A Miami Beach mayoral debate on Tuesday devolved into accusations of racism and angry name-calling by the candidates’ supporters.
The whole thing was caught on camera by MTV, which is making a documentary out of the campaign of one of the candidates.
The setting was a conference room in the Shore Club South Beach hotel on Collins Avenue. A standing-room-only crowd came out for the debate among entertainer Steve Berke (the subject of the documentary), businessman Philip Levine and current Commissioner Michael Góngora. It was organized by Miami Beach’s Tuesday Morning Breakfast Club and the Miami Beach Taxpayers Association.
The issue of race has come up before in the Miami Beach elections: Levine has been accused of running on a slate with commission candidates Joy Malakoff and Michael Grieco. The candidates Levine’s perceived slate is running against are all Hispanic. Levine, Malakoff and Grieco said they are not running coordinated campaigns. Grieco took it a step further, saying it appears their opponents are working in concert, which Góngora denies.
Tuesday’s fracas began with an innocent question from a resident about how city employees treat renters in the city.
Levine responded, in part, by saying that he would change the culture in City Hall “from one of being mañana, lazy, pushing things forward, kicking the can down the road.”
In Spanish, mañana means “tomorrow.”
Resident Carla Probus stood up to say she found the comment “kind of racist.”
She was booed by the audience.
Levine took the mic and referred to the resident as current Mayor Matti Herrera Bower. Bower is term-limited but is running for a commission seat. The insinuation by Levine was that Probus is repeating claims made by Bower. Bower did not return a call for comment.
Levine hushed the boos.
He said: “Folks, you know, it’s interesting, when I have someone like Mrs. Probus, who as you know, is Commissioner Góngora’s best friend and his appointee to all the various boards.”
Probus later described herself as a housewife. She and Góngora both said she had not been appointed to any boards or committees by the commissioner, but she does regularly show up to commission meetings and city events and said she is a community activist.
Levine continued: “They sense that they’re losing power. They’re going to throw anything out possible, as you know. ... So this is like fun grandstanding for you, it helps his reality TV show, but these are serious issues. Let’s not get mixed up in this ridiculousness.”
And then Góngora took the mic.
“The comment about mañana, I find it to be disrespectful for the Hispanics in the room,” he said, adding something, not entirely audible, about buying votes.
Levine is a wealthy, self-made businessman. His campaign has been mostly self-funded. Unlike most fundraising events, where politicians charge for attendance or a plate of food, Levine picks up the tab for his events, which include many senior citizens. His opponents have accused him of “buying” the election, while Levine says he has the support of average residents. As proof he points to his qualification for the election by a petition, instead of by paying a fee.
Góngora was cut off by the crowd. About five minutes of cheering, booing and accusation-hurling followed.
Levine supporters chanted to Góngora supporters: “Out! Out! Out!” Taunts of “ pendejo!” — Spanish, literally, for “pubic hair,” but also a word meaning “coward” — were shouted. A cameraman wearing a Góngora t-shirt yelled: “Shut up!”
A security guard came in and looked around. She laughed. She talked into a little microphone attached to her ear piece.
Someone banged on a table. The room hushed a little. An unidentified woman took the microphone.
“I am telling you as an American lady of color — call me black, call me whatever you want — insult? I have been insulted in my years here in South Florida. So let’s not go there. Let’s have silence. Let’s hear what these gentlemen have to say.”
That settled it. The debate continued with one more question about Miami Beach’s police force, and soon the crowd filed out, chattering about the blow up.
“As we all know, we’re filming reality television today, so I think that the viewers got a big bang for their buck, ” Levine said.
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