Pride And Progress
(Photo Credit: Dale Stine)
Can Miami Beach elect a gay mayor?
By Michael W. Sasser
When Michael Gongora first sought a Miami Beach City Commission seat in 2006, he made it clear that he was not running as a “gay candidate.”
“In that first campaign it wasn’t something I would bring up,” Gongora said. “I was actually ‘outed’ on the radio by an opponent. It was brought up in a negative context to try to use as a negative against me.”
Despite his desire to run and to serve as a candidate and official who happened to be gay – as opposed to a “gay candidate” – Gongora said that first campaign demonstrated some of the challenges that LGBT candidates continue to have in election campaigns. In Gongora’s case, he said that materialized in the shape of a whisper campaign.
“There were whispered rumors that I was a gay party boy,” he said. “They tried to link a D.U.I from law school to paint an image.”
However, the initial Gongora campaign also demonstrated limitations in the effectiveness of anti-gay gossip efforts. The brash – some might say cocky – young lawyer was elected to the city commission to become the first openly gay individual to win a Miami Beach city election, has been subsequently re-elected to the same body, and has tossed his hat into the ring to compete to supplant Matti Bower as the next mayor of Miami Beach later this year. There, at the very least, he will face fellow Commissioner Jerry Libbin, who demographically resembles the prototypical Miami Beach mayor.
While even those who remember the days when Miami Beach was less receptive to the LGBT community recognize the city has made considerable – and laudable – social progress, the question remains: just six years after the city’s electorate came out in support of its first openly gay commissioner, can Miami Beach elect a gay individual to the center seat in the body’s dais?
Gongora believes that things have changed in recent years and that it is entirely possible.
“I think that in 2006, people looked a little more at things like ethnicity and orientation and religion,” Gongora said. “Miami Beach is one of the most diverse, loving communities in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to travel and I think that the mix of people we have here is one of the great reasons people live here.”
Gongora pointed to Miami Beach Pride as an example of the city’s progress. He added that just recently he was in Belgium, cementing Miami Beach as the first-ever U.S. host of the World Outgames in 2017. He also said that even older, long-time Miami Beach voters who might have previously been inclined to vote in demographic blocs might be more open to change today.
“I think older voter blocs have heard the message of diversity and inclusion and reacted to it,” Gongora said. “I hope I’ve helped people become more tolerant and loving of one another.”
Outgoing Mayor Matti Bower is a veteran of Miami Beach politics and points to her own election and successful re-election campaigns as signs of the city’s progress.
“A lot of people didn’t think I could get elected – a Hispanic, elderly woman,” said Bower. “I think it’s more about who can get the job now than what it used to be.”
Bower said she believes a gay man or woman could be elected in Miami Beach. “I think Miami Beach is a very forward city. I think when voters look at candidates, they don’t so much see Hispanic, female, gay, etc., but instead they see what is good for the city. Our voters are very intelligent. We’re a very diverse city now and have all kinds of people. Although I think there are still voting blocs, voters do look at the personalities and views of candidates.”
One longtime political observer who was previously involved in Miami Beach campaigns echoed the sentiment. However, “It depends on who the individual is,” said the political insider, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The city of Miami Beach would elect a giraffe if it was in its best interest. Race, gender, ethnicity, orientation don’t matter that much. Voters ask one question: what do I get out of it? Voters in general, and particularly those in Miami Beach, are sick of things as they are. But they also do some stupid things.”
Some have questioned Miami Beach’s vaunted gay-friendly reputation, and for sure, it has not always been an untarnished image. A police officer involved in what appeared to be a random act of violence against a gay man in 2009 was given a slap on the wrist, thanks to police union protection. Complaints of similar police harassment continue to circulate despite very visible steps by the Miami Beach Police Department to build bridges with the LGBT community. Friction between the MBPD and the gay community has a long history. It’s been just two decades since high-profile police raids on Miami Beach gay clubs observing New Year’s Eve prompted cries of prejudice and abuse heard around the international LGBT community.
“I remember that there were like no valid arrests,” said David Kelsey, president of the South Beach Hotel & Restaurant Association and longtime community activist. “They really didn’t get anything to speak of. It was an embarrassing thing for them to do at a time we were trying to attract gay business.”
