West Palm's Next Mayor Speaks
One year ago this month, Florida House of Representatives minority leader Lois Frankel, a Democrat from West Palm Beach, announced her bid for governor. An outspoken and respected seven-term liberal lawmaker who gained fame for blasting the Bushes during the 2000 election, she told New Times last year (see "Long Shot," Ashley Fantz, November 15, 2001) that she planned to "redecorate the governor's mansion to look something like most of Florida, not the small, elite minority the Bushes cater to." In the thick Brooklyn accent of her youth that she has maintained despite 28 years of living in West Palm, Frankel tried to convince groups from Pensacola to Key West that a litany of legislative accomplishments made her an ideal candidate.
But Frankel was overly optimistic. Three weeks after filing, two events turned her run into a crawl. For both political and economic reasons, September 11 crippled her odds of raising adequate funds. And then came the announcement that her main competitor for the Democratic ticket was that dance party-lovin', red truck drivin' Reno woman.
So last month, Frankel quietly forfeited her battle with Bush and filed to run for mayor of West Palm. Although she didn't garner much support in her gubernatorial campaign, this time around, Frankel has been endorsed in the Palm Beach Post and supported by big-name lobbyists and local government players, including the former West Palm mayor, Nancy Graham.
Frankel talked with New Times recently, and as in most encounters with her, this exchange was a breathless one as she rushed from one appointment to another, wired as she usually is on two cell phones. She was in her maroon 1999 Acura, which is equipped with a Global Positioning System because she has a tendency to get lost. If her stereo were on, she confesses, she'd be listening to her Gloria Gaynor compilation disc.
Q: You reached your term limit in the House of Representatives and that, you said last October, was one of the reasons you opted to run for governor.
A: My time was up, and that was a motivator to look for other public offices to run for, but the governor's job was something I wanted uniquely and I was qualified for, hands down. But as bad as this sounds, qualifications don't always make for a successful candidate. You have to have money and notoriety. I saw the writing on the wall last winter when Reno was getting major party endorsements, and with that came celebrity power and money flow. I just couldn't compete with Janet. I could have stepped up my campaign, but I'd have to split myself in two. By October, we'd had five special sessions, and I had to be in Tallahassee. I couldn't raise money or campaign when I had a job to do as minority leader. If I would have campaigned, I would have been criticized. But by doing my job, I'm also criticized for not campaigning aggressively enough.
Q: You raised about $130,000 in cash and about $200,000 in matching funds. What happens to that money now that you're not in the running?
A: I had a lot of contributors giving $50 or less. And if they don't support my mayoral run, then they'll get that money back. But most people are. I have $150,000 in my mayor's coffer now. When I had to call people about whether they were in favor of this mayoral run, I got all sorts of crazy suggestions about what I should do.
Q: Like what?
A: I had a large group of supporters who kept calling every day saying, "attorney general." Then some people said agriculture commissioner. [Actually, the position is commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services].
Q: What would have qualified you for the job of agriculture commissioner?
A: That's what I said. Some said county commissioner and the state senate. A few people mentioned running for sheriff of Palm Beach...I'd get to carry a gun.
Q: But you focused on becoming mayor?
A: Not really. I said that I was going to stay focused on the Legislature and not engage in a new campaign. When I got out of session, I would reassess my situation and then decide. I was just exhausted from battling a House and Senate dominated by Republicans in addition to trying to jump-start my [gubernatorial] candidacy. I wanted to just go home and relax a little. I needed to chill out badly...I've been in the Legislature almost nonstop for 14 years. The last two years have been devoted to being an around-the-clock countervoice against that [Bush] administration. From the time of the recount until May, I never got a break. I never got a break. I did go on a two-day cruise with my son [a U.S. Marine stationed in Australia] a few days before New Year's. I tried to just lie on the couch for a week. And that worked out for a day, but I was good about not going into my office until at least 9 a.m.
