When Miami Crashes

We suppose Miami lawyer and lobbyist Miguel De Grandy couldn’t help writing a $500 check to the effort to unseat community activist Pat Wade from her position on a local community council in Miami-Dade County.

And why would anyone care? Now, therein lies a tale.

Pat Wade lives in rural area of Miami-Dade County called the Redland. In her late 50’s, a retired college professor, Pat is fiercely determined to protect the rural character of her community. It is flat farmland, vegetable growers mixed with tropical fruit growers and tree nurseries, close to the Everglades-quiet for the most part, with a hint of historic nature on the horizon.

There have to be a thousand places across the United States threatened by bad development where a citizen advocate emerges from time to time to rally and rail against an entrenched political status quo. It is a common enough story.

But Miami-Dade County has a few characteristics to command special attention.

First of all, Miami-Dade is the largest county in Florida, and so the most politically influential in a state that plays a major role in national politics. Then there is the matter of suburban sprawl, where opponents are routinely thrashed by zoning processes and legal maneuvers that leave ordinary people winded and squirming in the dust.

There is the matter of the housing boom, that transformed Florida’s landscape into bleak, platted subdivisions that look alike because billions of dollars of financial mortgage engineering depend on conformity of principal and risk profiles of malleable consumers. And now, of course, the housing market crash.

But perhaps the biggest reason to pay attention to the $500 check written to irritate Pat Wade, retired college professor, is that it happened in the state that elected George W. Bush to be president in 2000, in the most contested presidential election in US history, and where his brother, Jeb Bush served two terms as governor.

First, rewind the story just a little.

Pat Wade was an organizer of the effort to unseat the de facto chair of the Miami-Dade county commission, Natacha Seijas, in a campaign that staggered past legal hurdles thrown in its way in 2006. Wade was also an elected official of a community council, one of the largest in the county. It is a district, though, with plenty of farmland ready to be converted to zero lot line housing if zoning approvals can be obtained.

Community councils review zoning decisions before those decisions flow to the county commission. And positive zoning decisions by community councils are, unless they are appealed to either the county commission or circuit court, are final.

In retaliation, in 2006, the Committee Against Useless Self-Serving Efforts was formed to torment Wade with a recall effort.

The temerity of ordinary citizens in gathering signatures for a petition by ballot to unseat the most powerful county commissioner in Miami-Dade could not go unchallenged by the clients represented by Mr. De Grandy.

Someone had to write the $500 check.

In the grand scheme, Mr. De Grandy’s contribution is a two-bit event. An annoyance. He broke no law in writing the check. But, God almighty, what a view when you put your eye to the keyhole.

Seijas’ district is Hialeah, political Bethlehem to Cuban American developers who control the county commission and live elsewhere in wealthy gated communities in Coral Gables or South Miami.

The Cuban American development community is cohesive, monolithic in its approach to regulatory matters, and very, very politically astute. And more than a few private jets to go around.

Their aim has been to plow suburban tract housing into the region’s last 50,000 acres of farmland and will not stop until every developable acre has a building pad on it. Of course it was easier to harbor those ambitions during the boom.

Now that liar loans and subprime mortgages are bad for business, single family home buyers are scarce as hen’s teeth. But in 2005, they ruled the roost.

The Miami Herald reported the battle between Seijas and citizens in the Redland with indifference, as if their main complaint was Seijas’ imperious and vile treatment of citizens from the dais.

Pat Wade doesn’t advocate halting all development. She is an advocate for good neighborhood planning. Unlike so many people who are too indifferent, dejected, or without time to become involved, Pat Wade jumped into the fray. In using democratic processes to try and halt the spread of suburban sprawl into the last farmland of Miami-Dade County, she poured curdled milk in the cup of production homebuilders, among Mr. De Grandy’s clients as a lawyer in private practice and, also, big advertisers in print media.

Today De Grandy’s website lists clients as diverse as DR Horton Homes, Lennar Corporation, Tarmac Corporation, Elections Systems and Software, White Rock Quarries, and Bush for President Campaign.