Kelsey said the raids included one on a club by officers in ski masks and bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons. “It couldn’t have been worse as far as our image was concerned.”
Those and subsequent smaller-scale allegations tarnished the reputation of the city in the eyes of many gay men and women around the world. However, the MBPD has engaged in a considerable effort to build bridges with the local gay community with notable successes – and lapses.
Interestingly, Gongora’s relationship with the community evolved after his initial election. Going into the mayoral election, Gongora said his perception of his role in the LGBT community has changed. “Once I was elected, I heard the voice of the people and of the media, and have really felt an obligation to the community to do a good job, to be well-read and well-informed and to represent the community well. I’m proud of my supporters – gay and straight, Christian and Jewish. That’s what I think equality is all about. It’s not voting for someone because of identity, but rather because they’re the better candidate.”
Long-time North Miami Councilman Scott Galvin knows a little something about navigating Miami-Dade politics as a gay politician. He was elected in the sizable bedroom community in 1999, and re-elected in 2003, 2007 and 2011 – in the latter case, with 86 percent of the vote. In 2004, he came out publicly in the pages of the now-defunct LGBT newspaper The Weekly News (TWN), believed to be the first time in local history an official came out while in office, and has been a high-profile member of the community since, joining fewer than a half dozen openly gay elected officials in Miami-Dade County. Like Gongora, he has regularly faced whisper campaigns intended to stunt his career.
“There was some sign vandalism in my 2010 (unsuccessful) congressional race, but mostly it has been whispering and spreading rumors,” said Galvin. That included an ugly whisper campaign that emerged slightly in local media during his 2011 re-election campaign – the year, he pointed out, that he carried almost 90 percent of votes cast.
“Because North Miami doesn’t have a real whole gay community, those issues aren’t on the forefront. I imagine a lot of my constituents don’t even know I’m gay,” Galvin – who is actively involved in LGBT issues at the local and national level – said. “North Miami has no Pride event, for example. If there was a push for that, there might be some blowback. But things are changing fast, just as they are changing fast nationally, and two years ago, I could see some blowback if we tried something like that. Now, I don’t know.”
Galvin said that even though serving in a city generally considered less progressive than Miami Beach, his orientation and it being public have not been a detriment to his political career.
Gongora’s resume is impressive without even considering his groundbreaking political success in Miami Beach. Prior to his election, Gongora was a long-term community activist, having chaired the Environmental Coalition of Miami & the Beaches (ECOMB), the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce, the Miami Beach Bar Association. In 2007, as the president of the Miami Beach Bar Association, he was able to successfully re-open the North Beach Pro Bono Law Clinic. Gongora is also on the board of directors for Council Towers – the first Beach commissioner to sit on that body. Council Towers consists of two affordable housing buildings for the elderly and are located in the heart of Miami Beach. Gongora is also a well-known advocate and speaker on environmental causes, having created and chaired the City of Miami Beach’s Sustainability Committee. He is currently the chair of the Miami Beach Land Use and Development committee, a member of the Miami Dade Film and Entertainment Advisory Board and the board of directors for the Miami-Dade League of Cities representing Miami Beach. He is also a current member of the Coastal Ocean Task Force representing Miami Beach. In 2003, SunPost newspaper named Gongora as one of the “Power 50 of Miami”; and in 2006, South Florida CEO Magazine selected him as a Next Gen Leader. In 2009, Gongora was selected as Florida Trend’s Florida Legal Elite. In 2011, Gongora was a recipient of the Emerald Green City Award from ECOMB.
Gongora’s decision to run for mayor was not based on his quest to continue making headlines in the press or to blaze new trails for LGBT politicians. “It’s about Miami Beach’s needs,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about what’s in the best interest of Miami Beach,” he said. “It’s been a difficult year or two and I think new blood is needed. I think the city needs cleaning up. We need to bring in people who can take us in the right direction. I was sitting back, watching things and I thought about the possibility. Then residents reached out to me, which was important, and I had to talk to my family. Campaigns are a lot of work.”
Gongora’s chief campaign issues address several of the city’s current challenges: restoring residents’ confidence in the public processes, and infrastructure improvements such as the convention center development and “rebuilding the city from the ground up,” he said, are two objectives. The third goal he cited might be the trickiest one of them all.
