Politics as Blood Sport

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Watching the video Silver slumped in his chair, looking mournful. "It was very sad to see someone I was close to say such hurtful things in order to serve his allies," he said. Fair or not Fladell's tactics worked. Levine, who outspent Silver five to one, ended up winning the primary by 185 votes and ran unopposed in the general election. The Ag Reserve bond issue was approved by county voters earlier this year, with 66 percent of the vote. The battle between Silver and Fladell isn't over yet. Silver plans to run for an open seat in the Florida House, and Fladell says he'll probably help one of Silver's opponents once again.

The chiropractor gloats about knocking off a popular incumbent who was considered unbeatable. "We couldn't allow Barry to continue accusing everyone who disagreed with him of being dishonest and crooked," says Fladell, who regularly blasts lobbyists and their campaign contributions as the bane of good government. "That's the worst form of government."

But the dispute was really a battle between idealism and pragmatism. Silver is a purist on environmental issues, while Fladell, a friend of farmers and developers, is always looking for a deal that satisfies all sides. "You respect your opponents, give them honor, back off your position, and meet in the middle," Fladell says. "It may stink, but it's the best system we know of." He insists that he bears no hard feelings toward Silver. "I like Barry; he's an articulate, good kid, and his issues are great. He's just not suited for the political process."

But Silver is right when he says that Fladell's need to appease his political allies sometimes eclipses his sense of right and wrong. Two years ago, Fladell tried to broker a peace agreement between a Hispanic youth gang and police in Palm Beach County. He raises funds for many police groups, and he even founded Delray Citizens For Delray Police. But Fladell is also friendly with a young man named Tito, who heads a gang known as La Familia. They met when Tito went to Fladell for chiropractic treatment after being injured in a fight. He gradually convinced Fladell that the members of his gang wanted to go straight and that they had legitimate grievances about abusive police behavior. Fladell came to see these low-income minority youths as victims of societal neglect.

Overcoming deep skepticism on both sides, Fladell arranged a meeting at his office of the leaders of La Familia, police officials, and several elected officials, including County Commissioner Mary McCarty. The meeting was cordial, but the outcome was deeply disappointing. "The law-enforcement people didn't really like it," Fladell laments. "I thought they'd be tickled pink, but it was exactly the opposite."

McCarty puts it more strongly. "The law-enforcement guys were not interested in developing a line of communications to the gang members," she says. "They thought that all this touchy-feely talk stuff was just a scam and a waste of time."

Sitting in his office, Fladell says he still talks with Tito regularly and helps La Familia members with referrals for jobs and scholarships. By way of proof, he dials the gang leader's beeper and switches to speakerphone. Tito's recorded message features an angry rap song. Fladell leaves a message in gangster idiom: "Hey, blood, what up? Not crying, just flying, gimme a call, you know where, you know when, you know how, play play bye."

A few minutes later, Tito calls back. When he's asked questions about his relationship with Fladell, Tito's replies are brief and guarded. As Tito hangs up, Fladell is beaming. "Tito trusts me," he declares. But he admits that he chose not to use his political clout to fight for fairer police treatment of the gang members, because it would have alienated his police buddies. "I can't," he says, looking pained. "I protect these kids as best as I can. But it's not where I'm going to declare my war. I've got a constituent base I need to maintain."

So has the idealistic '60s radical been co-opted by the establishment? "What is co-opted?" he sputters. "What does that mean? I try to be a social conscience. I want to show you something."

He jumps up on his desk barefoot, reaches into his shorts pocket, and pulls out a thick wad of $100 bills, along with a crumpled slip of paper. The slip is a $100,000 dividend check from Microsoft. "They write me checks, and it don't mean nothin'," he says. "I have millions of dollars, so no one can hurt me. There's nothing they can do to shut me up."

Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:

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Harris Meyer