In principle, the empowerment of decision-making on construction and development at a local level is one that would be embraced by advocates for a conservative economic agenda like Mr. De Grandy, whose ascent paralleled the rise of the Republican majority in Florida.

De Grandy started in the Florida legislature in 1989. An ambitious and politically astute young attorney, his name briefly surfaced in a federal prosecution of corrupt county judges, called “Operation Court Broom”.

De Grandy quickly emerged as the most powerful member of the Miami Dade delegation to the Florida legislature. It was his expertise in redistricting, as a consequence of the 1990 census, that became his political calling card.

Ironically, the important redistricting case that De Grandy brought-and so earning his reputation-was on the basis of protecting minority rights: a decade later, the outcome of the cause he would champion-the Florida election of George W. Bush -would reside in carefully crafted computer software, authorized by Governor Jeb Bush and then Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, to strip ex-felons, most African Americans, from voting rolls.

In 1992 the Miami Herald featured a story on De Grandy and redistricting: “Since 1989, when he began sifting through two boxes of case files on redistricting battles, few things have occupied more of his time. The political demands began affecting other areas of his life. His marriage broke up. So did his partnership. that left him with a modest life. He lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Fontainebleau Park and drives a 5-year-old Toyota with 50,000 miles on it. In his last financial disclosure form, he listed a net worth of $37,300. He says that’s down to about $20,000, since he transferred his share of a home to his ex- wife.”

Mr. De Grandy’s life quickly changed.

Few could have anticipated that redistricting in the early 1990’s would result in Republican dominance of the Florida legislature during a critical period including the greatest housing boom in Florida history.

He was seized as an up-and-come’er by one of Miami’s most powerful law firms, Greenberg Traurig.

Although the law firm is better known for employing Jack Abramoff, the standard bearer for corruption in the Republican Congress that followed George W. Bush to power in 2000, the wealth of the firm grew out of founder Bob Traurig’s expertise at manipulating zoning law and local legislatures to push suburban sprawl into South Florida farmland.

In 1994 Mr. De Grandy left the Florida Legislature to pursue a major project in the cross-hairs of Greenberg Traurig and at the crossroads of very powerful political influences for both political parties: the prospective conversion of the Homestead Air Force Base into a private commercial airport.

De Grandy acted as consigliere to the principals: a consortium of board members of the Latin Builders Association reconfigured as a private company called HABDI.

HABDI succeeded in securing a long-term lease for the air base, wrecked by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, without competitive bidding. The lease was conditional on the Air Force agreeing to its use as a commercial airport.

And so from misfortune comes opportunity, estimated by its principles to be as much as $10 billion.

De Grandy’s charge was to coordinate a lobbying effort to secure federal approvals for a new commercial airport and to make sure that state planning thresholds were knocked down, before opposition arose. A Democratic fundraiser on the Greenberg Traurig team, Marvin Rosen, was tasked with lobbying the Clinton administration so that the Air Force would speedily approve turning the damaged air base into a commercial airport.

In 1995, the Latin Builders Association recognized Mr. De Grandy as “attorney of the year”.

Commissioner Seijas was a lynchpin on the county commission for the midnight no-bid deal between the HABDI consortium and the County. Also playing a major role in the HABDI plan was former Miami Dade mayor Alex Penelas.

Penelas and Seijas’ opposition to the HABDI deal on the county commission was a Republican and an African American, Arthur Teele, who would commit suicide in the lobby of the Miami Herald in 2003.

In 1998, Teele ran an unsuccessful campaign against Democrat Penelas to be the first executive mayor of the county.

Penelas’ campaign was largely funded by more than $1 million in campaign contributions from HABDI and members of the Latin Builders Association. That same year, Governor Jeb Bush won his first term as governor.

There has never been a full accounting of how many tens of millions were spent by the County Aviation Department or legal department on the failed project.

De Grandy played a role in the 2000 presidential recount in Miami-Dade County-which turned out to pivotal-when he, on behalf of the Miami Dade GOP and George W. Bush, successfully argued in Miami federal court to halt the recount of contested ballots argued in Miami federal court to halt the recount of contested ballots.

