In South Miami, the leafy, pleasant suburb off U.S. 1 just south of the University of Miami campus, the tenor of political discourse tends to toggle between the mundane and the absurd.
Lately it has been more of the latter.
At a meeting last month, Mayor Philip Stoddard and a commission ally were talking about ousting the city’s police chief, something they can’t do because only the city manager has that power (and they had just fired him four days earlier).
Commissioner Valerie Newman, a foe of the mayor, didn’t like what she was hearing and began to object vehemently.
Mayor Stoddard, a bespectacled biology professor at Florida International University, banged his gavel like an impatient Judge Wapner. Newman interpreted that as a cue to proceed.
“These are scoundrels sitting up here who are afraid of being arrested for nudity in front of two minors,” Newman blurted out of the blue. “[And] another one for housing a wanted criminal in his back yard.”
Unusual. And yet so very South Miami, where the politics are raw and deeply personal.
The stakes may be small, but the personalities, peccadilloes and grudges are jumbo size.
“This is unlike any thing I have ever seen,” said longtime political activist Richard Ward, who, as a former middle school assistant principal, has presumably witnessed some unruly behavior. “There has always been back-stabbing, but this — this is just South Miami getting worse.”
This is the city where a previous mayor, running for a new term, was arrested outside of City Hall on election eve for allegedly accepting an illegal contribution. He lost the election (but won acquittal).
A weekly newspaper publisher once ran for mayor even though it was an open secret that his condo was outside the city. The publisher explained that he slept on a cot at his newspaper plant, which is in the city, making him a resident and thereby qualified to run and serve. An architect who supported the other guy would crank-call the publisher at odd hours of the night to see if he lived where he said he did. And if he answered the phone? The architect would say “just checking” and hang up.
It’s where a city supervisor — the human resources manager, no less — hired her brother-in-law as parks and recreation director, despite his lying about having a master’s degree. The manager resigned in lieu of being fired.
The problem with running for office in South Miami is that you might actually win. And then you will be bombarded with personal attacks. Even before his election, during the 2010 campaign, opponents claimed Stoddard was a convicted drug dealer, which he wasn’t. Someone with a similar name –– Phillip Dale Stoddard –– had the rap sheet. And yet, Stoddard won.
During the last election in February, opponents distributed flyers accusing Stoddard of polluting city water by building a pool-sized fish pond in his backyard without a permit. Stoddard said the city didn’t require a permit, but he has since gotten one.
Stoddard’s academic studies focus on how animals’ dishonesty affects communication systems. One study examined the behavior of electric fish, including their sexual behavior.
Newman latched onto that tidbit, labeling the mayor “a pervert” during a public meeting.