Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Arthur E. Teele and Big Sugar: a true story ... by gimleteye

That's me on the left. The year is possibly 1994. I'm standing next to the late Congressman William Lehman from Miami-Dade. Bill Lehman died in 2005. Next to Bill is the civil rights activist and Miami path breaker, Thelma Gibson. The sturdy, imposing African American to the right was the star of the photograph. Arthur E. Teele, Jr. (Sorry, I don't recall the name of the woman to Art Teele's left.)

At the time, Art Teele was chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission. He died in 2005, too. A decade ago.

So counting backwards, twenty years after this photograph was taken Arthur E. Teele blew his brains out in the lobby of One Herald Plaza, the home of the Miami Herald that also doesn't exist. He did it for a reason: he believed he was being hounded out of existence by enemies including the powerful Herald.

In the photograph, Art Teele is caught looking off to the side. Bill Lehman is looking down. That happens, especially when photos are staged and there's a lot going on around you. The moment the camera clicks you are inattentive. But as I look at the photo today, I recall Art Teele often looked that way when you were talking with him. Looking somewhere else. Restless.

Art had a powerful mind directed to politics. During an era when very few African American Republicans rose to the top -- Teele had been a Assistant Secretary of Transportation under Reagan -- he stood out. When the photo was taken and Teele was running for mayor of the Miami-Dade County Commission, I was his link to a constituency Art believed key: the Anglo vote in Florida's most politically influential county. It was Art's belief that a strong African American turnout at the polls, connected with Anglo voters, could overcome the Cuban American bloc vote.

Local elections are non-partisan. Still, Art -- a moderate Republican (extinct, too) -- ran a single television ad during the 1996 campaign against Alex Penelas: it was a spot featuring Teele's endorsement by Sierra Club for his willingness to be a friend of the Everglades.

At the time, I was the chair of the local chapter of the Club. During the 1996 campaign I worked many months, weeks and hours at phone banks staffed by unpaid Sierra Club volunteers -- making at least 30,000 phone calls in the course of the campaign, day after day, night after night for Art Teele.

I had come to Art's attention a few years earlier as the most vocal opponent of Miami-Dade insiders who were attempting to lift the Homestead Air Force Base out of the hands of the U.S. military and into their own pockets, through a no-bid 99 year lease the county commission willingly approved. The HABDI pot was on high boil, consuming millions of dollars of county resources and all the political oxygen in county hall. Art came to my attention when he took time to educate me on the history of HABDI, Inc., loosely organized around the then-board of directors of the Latin Builders Association. Miguel DeGrandy, of Greenberg Traurig, was the HABDI point man. The HABDI organizer, Ramon Rasco, later founded the insider financial institution of Miami-Dade County: US Century Bank. (Among others, of course, Marco Rubio's mortgage was with US Century.)

During the 1996 campaign against Penelas -- supported heavily by the LBA -- I spoke frequently with Art. He answered my calls. We met in his office or apartment where he also took the time to explain, in detail, Miami-Dade precinct politics. Until, suddenly, about a month before the fall election Art Teele disappeared from view.

My phone calls weren't returned. He rarely appeared in the campaign office and when he did, it was in a black mood. His campaign manager had vanished, too. As to the gloom at headquarters in the old Everglades Hotel on Biscayne, I didn't share that with the Sierra Club volunteers pouring their hours and energy to get Teele elected.

At around seven PM on October 1, Election Eve, I was hanging around the empty campaign office when my cell phone rang. Art was terse. "I'm sure you have some questions for me." He could be formal, like that, or profane. "Come up." At the time, Teele had an apartment in the hotel. My heart was pounding as I waited for the elevator. I was angry. Furious. Ready to unburden all the frustration of the past month.

My anxiety wasn't just about the mayor's election. A presidential election was in process -- only a month away -- , and many issues that Florida environmentalists held critical were in play. President Bill Clinton had been in Miami frequently, raising cash as fast as he could from the powerful insiders who were intent to steamroller Teele and, in Miami, urgently seeking Clinton's support for the Homestead Air Force Base scheme.