In October 2004, Vanity Fair published an in-depth investigation of the November 2000 election and its aftermath: “In Miami-Dade that week, a manual recount of undervotes began to produce a striking number of new votes for Gore. There, as in Palm Beach and Broward, fractious Democratic and Republican lawyers were challenging every vote the canvassing board decided. On Wednesday, November 22, the canvassing board made an ill-fated decision to move the counting up from the 18th floor of the Clark Center, where a large number of partisan observers had been able to view it, to the more cloistered 19th floor. Angry shouts rang out, and so began the “Brooks Brothers riot”. Several dozen people, ostensibly local citizens, began banging on the doors and windows of the room where the tallying was taking place, shouting, “Stop the count! Stop the fraud!” They tried to force themselves into the room and accosted the county Democratic Party chairman, accusing him of stealing a ballot. A subsequent report by The Washington Post would note that most of the rioters were Republican operatives, many of them congressional staffers. Elections supervisor David Leahy would say that the decision to stop counting undervotes had nothing to do with the protest, only with the realization that the job could not be completed by the Florida Supreme Court’s deadline of November 26. Yet the board had seemed confident, earlier, that it could meet the deadline, and the decision to stop counting occurred within hours of the protest.”

Alex Penelas, the only public official who could have ordered the election department to continue the recount was out of the country and ‘unavailable’ at the time.

In 2000, Mr. De Grandy was rated by the Daily Business Review, which supported the conversion of the Homestead Air Force Base to a private commercial airport, as “best lobbyist.”

In 2002, Governor Bush won re-election to be governor for a final, second term. De Grandy would be appointed to the Board of Governors of the Florida Department of Education. In the same year, one of De Grandy’s clients, the electronic voting vendor, Electronic Systems and Software, received a $24.5 million contract for Miami-Dade touch screen voting machines.

As Vanity Fair notes, De Grandy served as Bush transition team’s chief counsel after the election in which the performance of touch voting screens came under withering attack: “So Jeb Bush now had the luxury of appointing a secretary of state to oversee the challenge of getting Florida’s new touch-screens to work as promised. The governor formed a transition team, which included Miguel De Grandy as chief counsel. De Grandy, a Republican lawyer who had done all he could to block Miami-Dade’s recount in 2000, had been recommended by Sandra Mortham to be hired as E.S.&S.’s lawyer-lobbyist in his county. Now this same E.S.&S. lobbyist was chief counsel of the governor’s transition team. The next secretary of state and her director of elections would oversee the certification process for all upgrades to E.S.&S. machines. De Grandy sees nothing untoward about the arrangement because, he says, he did not advise the governor personally on whom to choose for secretary of state.”

How a $500 check turns up in the magnifying glass of the Florida Election Commission may just be the persistence of Pat Wade’s husband insisting that democracy must be made to work.

In 2001, the Bush administration affirmed an earlier Air Force decision to prohibit the use of the Homestead Air Force Base as a commercial airport.

Neither the campaign to unseat Natacha Seijas nor the campaign to undo Pat Wade succeeded.

How so much American political history is wrapped up in a fight over development of open farmland in Miami-Dade County is an enduring mystery, unexplored by the mainstream media and mostly concealed in the day-to-day humdrum business of money and special interests controlling legislatures.

This much is sure: when money is involved, vast amounts of money, principles of governance that presumably define one party from the next get thrown straight out the window. It is all about power. And things change.

The biggest development boom in Florida history is over. Housing markets are crashing around the country, and the damage is just starting to become visible. What dreams were pursued to create equity and to transfer wealth from gullible buyers to financial engineers await a new generation: today’s debt-ridden consumers are mostly exhausted and terrified-a problem for which the Federal Reserve has no answer.

Many of the players in Miami Dade are looking for cover. Many will ride it out, waiting for the next big chance.

ALAN FARAGO lives in Coral Gables, where he writes about South Florida politics on Eye on Miami. He can be reached at alanfarago@yahoo.com.


Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net