“I want to focus on our long-term fiscal health,” Gongora said. “We have an unsustainable pension plan and someone needs to straighten it out. And it might just take a gay mayor to do that!”
This article was originally published in Wire Magazine Issue #11, 2013
Miami Beach Unmasked: Why Was a Gay-Bashing Cop Fired & Rehired?
By Michael W. Sasser
Photo Credit: © Laszlo Halasi | Shutterstock.com 2012
All great cities have around them a number of myths that define them – or illustrate their color – over the course of years. There are the subterranean semi-human subway tunnel dwellers in New York. There are ghosts all over London and Boston. And Philadelphia is the city of brotherly love.
Obviously some of these myths are more believable than others. Over my many years circulating in Beach circles, I have had an occasion to wonder many times whether or not Miami Beach as a gay safe haven, a gay residential mecca of sorts, is one of it’s defining characteristics or if it’s as much a myth as subhumans inhabiting New York (Anthony Weiner notwithstanding).
Some readers might be too young or too new here to remember the vaunted raids by Beach police on gay clubs 20-something years ago, when the city was still a slum and gays were just beginning to create their footprint here – a footprint that inevitably and inarguably led Miami Beach to being the great city it is today. Those were horrible moments – bigoted, anti-gay, anti-business and reflective of the worse eras of Miami Beach history.
There are other examples from the city’s developing days. I know gay businessmen who were harassed for their overtly gay businesses on Lincoln Road and elsewhere – back before Lincoln Road looked the same as every other central visitor district in the world. And there were always, always, reports and rumors of gay visitors being abused, returning home and subsequently rarely making an issue of their poor treatment at the hands of either criminals or cops. Just since the 21st century dawned, I was personally confronted by a perennial Beach political candidate who assured me that “they” might tolerate one gay person on the city commission but that “they” would never tolerate more than one.
A few times, media has dared to point out problems gay tourists in particular have faced on Miami Beach. Each time, media has been attacked for daring to imply the lack of integration perfection on Miami Beach. On that general issue, I don’t have a position. I don’t believe any city is a safe haven for gays – or any other minority. Bigots abound everywhere and often in positions of power. Still, recent events in Miami Beach give this gay writer moment to pause – and they should do the same for all gay men and women.
The issue is, of course, the reinstatement of Miami Beach Police officer Eliut Hazzi. Hazzi, of course, was one of two officers involved in an overt gay bashing incident dating back to 2009. Hazzi and another officer were involved in an incident in which not only were they sighted by a passer-by beating the daylights out of a gay victim not ever convicted of any crime, but when Hazzi and buddy realized they were being observed, they proceeded to beat the daylights out of the witness while using hate speech. Oh and the story was corroborated by someone with whom the witness, a former Beach resident, was on the phone.
In the real world, both officers would never see the outside of a jail cell. Instead, they were treated with the usual double standard for dirty cops and the establishment’s perspective was that there was not enough evidence. Understand: you or I would never leave prison again if we committed this obvious crime. Instead, though, the city – rightfully – fired Hazzi. Hazzi demonstrated he has neither the intellect nor the moral integrity to possess a firearm, much less represent the public whose representatives fired his bigot ass. Case closed, huh? No room for that kind of thing in Miami Beach. Right? Wrong.
Enter the union. Now I am sure there was some time a century ago when unions were the good guys, battling exploitative industrial employers. Today, though, unions are why racist cops are on the streets, why pedophile teachers sit at home making more than you and I, why states are going bankrupt and why our children can’t be bothered to learn to read or write. Unions’ primary job is to continue the flow of union fees so union leaders can live large and be big players in politics. Unions don’t give one tiny bit about the public and – to be fair – they really aren’t supposed to. They exist to make sure people who shouldn’t have jobs, do have jobs – generally paid for by the people they don’t serve. Hey, it’s a weird world, right? So with union support an independent arbitrator, of course, let Hazzi off the hook and he has been reinstated. Gays on Miami Beach should fear the police today more than they ever have. Cops who batter gays have free reign thanks to the unions.
