In Democratic Party circles in Broward County, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Ask Norma Goldstein, a local Democratic Party official who works as a county-paid aide for scandal-ridden Broward Mayor Stacy Ritter.
"I'm not involved with them, and I don't want to be involved in them," Goldstein said of the scandals during a phone call last week. "I'm only involved with Stacy. You have to know Stacy, because it's to love her. I don't even read the papers anymore. I don't want to know. I don't believe in it. I believe in Stacy."
Goldstein exhibits the "see no evil" approach to politics. Some might even liken it to omerta, the Mafia's code of silence. If you never talk about Ritter's conflicts of interest involving her lobbyist/husband, Russell Klenet, it's as if they don't exist.
The state is investigating Ritter for numerous alleged campaign violations. And Ritter's Parkland home was renovated with $100,000 paid by politically connected fraud artist Joel Steinger. But those aren't the kind of things discussed by her supporters.
Such willful ignorance is crucial to keep the dominant Democratic Party machine going in Broward County, where elderly condo voters hold sway, not state and federal investigators and certainly not the media.
The dark heart of the machine lies in the Kings Point condos in Tamarac, where about 12,000 senior citizens live — and vote. It's part of a condo kingdom that includes other giant voting blocs like Wynmoor and Century Village. It is places like these that political coercion has been honed to a fine and friendly craft. It is also where Ritter is queen, cash is king, and bagels... well, they can only help.
The party leaders — even seemingly small fish like Norma Goldstein — have instituted a veritable pay-to-play system in the county. Want to win office as a Democratic candidate? You better pay someone. And in Goldstein's case, the payments are now being made by Broward County taxpayers at Ritter's order.
The cabal of insiders even has an unofficial name: the "Mitch Ceasar Mob," after the longtime leader of Broward's Democratic Party. Only the soldiers in this mob aren't young thugs but mostly little old ladies.
One of them is Goldstein, who lives in Kings Point and serves as a member of Ceasar's Democratic Executive Committee. She's also entertainment chairwoman at Kings Point as well as president of the 64-unit building in which she lives. Upon meeting her, you'd never suspect she was a political profiteer and facilitator for dirty politicians.
No, she's just a 76-year-old retiree from New York with frizzy orange hair and a voice reminiscent of George Castanza's mother on Seinfeld. In New York, Goldstein worked in ad sales at the Queens Forum community newspaper and once worked for a New York state senator named Jeremy Weinstein.
After coming here in 1995, she says she immediately became involved in Democratic politics and soon joined forces with Ritter. It was only fate. Kings Point took Ritter under its wing when she initially ran for office in 1996, says resident Joe Schreiber, who is the former mayor of Tamarac.
"I introduced Stacy around and helped get her into office," says Schreiber. "Once she was in office, she married Russ Klenet, a lobbyist. And she started working for him instead of for us. I just don't think she's honest. But people here don't care. They look at her and imagine her as their daughter. The only thing that is going to clean this up is the FBI."
Ritter first paid Goldstein in 2002, giving her $200 out of her campaign account for help in throwing a "thank you party," according to state campaign records. Goldstein says she had a "brainstorm" several years ago to hold the luncheons for candidates.
"People would call me and say, 'Norma, I don't know who to vote for,' " she recalls. "And candidates would call me and tell me they wanted to do a luncheon, and I decided to help them. I don't endorse them — I just get the people out to the luncheon so they can hear them and make up their own minds. It's a favor I'm doing for the candidate and the community."
But she gets paid, right?
"Not all the time. It depends on how I feel," she says. "It's a lot of work involved. Some candidate wanted to give me something years back, and I figured, 'Hey, with all my work, it's a good thing.' "
She apparently felt like taking the money from numerous politicians during the past several years. The list includes Clerk of Court Howard Forman and Circuit Court judges Renee Goldenberg and Steven Feren, among others.
That's right, even our judges are involved in these political shenanigans, which shouldn't be surprising if you follow the courthouse. Pedro Dijols, a former judge, presented Goldstein with a $200 tribute out of his campaign last year. Unfortunately for Dijols, his opponent, Bernie Bober, paid another Democratic Party official, Jack Shifrel, a whopping $10,500, most of it for "consulting." Bober won.