With a month left before Election Day, Kristin Jacobs rode the elevator to the top floor of the white stone and stucco building at 888 SE Third Ave. Once at the top, in Suite 501, a secretary led the Broward County Commission candidate into the office of Austin Forman, Fort Lauderdale-based developer and scion of the powerful, pioneering Forman family.
Forman led Jacobs to a leather couch -- of a reddish-brown color that matched the polished mahogany of his office -- where the two talked about Jacobs' startling defeat of incumbent Sylvia Poitier to win the Democratic primary and her almost certain victory over Republican challenger Bob Shelley on November 3. Forman was one of Poitier's strongest financial backers, and his family is still smarting from her defeat.
"It was the same types of comments that a lot of people have," Jacobs recalls of the meeting. "Surprise that I won, that it really shows the little guy can win."
When the 15-minute meeting was over, Forman, without explanation, handed her an envelope. For an embarrassing moment, Jacobs wondered whether she should open it or not. She decided not to. She didn't know what it contained, just saw it was rather thick and thought it might be a letter. When she got home, the candidate opened it to find a stack of $250 checks made out to her campaign.
"I thought, 'Uh-oh.'"
She called Forman on the phone.
"I can't take this much money from you," she told him.
"That's fine," he replied.
"I'll be sending most of it back."
It was yet another lesson for Jacobs in high-powered Broward politics. The outsider is getting a taste of the inside, where temptations abound -- but she says she's not biting.
Jacobs has run a reformist campaign based on stopping developers, not cozying up to them. She won the primary by labeling Poitier as a pro-development candidate and questioning her dealings with developer Michael Swerdlow, including Poitier's acceptance of more than $2250 before her campaign account was opened. Jacobs' unlikely victory indicated that many Browardites are fed up with the constant push to pour more concrete over what Jacobs calls "greenspace," sick of the ugliness and traffic that it brings, and tired of insider, sweetheart deals between commissioners and developers.
Like the rest of the Broward elite, the Forman family initially put its considerable backing behind Poitier, who raised $230,000. When Jacobs beat Poitier, she had raised just $15,000. The victory changed everything. Suddenly, the 39-year-old mother of three was a hot political commodity, and the wealthy people who initially shunned her started pouring money into her campaign.
"People told us this would happen," she says. "The morning after we won, we got 200 calls."
It was a new world for Jacobs, whose previous political experience had been at the grassroots level in neighborhood associations and advisory boards. But the inexperience didn't stop her from setting some new ground rules to keep the influence seekers at bay. She decided not to accept checks of more than $250 (half the Florida limit of $500), and she sent back bundled checks. Bundling is precisely what Austin Forman was doing when he handed her that envelope. It's a perfectly legal and widely used method of allowing those with lots of cash to get around contribution limits by issuing checks from their companies and relatives. The Forman family, for instance, routinely gives $5000 or more to candidates they like, such as Poitier and Commissioner Scott Cowan.
Faced with Forman's checks, Jacobs kept one from Forman himself, one from his wife, Christine, and another from one of his companies. She sent nine checks back. In all she accepted $750 from the Forman family and returned $2250. A look at her contribution list at the county elections office shows no one has managed to give her $1000 or more, with the Forman family coming as close as anyone. Whenever anybody, like ambulance company owner Malcolm Cohen, has tried to give her a $500 check, she sends back $250 of it. Her campaign has raised nearly $45,000 and she expects to finish with more than $50,000. Had she not limited her contributions, she could easily have raised twice that.
"It's good," Forman family patriarch Hamilton Forman says of her returning of contributions. "She was honest, and she did what she said she was going to do."
Curtailing the money is only part of it, however. Jacobs first realized the truly frenetic, dizzying rush of high-powered Broward politics during her first fundraiser after the primary, at Paesano's restaurant on Las Olas Boulevard. There was real estate broker Hugh Anderson, who wheels and deals for heavyweights like the Formans and transportation mogul Jesse Gaddis. There was Ron Book, one of the most powerful lobbyists in South Florida. There was George Platt, another lobbyist for big companies and developers. There was one high roller after another, most of whom she'd never met before, so many she couldn't remember some of their names.
