Hollywood politics is notoriously ugly, and thus enormously entertaining to watch. As long as you're not one of the poor saps down there in the arena/cesspool, it's all just good, dirty, sometimes offensive fun.

As proof, Undercurrents points to last spring's elections, particularly the tussle for incumbent Cathy Anderson's city commission seat. For those of you not following along on the program, Anderson is the moldiest pol on the Diamond City's dais, having served more than 25 years. Last March she beat challenger Mark Hanna to claim yet another term. Just another entrenched incumbent kicking the crap out of some upstart, right? Well, yeah -- except for the libel suit now winding its way through Broward County Circuit Court.

The race was plodding along rather unremarkably until Hanna gave it a Hollywood ending. Days before the February primary last year, he sent out a mailer aimed squarely at the heavily Jewish population of the condos clustered in District 1. "My parents taught me never to forget my heritage and never to forget the people and organizations that help you in life," it read. Next to the text was a heart-tugging photo of Hanna as a pudgy-faced two-year-old staring straight into the camera with that about-to-cry look every parent knows. The photo is part of Hanna's "passport" of sorts from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the organization that helped Jews relocate after the Holocaust. It's a shameless piece of manipulative ethnic politicking: Though it doesn't come out and say, "Vote for me because I'm Jewish," only a dullard would miss the point.

Hanna's second-place finish in that primary was strong enough to force a runoff with Anderson. On March 1, two weeks before the vote, the incumbent told Herald and Sun-Sentinel reporters that she took umbrage at Hanna's literature. That prompted Hanna to respond via a March 9 ad in The Digest, a free weekly distributed in Hollywood and Hallandale Beach. In his "open letter," he took umbrage at Anderson's taking umbrage. "She was offended by my Jewish heritage," he wrote.

Hanna's ad apparently drove Jack Karako, executive director of the American Jewish Congress' Southeast regional office in Deerfield Beach, to get a piece of the umbrage action. Karako fired off a letter on AJC stationery, also dated March 9, calling Hanna a liar. "I am terribly appalled by the cruel and offensive campaign tactic you have employed to pander for Jewish votes in your race by insulting your opponent as anti-Semitic," Karako wrote.

Karako copied the letter to Anderson, who in turn circulated it throughout District 1 days before the election. Anderson added her own touch: a headline that read "The American Jewish Congress has denounced Mark Hanna for running an offensive, cruel and dishonest religious hate campaign."

Hanna lost by a wide margin, but he hasn't stopped fighting. In April he cried foul to Karako's higher-ups at the AJC's New York headquarters, who responded by slapping Karako's wrist for sending the letter to Anderson. "Had we been asked, we would not have approved of sending that letter," AJC executive director Phil Baum wrote in a letter to Hanna.

Armed with this and other documents, Hanna sued Karako (not the AJC) in July for libel. Karako did not return calls seeking comment for this story. His lawyer, Bruce Liebman, declined to comment. Court filings indicate Karako's defense will center on the fact that, by running for office, Hanna made himself a public figure, thus making himself more difficult to libel. The defendant has filed a motion to dismiss, which circuit court judge John Miller is scheduled to hear Friday.

Hanna's lawyer, Alan Sackrin, sums up his client's position: "[Karako] had absolutely no authority, legal, ethical, or moral, to write that letter on AJC stationery. That is the big lie in this case."

He thinks Karako knew Anderson would distribute the letter. And you know what he takes at that? You guessed it: umbrage. "The bottom line is this man disgracefully abused his power. As a Jew myself, I'm offended by that."

What to do with all those empty seats? If you're the Dolphins, you fail to buy them up in time to prevent the first local blackout of an NFL playoff game in history. If you're Tri-Rail, you just give the damn things away.

Tri-Rail, South Florida's three-county commuter train, teamed up with Subway, purveyor of mediocre submarine sandwiches, on a recent promotion dubbed "Come on and take a free ride." (Cue Edgar Winter.) The deal was this: Walk into any of the area's 237 Subway locations and pick up the ticketlike Tri-Rail promo. Scratch off the circle, and you're a winner. Every one of the 250,000 tickets was good for at least a round trip on Tri-Rail, value $2 to $9, depending upon destination. Some lucky scratchers won a 12-trip voucher, and a select few got a monthly pass, worth $80.

Cynics (like Undercurrents, for example) might ask why Tri-Rail is giving away rides when ridership revenue covers only 26 percent of its $22.5 million annual budget. Put another way, the train is on the dole to the tune of $16.65 million every year, 40 percent of which -- $6.6 million -- comes from the state and the three counties through which its mostly empty cars run.

But Bonnie Arnold, Tri-Rail marketing director, sets Undercurrents straight. "If you have an empty seat, you might as well have someone in it who will enjoy it, and maybe use the train again," she says.

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Bob Whitby