Beach mayor up for reelection against four candidates. They oppose 2 a.m. booze ban.

·13 min read

One day after an opponent in the Nov. 2 election published leaked and edited audio of his private meeting with developers discussing a campaign to rebuild South Beach’s iconic entertainment district, Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber sent an email to his supporters addressing the October surprise.

“Earlier this week, Ocean Drive operators accused me of meeting with investors to urge them to consider investing in the so-called Entertainment District to create uses other than all-night bars and Airbnb hotels. They even produced a recording of the meeting,” Gelber wrote. “Of course, the meeting was neither secret nor novel. So, let me respond directly to the ‘scandalous’ accusation that I am holding meetings to promote major changes to our Entertainment District. Yup, all true.”

Pushing for what would be his third and final two-year term as mayor, Gelber isn’t just running for reelection. In the face of opposition, he’s campaigning to completely change the face of Miami Beach, which for the last 30 years has lived off a reputation as one of the world’s best party destinations.

For months, the 60-year-old Gelber has declared war on Ocean Drive clubs and South Beach bars, a fight built on years of taxpayer frustration with the constant drumbeat and underbelly of Miami Beach’s nightlife. This year alone, the city all but canceled spring break with an 8 p.m. curfew and passed a law to stop alcohol sales on Ocean Drive and the rest of the entertainment district at 2 a.m., only to see it overturned by a judge.

And with a proposed 2 a.m. citywide last call on the ballot along with Gelber, he’s banking that the small fraction of Miami Beach residents who participate in the city’s off-year local elections will give him two final years to redesign South Beach — even as his opponents and vocal club owners push to end his reign.

“I’m fighting a whole campaign right now while I’m running my own,” Gelber said.

Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber, who is running for re-election
Miami Beach mayor Dan Gelber, who is running for re-election

After winning reelection with no opposition in 2019, Gelber has four opponents in this year’s race: Realtor Jean Marie Echemendia, businessman Ronnie Eith, property manager Gus Manessis and Carlos Enrique Gutierrez, also a property manager.

They’re all firmly against the 2 a.m. referendum, which is a non-binding ballot question asking voters whether the City Commission should adopt a citywide 2 a.m. ban on alcohol sales with still-undetermined exceptions.

But they are also first-time candidates and at a big fundraising disadvantage compared to Gelber. His campaign has spent more money than any of his opponents have raised combined.

As underfunded challengers frequently do, they have attempted to use Gelber’s financial support against him, arguing that his war chest is flush with real-estate developers banking on his approval for upcoming projects. The leaked audio of a Sept. 14 meeting attended by Gelber, developers and business leaders — in which Gelber pledged his support to any development proposals the assembled group came up with as long as city staff approved — has been the latest flashpoint.

“I think that recording shocked a lot of people,” said Echemendia, who posted a snippet of the recording on a campaign website and played it for voters at a community meeting Tuesday. “I know it shocked me. I would have never thought there was such corruption here.”

Gelber, who was elected in 2017 after serving as a state lawmaker and federal prosecutor, said the allegations that he acted improperly were concocted to stir outrage close to Election Day. He said he attended the meeting to discuss proposals to spur redevelopment in an entertainment district he said needs to be transformed into a “live, work play” area instead of a party central. He said he doesn’t regret anything that he said because he’s publicly called for investment in the area for months.

“I went there because a group of investors wanted to understand what I was talking about,” he said. “That’s why I went. I’ve done it everywhere.”

Since he was elected, Gelber said, he has tried to tackle crime and disorder in South Beach by sponsoring legislation to create a code of conduct for sidewalk cafe operators, eliminate a noise exemption on Ocean Drive and restrict promoted parties in South Beach’s entertainment district during busy weekends.

He has touted how the city’s police force has also increased during his time in office. After a raucous spring break last March, he proposed boosting the police presence in the entertainment district and nearby residential neighborhoods and creating a dedicated code enforcement team for South Beach. He also supported speeding up the creation of a “real time crime center” to monitor police cameras. Those proposals have since been adopted or placed on the Nov. 2 ballot as a referendum.

