Nearly 300 mayors begin a four-day convention in Miami Beach on Friday, with an agenda that includes a white party at the Fontainebleau, trying to solve America’s infrastructure crisis, nighttime beach volleyball, and fighting President Donald Trump on global warming.
The annual U.S. Conference of Mayors always brings the host city a mix of politics, wonky panels and after-hours mingling among city leaders throughout the country. With Miami Beach as the backdrop in 2017, the parties are going later and the politics are looking fiercer as mayors use the city’s battle with rising seas to sharpen their attacks on Trump’s rejection of the Paris climate-change agreement.
Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine plans to join New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Friday afternoon to tour the Sunset Harbour neighborhood, where the city has raised streets and installed pumps to combat rising tides. The mayors of Boston and Los Angeles scheduled a joint appearance Saturday to highlight how cities are committing to anti-pollution goals in the Paris accord even if Trump won’t.
“The story of Miami Beach’s embrace of resiliency is not something that’s lost on anyone here,” said Elena Temple, communications director for the Mayors Conference, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that lobbies on municipal issues.
Trump’s agenda has the Democrat-heavy group rallying for a fight in 2017, and organizers credit the ongoing battles on climate, budget cuts and immigration with helping drive record turnout in Miami Beach. The resort city also is positioning the weekend as a more enticing getaway than the typical U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting.
Last year’s host, Indianapolis, bussed meeting goers to the city’s Children’s Museum for a Saturday night party that ended at 10 p.m. Miami Beach’s host website has an entire section devoted to “After Parties,” and Saturday night includes a private soiree at the Faena House penthouse set to end early Sunday morning. “Networking never looked so good,” notes the event listing.
On Friday night, Stephen Marley is the headline act for a poolside kickoff at the Fontainebleau (“All-White Ensembles Encouraged!”) followed by the official post-party at the hotel’s LIV nightclub. Saturday’s main event is at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, featuring a performance of songs from Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s “On Your Feet!” musical (“Suggested Attire: Resort Wear”), followed by Sunday’s beach party off Ocean Drive, with glow-in-the-dark ping-pong and “neon” beach volleyball (“Suggested Attire: Flip Flops”).
It’s not all glamorous. At 7 a.m. Saturday, a bus leaves the Fontainebleau for the 35-minute drive to Mayor’s Cafe and Bagel Emporium in Pembroke Pines for the annual session on small businesses. “I keep mentioning my restaurant at these small-business meetings,” said owner Frank Ortis, who also serves as the mayor of Pembroke Pines and is active in the national group. “So they said: Well, let’s see it.”
Levine lobbied fellow mayors to bring the event to Miami Beach, its first return to the city — and the Fontainebleau — since John F. Kennedy addressed the convention by telephone in 1962. “It’s a great responsibility,” Levine said, “but also a great honor.”
A Democrat, Levine has used Miami Beach’s anti-flooding measures to raise his national profile as he flirts with a run for governor. “My message is going to be pretty powerful, and in everyone’s face,” he said. “It’s a message of: ‘You can’t wait. You’ve got to move.’ ”
The weekend promises a star turn for Levine, particularly after Thursday’s announcement that former President Bill Clinton — a friend of the Miami Beach mayor — would address the convention Saturday.
Clinton’s booking comes as Levine declines to tamp down speculation he might bolt from the Democratic Party to run as an an independent in 2018. “I haven’t said I am leaving the Democratic Party,” Levine said. “Unless the party leaves me.”
Miami Beach contributed a $90,000 tourism grant to the event, and covered about $150,000 in staffing costs and permit fees for the conference, a city spokeswoman said. But almost all of the money and donations for the host committee’s estimated $4 million budget comes from private sources.
Florida Power and Light is sponsoring Friday’s Fontainebleau party, and duty-free retailers are picking up some of the tab for the after-hours celebrations.
The host committee expects to pay fundraiser Brian Goldmeier about $120,000 for his work securing cash donations, according to a grant application filed with the city’s tourism board. Shinola, the Detroit-based retailer with a store in Wynwood, donated customized watches for each mayor that Levine said sell for about $375 each.
Among the other expenses listed in the $2 million cash budget: $5,000 worth of guayaberas for the mayors, $2,500 for “farewell” flip-flops, and $8,000 for “sand globe” mementos for all attendees.
Corporate dollars play a significant role in funding the national group’s share of the costs, too. While about 270 mayors are expected for the Miami Beach event, the convention predicts it will have more than 1,800 attendees in all. Corporations pursuing government business make up a large chunk of the turnout.
Alex Heckler, a prominent lobbyist in Miami-Dade and national fundraiser for the Democratic Party, served as a co-chair of Miami Beach’s host committee. “I’ve gone to these for the last five or six years,” said Heckler, a partner at Llorente & Heckler in Miami Beach.
One of his clients, New Flyer, will be shuttling attendees around the city in the kind of electric bus it hopes to sell to municipal governments. Another, engineering firm CH2M Hill, is providing an executive to speak at a Friday panel on water systems. Both companies are sponsors of the event.
Like the Super Bowl, the national organization brings its own set of sponsors while local organizers must find different underwriters. That can make for some awkward pairings. Airbnb, the online home-stay booker that Levine has declared unwelcome in Miami Beach, is the organization’s main sponsor for the event.
Along with endorsing policy positions, the conference uses its annual meeting to recruit mayors. Many don’t join, citing dues that can cost up to $100,000, depending on a city’s size. Across the bay from Miami Beach, mayors presiding over the two largest municipal governments — Miami-Dade’s Carlos Gimenez and Miami’s Tomás Regalado — aren’t members. Both cited costs.
“That’s a shame,” said Manny Diaz, Regalado’s predecessor and a former president of the Washington-based mayors conference. “Obviously, I spent a lot of time putting Miami on the map up there.”
All mayors can attend the annual meetings, and Gimenez and Regalado both plan appearances at the Miami Beach gathering.
Levine said the conference wanted Trump to come to Miami Beach and extend the tradition of presidential appearances. President Barack Obama addressed the group when they met in San Francisco in 2015, and George W. Bush came in 2004. Instead, the White House sent a representative to discuss the president’s planned $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
Tom Cochran, the conference’s longtime executive director, said Trump’s election has helped galvanize mayors into seeking solace in common problems and a lack of hope that Washington can help.
“There is confusion and turbulence and concern and fear that has been going on with our new president,” said Cochran, who attended his first annual meeting in 1968 when Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered the keynote address in Pittsburgh.
“They just want to be together,” he said of mayors across the country. “I think they realize, in a bipartisan way, we’re in this together. And maybe alone.”