Adventures in Politics

Adventures in Politics

3L Publishing
Regular price
Sale price
Unit price

SALE: $18.95

The Big Rocks

I got elected mayor without opposition in March 2003, after serving three years on the city commission. In my sole race, I won 82 percent of the vote and attracted a record amount of support. I was 35-years-old when I was elected to the commission, which meant that by far I had become the youngest elected official at the time and in recent memory. I became mayor of a two-time, all-American city before the age of 40. That age may not seem like it’s young, and it really isn’t; however, for Delray, it was young. I found myself the youngest person by 15 to 20 years in most of the rooms I entered.

I had been elected alongside an ambitious group of colleagues. We had spirited debates but got along well. Several of my colleagues would later become close personal friends.

We were a hungry bunch, determined to do big things. Among ourselves, we vowed to move “the big rocks.” We felt passionate and confident. We sensed palpable possibility in Delray Beach.

When we came into office, the city suffered a bit of a lull. In the 1990s, amazing progress had been made, but by 2000, city government had become somewhat adrift and estranged from residents. The year before I ran, the city had been divided by a particularly nasty fight over the size and scope of a downtown housing project, Worthing Place. As a result, it created divisiveness and a sense that we needed to refresh the script and once again plan for the future.

When we were elected in 2000, no plan existed to finish nor did we have any inherited initiatives. We had a wide-open canvas. We relished the opportunity to get the town moving again.

In every city quadrant, with every imaginable demographic group that mattered, we experienced popularity. Sure, we had our enemies. Every elected official has a few, but our opposition was minimal and consisted mostly of fringe characters who were often referred to by locals as the “crazies” or CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything).

Delray Beach, a fascinating city of 62,000, ranked as the third or fourth (depending on the latest subdivision) largest city in Palm Beach County. Our success gave us an outsize influence and profile in South Florida. Indeed, visitors from across the nation—including elected officials—made regular pilgrimages to Delray Beach to learn about our successes and best practices.

Being mayor of such a city was not only an honor, it was endlessly fascinating.

Delray was America in 16-square miles: diverse with a large Haitian and African American population, a ton of active and engaged retirees, and a growing number of young “creatives” attracted by our beach, vibrant downtown, and emerging cultural scene. We had great wealth and great poverty. We had a rich history but a difficult past when it came to the volatile issue of race.

I had moved to Delray in 1987. I was 22-years-old and landed a newspaper job for a large chain of community weeklies. It was a dream position. I had no ambition to work for the New York Times or to cover the White House. My ambition was to cover a small town and to someday own my own weekly community newspaper.

I threw myself into the beat with abandon, writing six to eight stories a week with a set of news briefs. I relished combing through the police blotter and wrote seven days a week. The hours were immaterial to me. I spent my days interviewing the most interesting players in town and my nights riding in police cruisers on warrant sweeps and drug stings—writing a long investigative series on crime, migrant workers, drug rehabilitation, cross-dressers, prostitutes, business moguls, and aspiring artists. I lived the job, spending hours with my subjects, getting to know the criminals, cops, politicians, homeowner association presidents, and political kingmakers. It was a blast. The best job ever, except …

I wanted more.

More money.

More responsibility. More action.

While I loved being an observer and found Delray an inexhaustible muse, I longed to do, not just write. I had thoroughly enjoyed chronicling the Delray story from 1987 to 1996, which would prove to be a key era in our city’s history, but somehow, I felt empty. Being a reporter gave me staying power, something I liked. Unlike politicians who came and went, I stayed. But the longer I stayed and told other people’s stories, the more I wanted to create my own. I felt restless—terribly restless.

I came to town during a dark time in the city’s history. In the 1980s, Delray was known as “Dull Ray,” a backwater to wealthy Boca Raton. We earned that moniker because of a lack of restaurants, businesses, and nightlife.

But in reality, Delray Beach was anything but dull in the ’80s.

The crack cocaine epidemic hit the city hard. Crime and drug abuse ravaged Delray Beach. Some neighborhoods became literal open-air drug markets with spotters sitting on milk crates to signal potential customers and to warn dealers about undercover cops.

As a young reporter, I spent many nights with our police department’s tactical team, which was known on the streets as the “jump-out crew.” Drug dealers feared the presence of the black SUV and the sight of heavily armed officers dressed in black T-shirts jumping out to chase them.

I rode along as the team raided crack house after crack house, arresting dealers and seizing drugs and weapons. I felt moved by the presence of little children up at all hours of the night as their parents smoked and dealt crack. I became haunted by the dead eyes of addicts who stared blankly at me as I scribbled notes to capture the little details that would help my stories come to life.

Those little details were everywhere I looked—religious icons on the walls of crack dens, the burned fingertips of dealers who cooked crack on stoves overrun with roaches, a football trophy proudly displayed in the home of a once-prominent football player whose crack- and AIDS-ravaged body had shrunk to 100 pounds.

