Tall and skinny, Dan Lewis wears a blue oxford and khakis as he walks down Himmarshee Street on a recent afternoon. He's still upset about Fort Lauderdale's July 4 fireworks presentation. "Lauderdale-by-the-Sea put on a better show than Fort Lauderdale," Lewis says disgustedly. "Anything to save money these days."
The lackluster fireworks display is just the latest in a litany of complaints Lewis has about Fort Lauderdale and its dire financial problems. It's also something tangible that Lewis can use to criticize the city's mayor of 14 years, Jim Naugle. You see, Lewis, 56, a former Miramar commissioner who has spent the past five years as a behind-the-scenes political operative, is running for Fort Lauderdale's top job.
He's a peculiar candidate: a Connecticut native and married father of four, the operator of a string of technology companies in South Florida. Once an idealistic city commissioner in Miramar who rarely sided with his colleagues, Lewis has developed a reputation as a smooth operator who can maneuver with even the most reptilian politicos. In recent years, he's played behind-the-scenes roles in some of the most contentious campaigns in Broward County.
But since leaving the Miramar City Commission in 1997, Lewis has dodged complaints of unethical behavior, moved to Fort Lauderdale, and refashioned himself as the go-to techie for Broward's political machines, both Democratic and Republican. Lewis' company, Strategic Technologies & Research, analyzes voter data for local political campaigns. Lewis is also an old-fashioned wheeler-dealer, an operative who most recently ran a campaign to oppose the slot machine referendum in Broward and Miami-Dade counties -- but not before offering his services to the gambling industry for a cool $214,000.
"I'm not what most people think," Lewis says. "Some people will say that I'm an angel that walks on water. Others will say that I'm the demon seed. I'm neither. Have I made mistakes? Sure; I'm human. But I also think I'm the most qualified man willing to run for mayor in Fort Lauderdale."
Told about Lewis' candidacy in America's Venice, Miramar resident Sherry Abdin gasped, "Oh, God help us." Six years ago, Abdin, a community activist in Miramar, tried to persuade the Broward State Attorney's Office to bring criminal charges against Lewis for mixing public interests and personal profits. "Dan Lewis was the puppet master of Miramar," Abdin contends.
During Lewis' eight-year commission career in Miramar, he established a reputation as a maverick, someone willing to speak forcefully even when on the short end of a 4-1 vote. It wasn't until Lewis stepped down in 1997 that he finally got a measure of real political power. That year, he ran the winning commission campaigns of Sandy Enos, Jim Cundiff, and Kevin Fernander. From then on, instead of sitting on the dais, Lewis took a chair in a rear conference room at commission meetings. Enos, Cundiff, and Fernander would regularly excuse themselves during meetings, one by one, and confer privately with Lewis, according to a state ethics report. Lori Cohen Moseley, a commissioner at the time who is now mayor, told state investigators that there was a widespread perception that Lewis controlled the vote in Miramar.
Indeed, there was a lot of money to be made in the southwestern Broward city in 1997. Intent on building a new government complex, the city of Miramar was negotiating to buy a 12-acre tract of land from Harold Dubner for $11 million. The greatest supporters of the deal happened to be Lewis' allies, Enos, Cundiff, and Fernander. Around the same time, Lewis became a paid consultant for Dubner, earning $5,000 per month, though Florida law prohibits former elected officials from lobbying their governmental body within two years of holding office.
After finding out about Lewis' consulting contract, Abdin filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics. The state agency eventually ruled that it could not prove that he lobbied the three commissioners during private conversations. Still, the $11 million land deal fell apart, and Enos resigned after allegations that he traveled to Las Vegas with Dubner and sold insurance to the landowner.
Two years later, Lewis' power in Miramar faded. Moseley defeated Cundiff for mayor following a nasty campaign in which Moseley charged that Cundiff was a puppet for Lewis.
