Politics as Blood Sport

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Fladell quickly identified the local farmers as potential allies. Like the condo dwellers, they hated the burgeoning development of the county's swamps and fields. But first Fladell had to overcome the farmers' anti-Semitism. He cultivated a friendship with a skeptical Billy Bowman, a leader of the farmers, by arranging a mock bar mitzvah for the very Gentile dairyman. Bowman returned the favor by taking Fladell to Ralph's Standup Bar, a tough roadhouse in Jupiter. Following Bowman's instructions, the 300-pound bartender told Fladell that Jews weren't welcome. A flustered Fladell plunked down a $100 bill and offered to buy a round for the house. "The change is right," the bartender growled, "but we still don't serve Jews."

Bowman guffaws at the memory. He says that "Andre's eyes were as big as saucers" until he finally told him it was only a joke.

The odd alliance proved fruitful. Bowman and many of his fellow farmers had already become wealthy by selling Dade County farmland to developers, then moving their operations to Palm Beach County, where they weren't interested in selling. So they funded Fladell's antidevelopment efforts while the condo commandos delivered the votes. As a result many county and city commissioners and state legislators fell in line with Fladell's limited-growth agenda.

Last year Fladell and Bowman teamed up again to support a proposed $100 million bond issue that would allow the county to buy land from farmers inside the 21,000-acre Agricultural Reserve in southwest Palm Beach County. The purpose of the bill was twofold: Lease as much of the county-owned land to farmers as possible, and control development on the rest of the reserve. Fladell's allies on the county commission, particularly Burt Aaronson, strongly backed the plan. Some environmental groups, however, claimed that the land could be saved through zoning restrictions -- without paying millions of dollars to already-wealthy landowners, including Bowman.

A leading critic of the buyout was Rep. Barry Silver (D-Boca Raton), who accused the county commissioners of caving in to farmers and developers who had contributed to their election campaigns. Silver, a clever self-promoter, went around the county singing a little ditty to the Hanukkah tune "I Have a Little Dreidel." The most inflammatory verse went: "O Palm Beach County Commission, we mean no disrespect, but when developers seek submission, you need not genuflect." A furious Commissioner Aaronson called Fladell and asked him to help his candidate, Curt Levine, beat Silver in the Democratic primary.

Fladell and Silver were friends, having fought side by side throughout the '90s to preserve abortion rights and block various Christian Right initiatives. They often played Frisbee and volleyball together on the beach. Even so, Fladell accepted the campaign assignment because of his close ties to Aaronson and Bowman and his sense that Silver had mortally insulted his allies. Fladell's friendships seem to depend on their political usefulness. In fact he often uses the terms my friends and my network interchangeably.

The highlight of the Silver-Levine race took place in July 1998, during a debate between Silver and Fladell at Kings Point Democratic Club in Delray Beach. Silver still fumes over Fladell's tactics. Sitting in a small conference room in his Boca Raton law office last month, the wiry-haired and unshaven Silver played a videotape of the debate. It showed Fladell at his most Machiavellian. Uncharacteristically wearing a suit and tie, he walked to the microphone and told the 250 people in the audience that he didn't want the debate to get personal. But he promptly made it very personal.

"From elected officials you deserve the whole truth, not half-truths," was his opening volley. Ignoring boos from the crowd, he fired a long burst of charges at Silver, most of which later proved to be inaccurate or misleading. He particularly attacked Silver for accusing the commissioners of "genuflecting" to developers and sugar interests -- a charge he seemed to take very personally. "I don't work for developers or for sugar," he cried. "But what Democrat in the state didn't take sugar money?"

Several audience members had a ready reply. "Barry Silver," they called out. Fladell ended his diatribe with a mocking grin.

Silver took his turn at the mic, obviously shaken. "There's so much misinformation that's it's impossible to refute it all," he said.

After Silver answered a few of the charges, Fladell piled on more. "Everyone who opposes Barry gets accused of some crime, thievery, lie, or cheating," he declared. "He's dividing Democrat against Democrat, Jew against Jew." That remark drew more boos.

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Harris Meyer