The Mayor and Her Father: A Short History
When I think of the terrifying crisis that Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter experienced Tuesday night, I think of that run.
After her father, 84-year-old Ed Portner, came to her home and menaced her with a gun at her head, she escaped through the garage door. She was afraid for her life, but she didn't stop at the nearest house. She ran all the way down Salem Lane to Cutter Court where she turned left down the road to the home of lawyer/lobbyist Michael Moskowitz's house.
The run was precisely .22 miles according to MapQuest, about 400 yards. Try sprinting four football fields sometime. It's a long haul, especially when you're already in a state of fear and panic and you can't be sure if your assailant, father or not, is going to get in his car and track you down with his pistol.
She was running for her life, but you can bet another thing crossed her mind: her
political career. That's only human nature and it might help explain why she beelined it all the way to the lobbyist's house. Remember that only recently, until scandal and controversy got in the way, Ritter expected to get a spot in Obama's White House. Moskowitz is a political fix-it man and when Ritter's lobbyist husband Russell Klenet got in trouble over his dealings with the Ponzi scheme that was Mutual Benefits, he also turned to Moskowitz. Once Ritter got to Moskowitz's door, there had to be a question of what to do. Should they call the police immediately or somehow try to handle it privately within the family. They must have known that the moment a 911 call was made, Ritter's political life would be changed forever, as her personal life already had been. It appears that it wasn't much of a decision, though. The 911 call was made at 8:24 p.m., just 14 minutes after Portner reportedly came to her door on Salem Lane.
And that tells me this was real terror. Ritter believed her father -- angry that she had endorsed his opponent in the Tamarac mayoral race -- was truly out for blood and needed to be locked up. Having been involved in a dangerous domestic situation in the past, I have an idea how she felt. You just want the unhinged person put away, whether he's a relative or not, and whether you're a public figure or not.
But the reality of politics cannot be ignored, especially since the relationship between the father and daughter had been consumed by politics for the past decade and politics, apparently, led to Portner's mad act.
What caused Portner, a long-time Tamarac city commissioner, to apparently become filicidal? Well there's the obvious rage he apparently felt at what he considered his daughter's betrayal by supporting his opponent, Tamarac Mayor Beth Flansbaum-Talabisco. There's also speculation that he may be suffering from early-stage dementia or severe depression as well.
But Portner has always been a bit of a mercurial character. In one of the first feature stories ever written about him in 2000, the Sun-Sentinel called Portner in a headline the "Tamarac Tempest." He wasn't afraid of going it alone and raised the ire of activists and fellow politicians, like Joe Schreiber. One of them, Helen Rosen, once screamed at him during a city meeting, "You're sick! You're sick!" when he led the charge to change the name of the city's community center (sounds like a benign issue, but hey, it's Tamarac).
He's also shown a deeply emotional side. A World War II veteran, he once couldn't finish Veteran's Day speech. From the 2000 Sentinel article:
Both Portner and Ritter,who moved to Tamarac in 1974, pledge a political independence from each other.
They agree on some things, disagree on others. But Portner is very proud of Ritter and his other daughter, Tina, a convention manager for a hotel in Miami Beach.
"He doesn't always take my advice, but ... I know he's proud of me," Ritter said. "And that makes me cry. You can just tell when he looks at me. When he looks at his children, he's just got so much pride, and that's so nice."
The man within the politician is private. But sometimes his softer side shows. At a Veteran's Day ceremony in 1999, Portner came to the podium to speak about his own World War II experience.
But the words never came. Instead, he became overcome with emotion and did not finish his speech.
"I know he liberated a concentration camp, and he won't talk about it," Ritter said. "He can't even think about it without crying. I know he's got a lot of very painful memories about it."
When one tries to ask about his experience, Portner answers before the question is asked.
"I won't talk about that," he said. "It's very difficult for me. If I started talking about it, I wouldn't finish."
But Portner did talk politics with his daughters at the dinner table. And as a father, Portner -- along with the Schreibers -- helped his daughter campaign in 1996.
After Portner retired and worked at a part-time job for a while, politics became the obvious choice for a new job.
At first, he wanted to run for mayor, but that election wasn't going to happen for another year. So he challenged former Commissioner John McKaye and two other opponents in 1999. He knocked on doors all over Tamarac's District 1, the east side of the city, and introduced himself.
He has become a tireless advocate for his district, and has hinted at a possible run for the mayoral position.
Many assume that Ritter followed her father into politics, but it was really the other way around. Portner first ran for office in 1999, two years after Ritter was elected to the State House. And Ritter and Klenet used their political muscle to help him get elected. "This is an example of the father following in the footsteps of his daughter," Ritter told the Sentinel at the time. And friends of Portner say his new-found status as an elected official consumed his identity.
Still, Ritter was always by far the more powerful pol of the two, serving in the state legislature and Broward County Commission while her dad was on relatively insignificant Tamarac board. When people listed the powers that supported Portner, they included Ritter and Klenet, never the other way around. The father was the daughter's political dependent. In that sense, their roles were reversed: Ritter was the parent, the dominant one, in public life, and that surely added to Portner's sense of betrayal at her endorsement of Flansbaum-Talabisco.
Sometimes the father-daughter relationship led to ethical troubles for Portner. In 2002, In 2002, Portner threw a dinner party that was attended by Ritter and Klenet. The problem was that he threw the shindig at the opulent home of developer Tony Mijares, who was doing business with the city. A week after Mijares hosted Portner's party, Portner voted on one of Mijares' projects. Portner blew off the problem. "What was in it for [Mijares]? Nothing," he told the Sun-Sentinel. "He did me a favor."
That same year, Portner was barred from voting on a $13.5 million bond deal after it was learned that Ritter's husband, Klenet, worked for the firm he was backing. The Tamarac city attorney at the time, Mitch Kraft, barred Portner from voting, killing the deal. Portner claimed that Klenet never lobbied him on it. "The whole thing stinks to high heaven," said Commissioner Schreiber at the time.
Schreiber and Portner became almost epic political nemeses. The rather epic feud between the two octogenarians for years defined Portner's identity. Portner even pushed for term limits in a bid to knock Schreiber off the board, a move Portner apparently didn't foresee would wind up costing him his elected position as well.
Portner issued a press release on September 11 addressing the issue of Ritter's odd endorsement:
Helen and I raised the Chair of the County Commission. No more needs to be said. Helen and I our very proud of my daughter and her accomplishments. It shows to the voters what kind of leaders we are as parents to have raised two very successful children. My daughter Tina is an executive at the Lowes Hotel in Miami Beach. Children make decisions that often disappoint parents, but she has made many right decisions: however, this one she is wrong and I intend to prove it.
He also criticized Talabisco in the release, leading to a Talabisco response and the September 12 Sentinel headline: "Tamarac Mayor Smacks Back At Ritter's Dad." The headline alone had to hurt; he was, once again, Ritter's father, rather than his own man. In the article, Talabisco goaded Portner about his failure to secure his daughter's support:
Mr. Portner did make one statement that we both can agree upon: he and his wonderful wife, Helen, did an excellent job raising their daughter, Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter. I am extremely humbled and honored to be endorsed by Mayor Ritter. Who would know my opponent better than his own daughter? I think the Mayor's written endorsement for my re-election speaks for itself.
Obviously these kinds of "smacks" had a deep impact on Portner and led to Tuesday night's madness.
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