Q: It was former West Palm Beach Mayor Nancy Graham who encouraged you to run?
A: I was at home during a chill-out week, and Nancy called me because she'd read in the [Palm Beach Post] that [current Mayor Joel] Daves said I didn't know what I was doing by considering this run. Truthfully, there was speculation in the media that I was going to run, but it wasn't so much on my mind until Nancy called. We just talked, and she was very enthusiastic. So I thought I'd start talking to people in the city to see what they thought.
Q: What do you think of the job Mayor Daves is doing?
A: I know him, and he seems like a nice enough guy. He's a casual friend of mine, so I didn't think this race would get ugly. I got comments from voters like, "He's a nice guy, but he's not up for the job." I've gone to neighborhoods and schools and businesses and just talked with people, and they perceive him as a weak leader.
Q: Daves told the Palm Beach Post on July 4, 2002, "Lois Frankel is the last person I would have thought would run for mayor of West Palm Beach. I've been to thousands of events across the city -- neighborhood meetings, dedications, city commission meetings, workshops, weddings, funerals. Lois Frankel was not at one of those meetings."
A: He's criticizing me for doing my job [in Tallahassee]. I moved to West Palm in 1974. My son was born here and went to public school here. I had a law practice in West Palm; I've worked for the public defender's office and in private practice and had a very active private life here, been engaged in all kinds of civic opportunities from fundraising for the American Cancer Society to the West Palm Beach Women's Shelter. He's didn't see me in City Council meetings, and I didn't see him in Tallahassee. Besides that, I bring a lot more energy to the position -- and stronger leadership that makes up for any funeral or wedding I missed.
Q: Your mother, Dorothy, lives in West Palm. She has campaigned for you and managed to raise thousands for you last year. What role is she going to play in the mayoral election?
A: My mom is healthy, but she's aging. She'll do her usual knocking on doors and put a Lois Frankel shirt on and walk up and down the aisles at the grocery store. That's the best place to put her because of the hot weather.
Q: Have you devised a platform?
A: No, it's too early. The overriding concern of people who live here is safety. There's a higher expectation for city government to make citizen safety a priority. Code enforcement is a problem with some eastern parts of the city where you have a lot of boarded-up houses that are essentially drug houses. The sewer system was built in the early 1900s and it's literally crumbling. That is a huge concern. Something else I hear all the time: On the other side of the city, it's hard for people with middle-class jobs like teachers, nurses, and reporters to find decent and affordable housing. There really is a housing crisis here. I went to a seminar last week on housing to try and learn more about that.
Q: Looking beyond your campaign, how does "Gore 2004" sound to you?
A: It feels more feasible than it did just six months ago. Whoever runs will be smart to bring out this issue of corporate greed and the very close relationship that people in government have with corporate failures like WorldCom and Enron. What politics at its purest should be about is standing up to the powerful self-interests. Gore might have an in if the stock market keeps going down. That is a political climate unfavorable to people in office.
Q: Do you think Hillary Clinton has a shot at even the vice presidency?
A: I don't have a personal favorite. Hillary has a chance, but so do a lot of people. My attention is more concerned with what happened in Florida. I think [Democrats Janet] Reno, [Bill] McBride, or [former Democratic state Sen.] Daryl Jones would make a better governor than Jeb Bush, but I'm not taking sides until after the September 10 primary.
Q: You've left the Legislature, and you've said it was your toughest year ever. What is the 2001-2002 Florida Legislature's greatest success and greatest failure?
A: I leave it with mixed emotions. There was a restoration of the Everglades bill that would have passed, but at the last minute, it was tagged with a provision that would have made it harder for environmental groups to protest against antienvironment moves by corporations. That is something I could vote for which was disappointing. I was hugely disappointed that we gave a tax break to corporations, and we took money away from public education. I don't think these corporate folks get it that they have the power and money right now. But I'm moving on, knowing that democracy occurred because I, along with all other Democrats, maintained a rational point of view against those who outnumbered us.
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