In the early 1970s during David Kennedy’s three years in office as Miami’s mayor, the city was at a crossroads.
The old-school era of reform under Mayor Robert King High had ended a few years earlier and the beginnings of the boom town under Mayor Maurice Ferré would soon take hold.
Kennedy, who lived in Coral Gables, died Thursday morning at South Miami Hospital, where he had been recently admitted. He was 80.
He only served as mayor from 1970 to 1973 but impressed his successor as one of the two greatest politicians the city of Miami has known in the last 50 years.
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This, in a region that produced respected names like Bob Graham, Claude Pepper, Robert King High, Dante Fascell, Stephen P. Clark.
They all impressed six-term Mayor Ferré, who would serve for 12 years until 1985.
But, “Of all the people I’ve met in the political sphere in my 50 years in politics, David Kennedy became, in my opinion, the best political practitioner, along with Arthur Teele, that I have known in Miami. He was a master of politics and I say that in the good sense of politics — not in the ugly connotation of today.”
Born in Baltimore, Kennedy idolized 19th Century American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and envisioned a green city to go along with Miami’s natural resources, like Biscayne Bay.
Olmsted, famed for co-designing numerous urban parks like Central Park in New York City, Elm Park in Massachusetts and Mount Royal Park in Montreal, inspired Kennedy to envision Bicentennial Park in Miami, and the Coconut Grove park that now carries his name.
“The David Kennedy Park kind of encapsulates my father in a lot of ways,” said son David Kennedy, Jr. “He was a dog lover and the fact it’s a dog-friendly park is not coincidental. The park was closest to Dinner Key and one of the most used parks for fitness. And the beauty of South Florida, the oaks, the mangroves, being right there on the bay. That park encapsulates a lot of the spirit of my father.”
Ferré credits his predecessor for those parks and two other initiatives that he felt moved the metropolis forward:
Kennedy, a 1958 University of Miami Law School grad, was first elected to the Miami Commission in 1961. He pushed to transfer control of the Water and Sewage Department from the city of Miami to the county.
“Kennedy had the wisdom and courage and fortitude to turn it over to the county and that took a lot of guts,” Ferré said.
He also lobbied hard to install Don Hickman as Miami fire chief in 1974 despite the fact that Hickman didn’t have a college degree.
Ferré said Hickman “was probably the best fire chief the city of Miami ever had and I don’t mean to belittle Carlos Giménez, but Chief Hickman was the gold standard of fire chiefs and made Miami a class one fire department. And that was all from the backing of Kennedy.”
But Kennedy’s public life ended in 1973 when he was ensnared by police wiretaps at the Market Truck Stop in Miami. Kennedy, two judges and three others were charged with conspiracy to commit bribery of a judge. The charges were dropped and Kennedy, suspended from his seat, was reinstated. But he chose not to run for re-election.
“Had he decided to run, I would have backed off and not run,” Ferré said.
One of Ferré’s first tasks was to name that Grove park the David T. Kennedy Park.
“I did that because I thought the community, including the Herald, was terribly unfair to David,” Ferré said. “He was acquitted and I thought it was important to remind this community in 1974 that people are innocent until found guilty and you can not convict people by innuendo. Yes, there was a cloud, unquestionably, but there was also a positive legacy. Kennedy was a major contributor to the well-being of Miami.”
After Kennedy left office he resumed his law career, became a political activist and consultant, served as vice president of Terremark Inc., under president, developer Manny Medina, and then became an executive vice president of the Muss Organization. Along with hotelier Steve Muss, he led a statewide drive for a casino-legalization referendum for the November 1986 election.
Kennedy also was a main strategist for his third wife, Rosario Kennedy’s successful City Commission campaign in the 1980s. He also was a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Miami.
The latter role particularly appealed to his son. “Those were the things as a kid I remember — sharing my Sundays for a decade with him and whatever Big Brother program he was mentoring. Those are joyous memories for me.”
Kennedy was also a voracious reader and history buff. He would answer his family’s questions by citing at least four different moments in history with similar outcomes. “The amount of information he processed, I had never met his equal,” his son said.
In addition to his son, Kennedy is survived by daughters Kimberly and O’lydia Kennedy and two granddaughters, Hennessy Kennedy and Beccamarie Bouche Kennedy. A viewing will be held at 6 p.m. Friday at Van Orsdel Family Funeral Chapel, 4600 SW Eighth St., Coral Gables, with services at noon Saturday.