While I loved the adventure, I literally ached from the horrors I saw. My evenings were a blur of indelible images: an old man, shaking and crying, held hostage by dealers and prostitutes who took over his home; terrified children living in hovels without working toilets; a prostitute known on the street as “yuck mouth” screaming at me as she was questioned by police.

At the end of the shift, I would eat breakfast with the officers at a local dive, and we’d go over the night’s adventures. And when they went home to sleep, I would head to the office, fearful that rest would dull my memory and cause me to miss the most telling details for my stories.

Delray Beach was vastly different from the suburban Long Island neighborhood that I called home. My Levitt subdivision was overwhelmingly white and middle class. Delray Beach was like I had described it: America in 16-square miles— a melting pot of cultures, age groups, ethnicities, and interests.

Along our beach, we had enormous wealth, while two miles away we had third-world-type poverty. It was remarkable to me, a kid from Long Island. It’s still remarkable to me.

Delray’s main street, Atlantic Avenue, was a microcosm for my new home state. My theory was you could experience all of Florida on this one street.

At its western edge sat the Everglades, a short distance away were enormous fields of winter vegetables planted and picked by migrant workers, followed by canyons of condos commanded by senior citizens, followed by suburban sprawl, followed by a historic African American commercial district, a quaint, old Florida downtown, and finally a beach. Atlantic Avenue had it all, and every section teemed with stories that I longed to tell.

On US 1 just north of downtown, prostitutes roamed the streets. You could have gone bowling on our main street after 5:00 p.m. and not hit anything. Delray had become a deserted, somewhat depressing place, but I absolutely loved it. I don’t know why; I just did.

Politically, I found the city fascinating.

The city commission had become a stew of bickering and intrigue. In the ’80s, the city went through a bunch of city managers, and top administrators frequently came and went. As a reporter, I found this stuff fascinating to cover. As a taxpayer, I found it discouraging. Real estate values were depressed. It seemed that all the growth and investment had headed north, south, and west—everywhere except Delray Beach.

But as a reporter, I gobbled it up. I traveled to state prisons to interview some of Delray’s most notorious criminals, followed people through drug rehab, interviewed the federal highway hookers, spent nights in the local hospital’s trauma unit, lived with migrant workers in places called the Mosquito Camp, and delved deep into the city’s educational and racial issues. We covered city hall like it was the White House, cranking out stories and enterprising features in a magazine format that readers devoured.

Still, despite the grim reality, there were some bright spots. The city’s embattled mayor, Doak Campbell III, had presided over some visionary initiatives. On his watch, the city created a community redevelopment agency to attack slum and blight. The city’s first historic districts were designated. A group of citizens got together to launch an initiative called Visions 2000 that outlined a blueprint for a better future. However, despite the bright spots, the infighting plagued and engulfed Mayor Campbell and the city.

But before deciding against seeking another term in 1990, Mayor Campbell formed the Atlantic Avenue Task Force to brainstorm ways to save the downtown. One of the triumphs of the task force was to beat back a Florida Department of Transportation plan to widen historic Atlantic Avenue to ease evacuations in the event of a hurricane. Had Atlantic Avenue been widened, it would have been converted from a pedestrian friendly—albeit tired—downtown district into a highway, forever dooming the prospects of reigniting the downtown.

In addition to the bickering on the commission and the rumors of weird goings-on at city hall, the city started to make some interesting moves.

In 1989, voters overwhelmingly passed the Decade of Excellence Bond, a $20-million effort to beautify the downtown. The bond issue contained projects identified as part of a planning process known as Visions 2000, which envisioned a brighter future for Delray Beach by spelling out what community leaders felt was the city’s potential.

A citizen-led drive to convert a blighted, abandoned school (walled off by a rusted chain-link fence) into a cultural arts center and community-gathering place dovetailed with that effort. Old School Square sat in the strategic heart of the downtown and served as a beacon of hope and a catalyst for private investment.

Fed up with the commission’s divisiveness, a trio of candidates ran in the landmark 1990 election. A charismatic, young business-oriented candidate named Tom Lynch got named at the top of the ticket.

Lynch had moved to Delray in 1969 and ran a successful family insurance business. He was the founding chair of the CRA, served as chairman of the chamber, and acted as a key member of the Atlantic Avenue Task Force.

Armed with business skills, the Visions 2000 roadmap, and money from the Decade of Excellence Bond, Lynch began to make big, transformational changes. Within a year, he and the commission hired a new city manager and brought stability to city hall and civility to local politics. He also moved to rid the city of its controversial police chief, an old Southern cop straight out of central casting.

In his place, the city hired a visionary chief who embraced community policing and other cutting-edge law enforcement tactics.

I was in the midst of it all—as an observer, anyway. I interviewed the outgoing police chief, and instead of a valedictory story, he turned the tables on everyone by announcing in his interview with me that he had reconsidered and wanted to stay. My story got cited by the Miami Herald—a thrill for a young reporter—and within days, Mayor Lynch and the commission sweetened the pot to get rid of the controversial chief.