After the defeat, Lewis and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, buying a $305,000 home in Victoria Park. Lewis' political maneuvering continued. He sold his computer services to dozens of South Florida politicos and in 2000 aligned himself with Broward Citizens for Good Government, a political action committee that helped defeat a referendum to create a strong county mayor.
Despite the PAC's virtuous name, Lewis' campaigns aren't always idealistic. Last December, he e-mailed Dan Adkins, general manager of the Hollywood Greyhound Race Track, asking for $214,000 to join the pro-slots campaign. When Adkins declined, Lewis became head of an antislots organization called Remember the Lottery. He sent e-mails and fliers urging residents of Broward and Miami-Dade counties to vote against the March referendum.
"The whole thing didn't pass the smell test," remembers political consultant and long-time Lewis enemy Judy Stern.
In 2003, SunCruz, the gambling-boat company that stood the most to lose by slot machines in South Florida, had hired Lewis to lobby the county for dock space at Port Everglades. Remember the Lottery, however, was neither incorporated nor registered as a PAC in Florida, meaning that Lewis' potential contributors were not publicly disclosed. To date, critics say, no one knows for sure who paid for Lewis' antislots campaign.
"I funded the campaign with $30,000 out of my own pocket," Lewis says indignantly. "We won in Miami-Dade. That's like fending off an armored brigade with a peashooter."
In 2004, Lewis' company received, seemingly through political connections, a $92,244 no-bid contract from Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes to distribute sample ballots. Lewis has strong ties to Republican lawyer Bill Scherer, whose law firm ran Snipes' campaign. In fact, in 1999, Lewis rented office space from Scherer, who was then the Miramar city attorney.
But nowhere are Lewis' financial and political ties more crossed than in his land deal with County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman and her husband, attorney Stuart Michelson, who represented Lewis during his 1999 ethics complaint.
In 2001, in a friendship-breaking business deal, Lewis, Lieberman, and Michelson formed L M Real Estate Corp. Lewis' wife, Cheryl, is company president and Michelson secretary. In January 2001, L M Real Estate purchased three lots at 401 SE 12th St., near Davie Boulevard and Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale, for $438,700. The company mortgaged $350,000 of the cost. The land contains several rental properties and a small house that Lewis had until recently used as his business office.
Earlier this year, Lewis claims, he asked Lieberman and Michelson to sell. They wanted to hold on to the property. Then, in late March, he says, he received a contract to buy him out. Lewis delayed signing. In late April, the county announced a plan to build a new judicial complex a few blocks from the property.
"Don't you think that's something that would increase the value of the land?" Lewis says. "Ilene claimed she didn't know about the new courthouse site before sending me the contract."
Says Lieberman: "At no time in all these prior discussions between Dan and my husband was I aware that county staff would be suggesting that land be acquired for a judicial complex along SE Sixth Street."
According to her husband, Michelson, it was in fact Lewis who tried to pull a fast one. In February, Michelson claims, Lewis contracted a real estate agent and tried to sell the land for roughly $1.2 million without ever informing his partners. Michelson refused to sell and offered to buy out Lewis' interest. According to e-mails obtained by New Times, Cheryl Lewis demanded a $30,000 deposit and a written contract within 24 hours. Michelson negotiated an agreement on March 27. Then, less than a month later, when Lieberman abstained from voting on the courthouse due to her conflict of interest from owning land nearby, Lewis backed out of the deal.
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"He doesn't have many friends left in Broward County," Michelson says.
For his part, Mayor Naugle contends that Lewis, the candidate for mayor, is a "stalking horse" -- playing an undercover role for a yet-to-be-announced candidate.
"How can this guy be running?" Naugle says. "He's damaged goods. We're pretty sure he's just representing a client. He's a political consultant, and people hire him to get elected. He'll bash me, and then his client will come in at the last minute and be the knight in shining armor." Naugle pauses. "The big question is, who's the client?"
"That's wishful thinking," Lewis responds. "I'm not a stalking horse for anyone. I'm running my campaign to win. I expect at the end of the day to be the next mayor of Fort Lauderdale."