Snake Bit

Fred Harper

You need some powerful fog lights to navigate the political landscape in Hollywood these days. Direction is fleeting, and suspicion reigns among those who want to unseat Mayor Mara Giulianti in the March election. The would-be usurpers of the crown seem to trust one another less than they do Giulianti, especially since their long-time trusted leader has seemingly defected to the wrong side.

At stake are the past and future of Broward County's second-largest city, along with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of controversial developments. The opposition has a built-in rallying point: saving the Great Southern Hotel, built by city founder Joseph Young in 1924. The mayor's gang intends to put a 15-story condo on top of the historic inn. The anti-Giulianti crowd is also focusing on the giveaway of tens of millions of tax dollars to developers and the mayor's reliance on omnipresent lobbyists Alan Koslow and Bernie Friedman.

So far, the only candidate running against Giulianti is Jerry Mintz. Mintz, however, doesn't have the trust of the trustless natives yet, especially since he's a major developer in Hollywood himself and a former Giulianti supporter. Some wonder if he's a straw candidate, propped up by the incumbent to dilute the vote. Others question whether Mintz, who owns much of Harrison Street in downtown and has benefited from millions of dollars in incentives from the city, could serve without conflicts of interest. It's dangerous to trust either a developer or a political candidate, and Mintz happens to be a hazardous hybrid of the two. Yet I believe he's generally on the up-and-up and wrote as much a couple of weeks ago [see "Mayor Mintz," July 17]. Shortly after that column was published, word reached me that Mintz was talking about dropping out of the race.

I called him.

"I'm currently in the race and have made no decision," Mintz told me rather wanly.

Mintz, a hard-driving businessman who seems passionate about the city, was faltering. The former Israeli paratrooper wouldn't tell me why his political feet had cooled, but the rumor -- and so much in Hollywood is communicated only in rumors and their echoes -- is that Mintz suspects that John Coleman, a former city commissioner who has been the standard-bearer of the anti-Giulianti crowd for the past half-dozen years, will enter the race at a late date.

I asked Coleman, a director of the environmental group Save Our Shoreline (SOS), about that possibility. "Jerry says that to me all the time -- he says I'm going to step in the race and mess it up for everybody," Coleman said. "I just laugh at him and say, 'That's funny -- I heard the same rumor.' In Hollywood, people are always whispering paranoia in your ear. Jerry is new at this business, so he has to sort it out."

Coleman, who won 40 percent of the vote when he lost to Giulianti in 1998 and 2000, said he had no plans to enter the race. But he wouldn't rule it out. "I want to work on other things now," intoned Coleman, who has publicly supported Mintz's candidacy. "It's not my intention to run, and I've told everybody that Jerry Mintz is a good guy. I gave Jerry all my names, addresses, and phone numbers, and he has called them. If I was going to do what people are afraid I'm going to do, would I have given him that?"

Mintz and Coleman make strange political mates. In 1998, Mintz campaigned heartily against Coleman when he ran against Giulianti, and the pair have publicly feuded about a number of issues in the past. Now, almost poetically, the two men have traded places. The developer, Mintz, is now courting the activists, while the activist, Coleman, has been courting developers. And that has transformed the former commissioner, who served from 1998 through 2000, into political poison.


"John Coleman shot hisself in the foot," says Southern-fried Pete Brewer, a long-time activist and City Hall fixture who has enthusiastically campaigned for Coleman in the past. "I have lost all respect for the man."

"I think he's lost his base of support," adds Estelle Lowenstein, an official with the Hollywood Historical Society who allied herself with Coleman when she ran for commissioner in 1998.

"I don't think John is a viable candidate anymore," chimes in fellow beach activist Steve Welsch, who served until a couple of months ago on the SOS board with Coleman. "I think he's burned his own bridges. He's made some mistakes, and people don't forget in this city."

Novelist Pete Dexter wrote that "one thing is true, when a poison snake bites you, you're poison too." The viper that got Coleman was controversial developer Michael Swerdlow, who is best-known for selling a piece of land to Broward County at $60 million over the appraised value.

