Darker Horses | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

Darker Horses

Randy Dunlap is a plump man with thinning white hair, large round glasses, and a down-home Alabama, "Yeah, buddy" speaking style not generally heard among the glut of polished South Florida politicos. It's become a shtick for Dunlap, making him something of a foil for his 12-year incumbent rival: reserved, well-spoken, manicured, millionaire bondsman John E. Rodstrom Jr.

Dressed in an oxford shirt and tie, Dunlap takes a seat in a booth at Maguire's Hill 16 in downtown Fort Lauderdale on an August afternoon. The political novice places his hands palms down on the table and leans forward. "I have to admit," he says, "I thought this race would be about issues and discourse, a debate about the future of this county."

It hasn't been. The race for the Broward County Commission District 7 seat has been down-and-dirty political warfare.

Dunlap has been telling voters that Rodstrom is a self-interested entrepreneur using public office to bolster his municipal bond business. In 2002, the commissioner brokered a $299 million bond deal for Citigroup with Miami International Airport just as he began to oppose expansion at Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, a primary competitor to Miami's facility. In June, the Florida Commission on Ethics cleared Rodstrom of wrongdoing in the deal.

Rodstrom has since countered the attacks with mailers alleging that Dunlap's financial problems prove that he can't be trusted with elected office. Three years ago, Dunlap filed for bankruptcy with more than $200,000 in debt after his direct-mail company folded following the 2001 anthrax attacks. He now works on the business side of Spirit Airlines' in-flight magazine, Skylights.

The race for District 7 -- which includes Fort Lauderdale's downtown business district and parts of Davie, Dania Beach, Hollywood, and Plantation -- has arguably involved the shrewdest maneuvers on this year's ballot. Dunlap and Rodstrom, both Democrats, have proven to be masters of electoral manipulation.

Last month, Robert L. McKinzie Jr., former Broward Elections Supervisor Miriam Oliphant's brother, filed for the race as a Democrat. His candidacy was a blow to Dunlap, as McKinzie will now likely split the anti-Rodstrom vote and win support in the black community. It appears to be classic politics. Because Rodstrom became the only commissioner to support the politically embattled Oliphant, McKinzie's vote-splitting, dark-horse candidacy could represent payback.

But Dunlap had a countermove. With no Republicans in the race, the August 31 Democratic primary would have been open to local GOP voters. That would have worked in favor of Rodstrom, a former Republican with strong ties to the downtown business community. As a result, one of Dunlap's associates, contractor Robert J. Trafford, filed as a write-in Republican candidate, closing the primary and mitigating damages caused by McKinzie.

Tit for tat, it's underhanded politics at its best, though none of the candidates admits to any collusion in trying to rig the vote. However, they readily accuse their opponents of doing so.

"If John Rodstrom can sell out our airport for the betterment of a bond deal," Trafford says, "I have absolutely no reason to believe that there couldn't be something going on behind the scenes between Mr. Rodstrom and Ms. Oliphant."

In July, Rodstrom was the only commissioner to answer a subpoena and testify in the Oliphant hearing at the County Government Center, leading Dunlap and Trafford to speculate that McKinzie's campaign is a living, breathing thank-you card from Oliphant.

Rodstrom bridles at the accusation. "A $5,000 payback?" the commissioner asks dismissively, referring to the hefty candidate filing fee. "That's a lot of money to throw someone's way because I agreed to testify when I was subpoenaed."

Rodstrom denies any electoral shenanigans. "People are saying that I benefited when McKinzie jumped in the race," he says. "I didn't even know that McKinzie was going to file until another reporter told me."

McKinzie did not return calls seeking comment.

Dunlap gestures dismissively with his right hand. "Mr. McKinzie says he's in the race to defeat Rodstrom because Rodstrom hasn't done well for the black community," Dunlap says. "I'll have to take him at his word."

Among the reasons Dunlap won't be more aggressive in attacking his opponent's maneuvering is the fact that he may have used a similar tactic himself. Trafford, the write-in Republican who closed the primary, lives a half-mile from Dunlap. The two have been active in the Lauderdale Isles Civic Improvement Association. In fact, until last month, an article had appeared on Dunlap's campaign website headlined "Leadership with a Vision." The byline? Robert J. Trafford.

"Do I know the guy? Sure," Dunlap admits. "And Rodstrom knows McKinzie."

But Trafford's candidacy is coincidence, Dunlap says: "Robert asked me back in March what would happen if Rodstrom won in the primary. 'Then that would be the race,' I answered. And Trafford, a lifelong Republican said, 'Oh, no, I hate that guy. He's got to go. '"

Trafford backs up the story. "To indicate that I'm here purely as Randy Dunlap's puppet is false," he says. "I'm a taxpayer, a business owner, a homeowner, and I'm being misrepresented. My money is being spent in ways I would never, ever spend it. I have a constitutional right to be in the race and make sure there is a change for the better."

Local political consultant Ron Gunzburger is skeptical of the allegation that Rodstrom has forged an alliance with Oliphant, since the commissioner has never been one of Oliphant's apologists. But if Dunlap brought in Trafford to close the primary, says Gunzburger, who is not working for any of the candidates in the commission race, it wouldn't be the first time a candidate has used the maneuver.

"In the past, some candidates have been up-front about it, saying, 'Yes, I did it. I don't think Republicans or Democrats should vote in a primary,'" he says. "Then you have others who look around and try to pretend they have nothing to do with the write-in candidate. Maybe that's the case in this race."

In the end, voters will be the ones manipulated during the August 31 primary if indeed Rodstrom is using McKinzie to split the vote and Dunlap countered with Trafford.

Sleazy politics?

"It may well appear that way," Dunlap answers hesitantly.