"It's like a reception line: You just stand there and people are coming, coming, coming," Jacobs says. "It's almost like when you get married and there are so many people at your own wedding it feels like you missed your own party when it's over because you were so busy meeting people you don't know. I'm literally spinning when it's over."
How often did she get caught in this whirl before she beat Poitier?
"Never," she says. "Not once."
Gaddis was another major supporter of Poitier, throwing thousands into her campaign. Since Poitier's defeat he's invited Jacobs to his office, and he sent her an envelope with seven checks. She sent back four.
Another new admirer is Thomas McDonald, an engineer who works closely with developers. McDonald and his wife each gave Jacobs $250. The engineer had not only supported Poitier's campaign, he managed it. McDonald's contributions didn't surprise Jacobs, however. When she was still a veritable unknown, McDonald remarked to her: "If you win I'll support you, too."
"I giggled," Jacobs says, "because I didn't think I was going to win at the time."
Despite her apparent resistance, the grand spectacle of Broward's sociopolitical scene may be getting to Jacobs a little. While still maintaining that she'll fight runaway development, Jacobs is shying away a bit from her environmental stance, saying much of it was created by the media.
"People are getting this idea that I'm such a tree hugger that I'm against all development," she says. "I'm not. I just want to make sure it's matched with our growth. We can develop neighborhoods that take nature into account.... But things like building in the buffer zone in the Everglades, that's something I will always rail against."
Jacobs had lunch with 79-year-old Hamilton Forman. The prominent landowner and political powerhouse has an interest in most of his son's development deals and estimates the family still owns about 300 acres in Broward, most of them targeted for development.
The two met at Mark's Las Olas restaurant and talked almost strictly about Forman's Charter School of Excellence in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Jacobs says she's planning to send her four-year-old son there for the first grade.
"He's a very fascinating man," she says of the elder Forman, recalling his battered briefcase and the little bottle of honey he brought with him to put in his tea. "He's unique. Some people make a lot of money and become very plastic. He says he wants to enjoy his life. He's very bright. He's a very wise man, a real gentle guy."
Hamilton Forman is charming. In addition to recountings of his numerous monumental achievements in Broward County, his stories include the time he stayed in a hut with headhunters in Borneo and bought a sword from them for a cut-rate $600. But he and son Austin have been criticized for being part of the perceived overdevelopment of Broward and for doing, well, what they do -- getting the most profit they can from whomever they deal with, including Broward County (which, incidentally, bought a property from Austin Forman in 1994 for more than twice the independent appraiser's price).
Hamilton Forman says he gives money to politicians for two reasons: To elect good people and to gain access to government, which he says has "so many rules and regulations the bureaucrats dream up today that you need to be able to talk if you are going to be treated equitably.
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"Nobody owns anybody," says Forman, who also backs many charities and civic projects. "All your money gets you is it gives you the opportunity to go in and be heard. It doesn't give you your way."
Jacobs says the possibility that her son will go to Hamilton Forman's school won't color her judgment when it comes to county dealings with the Forman family. The Democratic nominee says she's not going to shy away from meeting with more power brokers: "You can't put your head in the sand and say, 'Oh, he's a big important guy, so I'm not going to meet him.'"
With the general election looming, though, she's been meeting with more regular voters than with big shots. Last week, for instance, Jacobs stumped a Democratic gathering at the Kings Point community for senior citizens in Tamarac. Wearing a blue dress with a matching blue bow in her red hair, she stuck to her original message, saying she was concerned with the "direction of the county, and urban sprawl, and issues with the environment."
Her words brought applause, and her message will likely land her a seat on the commission, where voters will get four years to see if she keeps pushing the envelope -- right back to its sender.