Environmentalists, lead by Paul Tudor Jones and the Save Our Everglades Committee, had placed three constitutional amendments on the November ballot, calling for Big Sugar to pay a tax to clean up its pollution of the Everglades. Big Sugar had organized a counter attack, including African American churches, enlisting Rev. Jesse Jackson, to oppose the environmental initiative; calling it punitive on black people.

The threadbare hotel suite was dimly lit. Art motioned me to sit across from him. Two comfortably upholstered chairs bracketing an empty coffee table. He didn't wait. No pleasantries. Jumped right in, his eyes locked on mine, not moving to catch what was in the background or off to the side. So, you haven't seen me much lately. I replied along the lines, what the hell, Art.

So three weeks ago I lost my campaign manager, he said.

It wasn't a question. He waited for me to respond. Art was good at that. He didn't have to talk all the time the way some politicians do. He could be perfectly still and silent, and while you calculated your response you had the feeling he was already steps ahead.

Art's campaign manager had been a young man named Julio Rebull, Jr. He was from a well-regarded Cuban American family, politically connected, and one of the very few Cuban Americans in Art's corner. Suddenly, a month before the campaign, Julio was gone. Nowhere to be seen. Never returned a phone call. Not a word. Art was left to manage his own campaign. Literally.

"After we ran that Sierra Club ad, Julio got a phone call from the Fanjuls," Art told me. The Fanjuls being Florida Crystals, the dominant political players in Florida, Florida's own Koch Brothers. The Sierra Club ad that the Teele campaign was upbeat, positive with not a single hint of controversy. It was about the magnificent treasure -- the Everglades -- that Art Teele valued.

"They told him, because of that TV spot he had to drop out of the campaign or he would never work in Miami again."

There was a flood in the silence that ran between us at that moment. In an instant he said, I am going downstairs to give my concession speech and I want you to stand right beside me.

He rose wearily, put on his suit jacket, straightened his tie and lead me out of the room and to the elevator. We didn't exchange another word. The elevator doors opened, I trailed behind him across the lobby floor to a reception area filled with people, television cameras, lights. He walked through the crowd like he owned it. I couldn't keep up and never made it all the way to the stage, blocked by the heaving supporters, well-wishers, nay-sayers, but no lobbyists.

Once up on the stage, he was flanked by friends and family. He looked out impatiently, shading his eyes. He was searching for me and he found me. With his hand he summoned me. I slid my way through and clambered up on the stage, looking for a place to stand. Art reached out and pulled me to his right side. If you care to find the television footage, you will see him pulling me next to him as though we were the only two people in the frame. Then, he gave his concession to the cameras and to the crowd.

It was an intimate moment because what we shared -- the awareness of powerful, dark forces presiding over our democracy -- we couldn't talk about, or, we could talk about but the press wouldn't report it.

I never really knew Art Teele after that moment. I never returned to the Everglades Hotel, filled as it was with darkness.

Scarcely a week later, on the same October evening President Clinton made his final campaign swing through Miami at the Biltmore Hotel, African Americans bused in by Big Sugar were loudly protesting outside. I patiently waited my turn to slip into the ballroom, inside, to hand deliver a letter to the president's advisor, Mac McCarty, written by environmental attorneys stating our grounds to sue the federal government if the Homestead Air Force Base deed transfer proceeded.

After his loss, Art Teele tried to reclaim his power base in the city of Miami. As a city commissioner, it didn't go well. It was a decade of struggle for Art I gleaned from press reports -- soberly pursuing the lurid and sensational.

I like the photo. I just rediscovered it yesterday. To Art's detractors, I have always had a simple response: sometimes, the paranoid aren't crazy. Sometimes evidence is on their side.


Anonymous said...

