Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on April 26, 2011.
Brash developer. Gauche billionaire. Failed casino operator. Vain showman.
It’s hard to find a public persona of Donald Trump that has hurt his appeal as a real estate pitchman, particularly in South Florida. But will Trump’s newfound role as right-wing birther prove as attractive?
The question gets more relevant each day as Trump leads the pack of Republican White House contenders, and national political writers increasingly treat him as a serious candidate, although others wonder if he’s running to pump up his TV ratings.
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Any partisan fallout for the Trump brand will reverberate in South Florida, the largest outpost of Trump’s New York-based real estate empire.
“I think it’s been very helpful,'” Trump said Monday, when The Miami Herald asked how presidential politics might influence condo buyers in Trump buildings. “All they like is winning.”
Others see politics finally devaluing one of the most famous brands in luxury real estate, as Trump’s attacks on President Barack Obama’s heritage and character sour buyers to the Trump aura.
Trump buyers “tend to be on the liberal side of wealth, rather than the conservative side of wealth,” said Jerry Powers, former publisher of Trump magazine and a longtime chronicler of Miami glitterati. “The people who are buying Trump-branded properties are not only buying into the value of his properties, but the flash and the brand.”
But Miami real estate lawyer John Sumberg sees all attention as lucrative for Trump.
“What’s his commodity? It’s not his real estate expertise. It’s not his capital. It’s his name,'” said Sumberg, whose Miami firm, Bilzin and Sumberg, has represented the Related Group, a one-time Trump partner. “Exposure is exposure.”
Scoring Trump’s political chances might be as complicated as handicapping his value in a condo deal. His track record in South Florida includes two failed hotel projects, one that surrendered to a lender and one that led the way in South Florida’s real estate boom.
In each venture, developers paid Trump a licensing fee to attach their project to his name, a lucrative arrangement that allowed Trump to share in South Florida’s condo boom without the risk of actually having to build anything.
The licensing deals got their start in South Florida in 2001, when Trump signed with Michael and Gil Dezer to brand a trio of condo towers in Sunny Isles Beach.
“It was worth every penny,'” Gil said of the deal he and his father signed with Trump. “Donald Trump’s brand is himself. It’s his persona. It’s his mouth — whether it gets him in trouble or doesn’t get him in trouble.”
The Dezer’s three Trump towers, including a condo-hotel, posted strong profits well before the condo market crashed. But a second Sunny Isles Beach project with the Dezers and Miami’s Related Group has about 25 percent of its units left unsold. Related also signed Trump for a Hollywood condo tower that opened in 2009 with most units unsold, and then turned over the property to lenders in November.
Two condo-hotels in Fort Lauderdale also signed licensing deals with Trump. Only one got built, but it remains vacant, prompting buyer lawsuits against developer Roy Stillman and Trump himself. Among the allegations against Trump: he portrayed himself as a developer of the Trump International Hotel and Tower, when in fact Stillman merely hired him as a pitchman.
“My clients passed on other projects and put money on this one because Donald Trump was the developer,” said Joseph E. Altschul, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer representing buyers of the Trump International Hotel. “The guy has a platform for reaching millions of people.”
In talking about a presidential run, Trump pushes some of the most controversial elements of the anti-Obama movement.
He questioned whether Obama took office illegally by pretending to be born in the United States. “There’s at least a good chance that Barack Hussein Obama has made mincemeat out of our great and cherished Constitution!” he wrote in an April 8 letter to The New York Times.
Last week, at a Boca Raton rally of tea party supporters, he questioned how Obama got into Harvard and claimed Pentagon bomber Bill Ayers actually authored Obama’s best-selling Dreams of My Father. Trump, who credited a ghost writer on the cover of his 1989 best-seller Art of the Deal, said the Obama autobiography read beautifully. But Obama’s follow-up book, The Audacity of Hope, seemed like it was “written by a high school graduate.”
The abrasiveness isn’t new for a celebrity now best known for dismissing contestants on NBC’s The Apprentice with his catchphrase, “You’re fired.” In 2006, he called talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell “a loser” and this month parried criticism from Robert DeNiro by noting the actor is “not the brightest bulb on the planet.”
But even though Trump also publicly flirted with a presidential run in 2000, his Obama attacks have tied him to conservative politics in a way not seen before.
His strength in the presidential field has also brought new scrutiny to his business deals, including bankruptcy filings at Trump casinos and regulatory crackdowns on his online school, Trump University.
But while real estate may complicate Trump’s politics, it’s the reverse that would up the financial stakes in South Florida.
Only New York has more Trump real estate for sale than South Florida does. With hundreds of pricey Trump condos left to sell in Hollywood and Sunny Isles Beach, millions of dollars could be in play as South Florida buyers weigh the appeal of a newly partisan Trump.
Peter Zalewski, founder of the Condo Vultures brokerage and an analyst of South Florida real estate, said Trump’s anti-Obama cause is bound to repulse some buyers.
“Why take a political stand in business?” he asked. “Why ostracize people?”
Trump’s poll numbers might offer a hint. A new survey by Public Policy Polling has Trump well ahead of other possible GOP candidates, with 26 percent of the share compared to 17 percent for Mike Huckabee and 15 percent for Mitt Romney. Trump offers other numbers when asked how politics are affecting business.
“Send last night’s ratings to” the Herald, Trump said to an assistant during a brief phone interview Monday. The report showed Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice enjoying a 6 percent ratings bump last week, and beating out all other 10 p.m. shows for the No. 1 slot.
That celebrity status prompted Barry Silverman, a New York lawyer and broker, to pay a $143,000 depositin 2006 for a condo-hotel unit at the Trump International in Fort Lauderdale.
Silverman is now part of the fraud suit against Trump, but that hasn’t stopped the New York real estate broker from showing clients units in Trump buildings across Manhattan.
“Will his currency be devalued? We don’t know yet,” Silverman said. “It could be enhanced by his running. He is the master of spinning it.”