Miami Lakes

For Michael Pizzi, an election lost and a spotlight fading

Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi
Former Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Even before the election results came in, Michael Pizzi said he knew voters wouldn’t be delivering him one final vindication.

The two-term Miami Lakes mayor had been led out of town hall in handcuffs on bribery charges three years ago, then acquitted by a jury, and then reinstated to office after a costly court fight with the city. This year, he brushed off advice not to run for reelection and give voters a chance to pass judgment on the scandal, saying his record and popularity would prevail.

But minutes after the polls closed at the Barbara Goleman High School on Nov. 29, Pizzi walked over to his challenger, council member Manny Cid, and hugged him.

“I want to congratulate you,” Pizzi, 54, said he told his opponent, in an account that Cid, 33, confirmed. “I think you’re going to be a fantastic mayor.”

Ousted in a lopsided contest that Cid won with 77 percent of the vote, Pizzi is not just faced with his first lost election since entering local politics in the 1990s. And he’s not just forced to consider whether his legal victory didn’t translate into absolution from the residents he claims to champion like no one else.

What’s always given me my pugnacious, fearless attitude was growing up in the streets of Brooklyn. Graduating from high school was the first windmill I chased.

Michael Pizzi, former Miami Lakes mayor

A fast-talking man who dominated one small town’s civic discourse since its founding in 2000, Pizzi now must confront a particularly foreign reality: the rapid dimming of his public spotlight.

“This is my last profile,” Pizzi told a reporter after arriving at the Miami Lakes Outback he picked as a lunch spot. Dressed in a black suit jacket with no tie and a day’s worth of gray stubble, the solo-practitioner lawyer said he was running late after a court hearing.

The waiter, Chris, didn’t seem to recognize the city’s long-serving mayor. Pizzi joked his way into a conversation.

“Chris, you’re alright,” Pizzi told Chris. “Some people have criticized you. But I’ve told them you are the best guy here.”

Public attention suits Pizzi. In 2003, the Miami New Times called him “Saint Pizzi” in a look at his work as both a civic rabble-rouser taking on rock miners and as a Cocaine Cowboys-era probation officer in Miami.

After leading popular efforts to block mining and a housing project in Miami Lakes in the 1990s, Pizzi won the election for a zoning board in what was then just an unincorporated suburb. After residents voted to incorporate as a city in 2000, Pizzi won a seat on the newly formed town council. In 2008, voters elected him to the first of two terms as mayor.

From there, he cemented his reputation as a brash political brawler, with a knack for escalating conflicts.

Council member Tony Lama said he expected a lively debate earlier this year when a for-profit firm wanted to compete for the contract to run the town’s popular soccer leagues. But Lama said he was stunned last spring to arrive in the chambers the day of the vote and see that Pizzi had arranged to present a key to the city to the existing vendor.

“And he went around telling parents in the community that we were going to rob them of their soccer program. We had parents and kids in tears,” Lama recalled. Lama joined a majority of the council in voting against the proposal.

“He was effective,” Lama said of Pizzi. “But sometimes he did things in a very underhanded way.”

He was effective. But sometimes he did things in a very underhanded way.

Miami Lakes council member Tony Lama

Pizzi chalked up the soccer fight as one more example of him bucking big money in favor of the residents. “We reaffirmed our commitment to the local kids’ soccer program,” Pizzi said after the vote, “and did not cave in to special interests.”

Hope Reynolds, a Miami Lakes activist, said Pizzi’s fearlessness is what distinguished him from the other get-along elected officials in the town of just 31,000 people. “Every time you had a problem, you knew you had a door to knock on,” she said. “As colorful as he is, he would go against the developers. It always made you feel there was a person who knew how to fight.”

Pizzi links his combative gene to his childhood in New York City, when his father was a U.S. marshal and Pizzi was a teenage truant.

“What’s always given me my pugnacious, fearless attitude was growing up in the streets of Brooklyn,” he said. “Graduating from high school was the first windmill I chased.”

The University of Miami law school confirms Pizzi graduated magna cum laude in 1995, a sharp turnaround for a man who described winning admission to a New York City college with a D- grade-point average. Public speaking doesn’t come easily. When Pizzi makes a point, he often repeats the same line three times — a tic that he attributes to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Sometimes people make fun of me,” he said. “When I repeat myself, it’s an affliction.”

In describing the chapters of his life, the divorced father of two grown children turns to what he’s seen on the screen.

His time at the New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn was like “Welcome Back Kotter,” a rough, chaotic place to learn. When he secured a job as a young parole officer with the Justice Department, it was like being cast in “Goodfellas” as he rode herd over mafioso types with subtle threats about what could happen if he pushed too hard. “I was a crusader,” he said.

Years later, with Pizzi working as a solo lawyer and serving as mayor, came his role at the center of yet another operatic saga of alleged public corruption in South Florida. He was charged in a federal sting that ran between 2011 and 2013, and was accused of accepting $6,750 in cash as part of a grant-writing scam that needed a small-town mayor to succeed. He likened it to the movie “American Hustle,” where the hero gets caught in a sting.

Public speaking doesn’t come easily. When Pizzi makes a point, he often repeats the same line three times — a tic that he attributes to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. “Sometimes people make fun of me,” he said. “When I repeat myself, it’s an affliction.”

Undercover agents said they met Pizzi in a Miami Lakes pool hall, and gave him a bag with $2,000 and some cigars. He went to the restroom and returned without the bag. His lawyer told a jury in 2014 that the mayor didn’t realize a bribe was underway, had no idea the bag contained cash and gave it away with the cigars to someone he knew at the bar. A month later, on Aug. 14, 2014, Pizzi pumped his fist outside of the federal courthouse in celebration of his acquittal.

Pizzi had to sue to get reinstated as mayor after Gov. Rick Scott declined to lift the suspension he ordered after Pizzi’s August 2013 arrest at City Hall. He’s also suing to get Miami Lakes (or its insurance provider) to reimburse him about $3 million in legal fees tied to his criminal case, which he argues was tied to his official duties as mayor. The town has already agreed to pay about $450,000 related to his reinstatement expenses.

The corruption charges and the legal fees starred in attack flyers against Pizzi during the 2016 mayoral election, which was pushed into the Nov. 29 runoff when Pizzi beat out Wayne Slaton, the founding mayor of Miami Lakes, for the second-place slot against Cid, who took 46 percent of the vote .

On Election Night, Cid said Pizzi told him “the town was ready for a new chapter.” “He was very gracious,” said Cid, who grew up with Pizzi’s children in Miami Lakes. “I think he closed the chapter in the right way.”

Friday marked Pizzi’s first official day out of office. He had planned a trip to Key West to watch the sunset, and said he was looking forward to dinners with his daughter. But he also noted his roots as an activist resident, fighting projects backed by city leaders.

“Be very careful what you wish for,” he said. “Because Michael Pizzi is no longer handcuffed by the trappings of office.”

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