. "Thanks, man," Grano said.
As Grano began to ride away, police officers arrested the future Wilton Manors mayoral candidate. Following Grano's rehabilitation, the judge dismissed the drug charge. He has cleaned up and now runs a successful real estate practice.
"I do not regret my past," Grano says. "I couldn't be here right now if I hadn't lived what I lived. The only reason I lived that way is because I didn't know what I didn't know. Today, I know. You've got to put one foot in front of the other. I'm now probably one of the cleanest, most upstanding citizens I know."
William Main, a lifelong Wilton Manors resident, supports Grano's candidacy despite his previous addiction. In fact, he and Grano have discussed it. "He's not trying to hide it," Main says. "Joe felt that the past can be overlooked with his willpower to do something good for the city. I said, 'If you're that strong, I think you should run.' "
But an addict turned mayoral candidate who fails to garner the gay community's support will need a lot more than strength to win the top job in Gayville.
Meet the candidates: The local gay media will host a forum for the Wilton Manors mayoral and City Council candidates at Hamburger Mary's, 2449 Wilton Dr., at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 25. New Times staff writer Trevor Aaronson will be the panel's token straight man.
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