It isn’t just LGBT Beach residents who are furious. So are city leaders. “I can’t believe it, it’s disgusting and it makes me sick,” Mayor Matti Bower told me this week. I believe her. I’ve known Matti for 20 years, since long before she held office. And she is sincere. Her voice conveyed her revulsion and frustration. She went on to rail against the number of disgraced cops who have been reinstated by a system that doesn’t seem to care one bit about the safety and welfare of members of the public who don’t work for the MBPD, citing case after case where bad cops have been returned to the streets. “I’m beside myself,” Matti told me. “I am so upset. It’s just incredible to me. I want to read the transcript to see how this could happen and I am going to look into it.”
Matti has always been a friend of the gay community and, more than that, she is a mom and grandmother. Her politics reflect that. The last thing Matti wants is gay visitors to the Beach being brutalized by city police. Hell, the last thing Matti wants is anyone to be brutalized at all, so abuse at the hands of employees of the government clearly and rightly sticks in the good lady’s craw.
Commissioner Michael Gongora also ponders the incident. Michael is, of course, the city’s first openly gay commissioner. But he is more than that. I met Michael before he was ever elected and witnessing his emergence as one of the city’s best all-time leaders has been a pleasure. He isn’t just “our” commissioner, he is also the best young attorney elected to office in my tenure in Miami Beach. However I feel his measured response is a sign of the power of the police union, and that worries me.
“I was not surprised to hear that Officer Hazzi had prevailed in his arbitration, especially since [the passer-by witness] was not called to testify and it is my understanding that former police chief Carlos Noriega’s testimony was favorable to Officer Hazzi,” Michael told me. “In any case, current police chief Ray Martinez advises me that Officer Hazzi is currently in retraining. He has been out of work for 16 months and before that had been on desk duty for over a year, so it has been roughly 2 1/2 years since he has been out on the street. Officer Hazzi will receive sensitivity training and police retraining before returning to regular patrol. This unfortunate incident will stay on his record and the Arbitrator did rule that Officer Hazzi should receive a written reprimand.”
“At this point we have to use this entire situation as an opportunity to improve attitudes towards the LGBT community,” he continued. “It is my great hope that Officer Hazzi and all officers have an opportunity to meet members of the LGBT community and be sensitive to the diversity of Miami Beach residents. “I do not foresee a situation like this happening again in Miami Beach, at least not while I am part of the Commission,” Michael concluded. I believe Michael, I believe he and others will make sure this situation doesn’t recur. However, both the Mayor and I have wondered why the seminal witness was not part of this arbitration. Had he been, I believe the results would be different. Or at least I’d like to think so.
The victims in this case were searching for a lost dog collar and having a look at a former residence allegedly. Other old-timers like myself will note that neither crooked cops nor crooked unionistas accused the victims of behavior at the park that has caused problems in the past for others. So how safe do you feel in our city? Do you feel Miami Beach is a haven for gays? Do you feel safer here than other cities with less reputation for being gay-friendly? Should you? You decide. I just know that the many, many good cops on Miami Beach are seeing their reputations tarnished because of a cadre of bigots and criminals with badges. I feel for the good police of the city. I worry for gay and lesbian brothers and sisters whether they live here or come to visit our beautiful city. I feel for leaders like Matti and Michael who are let down by city employees immune to discipline thanks to the power play of sleazy unions with no interest in the general welfare of the public.
And the next time I see police lights in my rear view mirror, I fear for my life and safety. Does that sound like a haven to you?
Photo Credit: © Rafa Carvajal
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Rep. Illeana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami Becomes First Republican To Co-Sponsor The Respect For Marriage Act
Breaking news from our hometown today, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami) joined another 124 in Congress to co-sponsor the Respect for Marriage Act. This legislation would put a stop to the discriminatory federal ban on marriage for LGBT Americans. Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen became the first Republican to co-sponsor this iconic legislation, leading the way for support from both democrats and republicans alike in the fight for equality.
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen stated,
“The need for equality for all is ongoing. I support repeal of DOMA because marriage equality is a goal that we should all work together to reach. I thank my friends at SAVE Dade who are in the trenches every day fighting for the rights of South Florida’s LGBT community.”
We are proud to support Congresswoman Ros-Lehitnen and the Respect For Marriage Act. Stay tuned to Wire Magazine for news & updates relating to the advancement of the Respect For Marriage Act and other strives in our battle for equality.