Politics as Blood Sport

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Sitting behind a half-moon-shape desk on a weekday in November, he works two phones while watching the Palm Beach County Commission meeting on cable TV. Fladell has agreed to let New Times listen in on his conversations with politicians on the condition that the callers not be identified. One of the phones rings. "Chiropractic center," Fladell answers in his rapid-fire Brooklyn accent. Barefoot and unshaven, he's wearing baggy blue-denim shorts and a tank top. The caller is a woman who wants help running for city commissioner. "Get me the names of all the civic and condo associations," Fladell tells her. "We'll meet next Thursday, and I'll tell you what to do. Congratulations, you're going to win an election."

Fladell doesn't operate the same way he did in the '80s, when he was the highly visible mastermind behind a powerful coalition of condo associations in southwest Palm Beach County. The coalition forced developers to reduce the density of proposed projects and pay fees for roads, schools, parks, and utilities. In 1990, however, the county turned its at-large election process into one in which voters in each of seven districts elect their own commissioner. As a result the condo associations lost their ability to shape the full commission, and Fladell's power waned.

So he switched tactics. While maintaining close ties with the condo troops, he cultivated relationships with new groups, such as police officers, Haitian-Americans, and business councils, whom he serves by enlisting the aid of politicians he helped get elected. When those same politicians need election support, he solicits votes from the groups he's befriended.

Several county commissioners, state legislators, congressmen, and school board members are indebted to Fladell. He chooses candidates who, in his view, fight for victims, not predators. The victims, he says, are homeowners, hard-working families, and put-upon civil servants. The predators are those who want to make money through projects that negatively affect the quality of life in Palm Beach County. But he feels no malice toward predators. "When the cat kills the canary, do you get mad at the cat?" he asks. "My job is to keep the cat away from the canary."

Today, manning the phones in his office, Fladell hopes to convince a member of the school board that Superintendent Joan Kowal should be fired. Kowal's autocratic management style has alienated several board members, who have been trying to dump her for the past two years. "She's really shit," he tells a visitor. "She gets an F in people skills, management skills, and political skills. Getting rid of her could change the entire course of education in this county."

He dials up the school board member, whom he helped get elected, and uses this pitch: "I could use 120 seconds of your time, then you could hang up on me. History has landed at your feet. We have an ineffective leader as superintendent. I'm not saying she's good or bad. You got a bunch of kids who don't want to get involved in who's good and who's bad. That's my call for 1999. Have a happy and healthy and wonderful New Year." The best way to lobby, he says after hanging up, is without anger or finger-pointing. "I think calls like that will make a difference," he adds. (The school board fired Kowal on December 6.)

Soon another rookie candidate for city commission arrives at Fladell's office for advice. Fladell tells the earnest, midthirtyish neophyte how to charm voters on street corners. "I would work intersections only on Friday, Saturday, and Monday," he said. "I can tell you which homeowners are going to be going in which direction. All you need to do is smile and wave. The two guys standing next to you are critical. Your image is based on who's with you. Decide how old they should be and what they look like. Every intersection requires a different group. For certain areas you need women with baby carriages."

After the grateful candidate leaves, Fladell assesses the man's strengths and weaknesses and in doing so points up a contradiction in his own views about the desirability of honesty in politicians. "He's perfect for local government. You can't buy him, he's not trying to make money." His downside? "He's going to say things he really believes, and it's going to cost him votes because the public doesn't want that."

Politics is pushed aside for a moment as Fladell's office manager, Shannon Cleaver, asks the chiropractor about a patient. Fladell still sees patients three days a week, and to demonstrate just how altruistic he is, he gives Cleaver a little quiz.

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Harris Meyer