Well written. What an interesting peek into Miami-Dade County and South Florida politics. At the time Arthur Teele owed almost a $1 Mil to the IRS for back taxes, fees and fines. As a County commissioner making maybe $6,000 per year and with a penchant of wearing expensive suits Teele's debt was growing daily. Teele might have left out a disclosure or two?

Geniusofdespair said...

In Tallahassee Art was known as the king of the parking lots, I suppose where he got his funds. I really liked Art Teele. At a Virginia Key Trust Meeting, sensing that the African American group was being short changed by the city (placated), he made the city attorney take the minutes to show he valued the group and they were to be respected.

Gimleteye said...

I never got into Art's business issues in any depth. It was clear his engineering consultant business was not doing well. Understand, at the time Art was chairman of the county commission, the payola at Miami International Airport was locked down tight as a drum by Cuban American lobbyists and their allies. Tens of millions of dollars were being made on contract awards. African American insiders were given crumbs that fell off the table at the airport. Was Teele resentful and did he want to change the equation for compensation along ethnic and racial lines? Ask Chris Korge, Rodney Barreto, Jorge Lopez Courtney Cunningham, Brian May or Sergio Pino for more detail.

For those interested to read more along similar themes:

Anonymous said...

Gimleteye: Thank you for filling in some of the dots on politics in Miami Dade County. I am sure other real stories are out there that we need to hear about. Art Teele was a good person and tried his best to make a better community for us. May He Rest in Peace. Again, Thanks Gimleteye

cyndi said...

Amazing story. So sad. Thank you for writing it.
Right now a lot of people are going after Paul Tudor Jones on both sides. I was surprised to see this from Brave New Films.
Paul Tudor Jones II, is an American billionaire and the founder of the Tudor Investment Corporation, a private asset management company and hedge fund. Tudor Jones devotes much of his time and money to figuring out how to take advantage of the most disadvantaged in our society and profit off of them through complex financial schemes and political maneuvers.

Whether it’s for-profit colleges, for-profit prisons, anti-immigration laws, stand-your-ground pushes, anti-environment lawsuits, or more tax cuts and loopholes for the wealthy, Tudor Jones is committed to figuring out how to keep down those in need for him to continue to make more money and gain more power

Brave New Films is joining with HedgeClippers to open up America’s eyes to the men (and yes, they are pretty much all men) of the hedge fund world who have been controlling our national economy in a time of unprecedented growing wealth disparity. Because they shouldn’t be given awards. They shouldn’t feel good about giving what amounts to pennies for them to programs. They should be called out for the real damage they are doing. And they should absolutely be forced to pay their fair share of taxes!
Any insight into this?

Anonymous said...

Defede fucked him over.

Anonymous said...

Let's make this clear. Art was crazy.

Anonymous said...

Art WAS crazy...and brilliant...and intimidating..and a tenacious advocate for his community. But unfortunately he was also corrupt as sin. If haven't seen, check out film on Teele "Miami Noir" at:

Anonymous said...

Art Teele protected Virginia Key. He stopped a City of Miami committee from allowing the Miami Seaquarium to build a resort on the historic African American beach park, and created a new committee that reopened the padlocked park for the public instead. It's interesting to note that the City now has a new suitor - the Miami Boat show, which will extend its reach all over the island -- including the land Art Teele saved. We need someone like Art Teele to preserve this land back for the public today.

Anonymous said...

Best personal writing I read by you

Anonymous said...

I have questions about that save of Virginia Key. Was there payola in it for him for the save? There were big questions about payola to him from the CRA. One of the poor minority contractors was hit up for payola to him and end up in jail for it. In fact I think he is still in jail doing time for his payments to Teele.

Anonymous said...

Arthur Teele was in debt up past his eye balls. He ran the SEOPW CRA like a dictator and a slush fund. Teele set the corruption bar Spence-Jones, Richard Dunn and Keon "Auntie" Hardemon strive to beat. Hardemon and his family are being paid by billboard salesmen per Miami Herald.