Several county commissioners lost their jobs thanks to Swerdlow -- and Coleman is also paying a steep price for the association. Coleman is the dark priest responsible for the unholy marriage between International Swimming Hall of Fame Director Sam Freas and Swerdlow. Coleman introduced the pair in 2001 and then began pushing to bring the hall to Hollywood. The idea of an Olympic-sized swimming pool didn't really bother anyone too much, but the accompanying two high-rise condos that Swerdlow planned to build on the beach caused a bit of an uproar.

After initially approving the plan, the city ultimately thought better of it and killed the deal. Coleman is still rankled. "What better developer than Michael Swerdlow?" he said unapologetically. "Swerdlow owns half the city. He's the biggest taxpayer in the city. I was behind it because I believed in it."

Others suspect he believed in the green paper that came along with it. Swerdlow paid him a still-unspecified amount of money for his help in pushing the plan. "He paid me gas money and cleaning bills," Coleman insisted, while refusing to give the amount. "I didn't even want to get paid. Swerdlow said, 'I need you around for a few months until we get over the hump. I need you to help make this work. How much do you want?'

"It wasn't anything like what people talked about. I heard that I got $1 million. Another person said I got half a million. They lied behind my back. But none of these little baggers thought about giving children a place to swim."

Those little baggers, unfortunately, happened to be Coleman's political bread and butter. After Hollywood fell through, Swerdlow and Freas took the plan to Pompano Beach, where former Mayor Bill Griffin pushed hard for it. Then it was learned that Swerdlow had helped Griffin land a job with a construction company that was bidding to build the swimming hall. The Miami Herald cited that scandal (which, this columnist adds immodestly, was first exposed in New Times) as the chief reason Griffin lost his re-election bid this past March. Perhaps Coleman should get out of the matchmaking game.

Coleman's ties to Swerdlow alone were enough to destroy his credibility as a defender of the barrier island. But a new injection of venom came a couple of months ago. In January, Coleman's SOS group sued the city and Broward County over another development on the beach, a giant 38-story condo project called Island Palms. The suit was filed by Coleman's long-time companion, Brenda Chalifour, a lawyer who runs SOS out of the high-rise condo the couple shares on the beach.

The commission approved Island Palms to have far more units than allowed by city and county law, Chalifour alleged. She also wrote that the Palms would impede evacuation efforts in a hurricane, "lead to increased air and noise pollution, traffic congestion, over-burdened infrastructure," and "chip away at the very fabric of our landscape."

On May 15, 2003, those concerns apparently evaporated. Chalifour withdrew her lawsuit after settling out of court with the Palms developer, whose attorneys at Gunster, Yoakley, & Stewart didn't return my calls. While suspicion abounds that they sold out to the developer for big money, neither Coleman nor Chalifour would discuss the settlement. "You'll have to ask Brenda about that," Coleman told me.

"I will not comment on that at all," said Chalifour, a hard-driving environmentalist who is also challenging the proposed expansion of the Hollywood-Fort Lauderdale International Airport. "That is sealed."

Has she ever profited from SOS, which accepts contributions from members? "Not a dime; not a penny," she said.

Chalifour, who was out of town last week, said she takes no salary from SOS, and the nonprofit group's 501c3 tax-exemption form listed no settlement amount. "We have followed the law to the letter," she said of reporting requirements. "We have met the threshold."

Coleman was equally defensive. "I've never received a dime from Save Our Shoreline, and for ten years, I've put in all kinds of time to save North Beach Park," he said. "They never helped save the shoreline, these goddamned detractors. They are sitting on the sideline yapping together on the phone."

Perhaps, but they also vote, and most don't ever want to cast a ballot for Coleman again. Yet some inevitably would, and that is why Coleman's jumping into the race would be the political equivalent of a murder-suicide. The opposition would be split between Coleman and Mintz, and Giulianti would surely pop the champagne on a Tuesday night in March.

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