Gelber’s opponents have all come out against the 2 a.m. ban and instead called for more police resources and better enforcement of lower-level offenses. But Gelber said the city often looks like a militarized zone with how many officers are deployed there during busy times like spring break.

That’s why, he said, he has worked to lure investment into the area — to build new offices, residential buildings and artist spaces where back-to-back bars and liquor stores currently are.

“I am 100% committed to getting rid of this horrible dynamic in the city and I’m not going to get rid of it with empty words. We need people to change it,” he said.

Gelber’s opponents in mayor’s race

Jean Marie Echemendia, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach
Jean Marie Echemendia, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach

Echemendia, 55, said she is against the 2 a.m. referendum because alcohol sales don’t cause crime. She said the city should give landlords incentives, however, to lease their spaces to different uses other than smoke shops or liquor stores. She said tourists who “break our laws and disrespect property” should be dealt with “swiftly” with enhanced enforcement of even minor crimes, increased police foot patrols and putting up signs by police cameras that say: “Smile, you’re on camera.”

Echemendia, who said the city administration has taken a “laid back” approach to crime, has also proposed ticketing people who play music too loudly in their cars or have their windows tinted.

“It’s going to be like there’s a new sheriff in town,” she told voters at a meeting Tuesday.

While rising crime in South Beach inspired her run for office, Echemendia quickly jumped on Gelber’s campaign contributions, arguing that Gelber’s overwhelming support from real-estate interests showed that he focused too much on pleasing deep-pocketed investors rather than protecting residents from over-development. She advocated against a proposed land sale and the construction of a condo tower at the Miami Beach Marina site, a 2020 ballot question that Gelber supported but voters ultimately rejected.

Echemendia said her anti-development stance comes from her experience as a historic-preservation activist working alongside preservationist Barbara Baer Capitman and later as an investor in fixing up historic homes.

Gelber’s most funded opponent, Echemendia loaned her campaign $60,000 and launched a website to publish pages of his campaign finances, which are made available online by the city. She showed up to a recent candidate forum with a stack of papers showing the campaign contributions.

Echemendia pointed to Gelber’s support for the construction of a 519-foot, 44-story tower at 500 Alton Road, a property that was previously only zoned for a 7-story low-rise. According to the Miami Beach real estate blog Re:Miami Beach, Gelber and the City Commission voted in 2018 to approve the project, along with a zoning ordinance that permitted height increases if the city “vacated” a public road in favor of the developers.

“I’m lucky to not be controlled by developers. I don’t have to dance on strings for anyone because I am self backed, I have no special backing,” Echemendia said.

The 500 Alton Road project, which will replace the old South Shore Hospital building, was initially proposed to be a more dense mixed-used development with 510 units and 75,000 square feet of retail. The new project will include a 3-acre public park. Gelber said voters should look at his voting record to see that he has voted against development projects and for them when they make sense for the community.

“You can say an accusation over and over again, it’s repetition doesn’t make it true,” Gelber said.

Echemendia said if elected she would fight to preserve Ocean Drive from redevelopment, and that she is against the “zoning considerations” outlined by the city’s consulting architect Bernard Zyscovich in a June presentation, which includes adding extra floors to Ocean Drive buildings.

“We do not need to destroy this small 10-blocks of oceanfront property that really is world renowned,” she said.

Ronnie Eith, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach
Ronnie Eith, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach

Eith, 50, is a TV entrepreneur who also serves as media director for a mortgage lender. He has proposed enacting a “zero tolerance” policing approach to triage the South Beach entertainment district until the city regains control of the area.

He agrees with Gelber that the city should reposition the area into a more sophisticated South Beach, but he doesn’t believe a 2 a.m. alcohol ban would do that. Instead, Eith said businesses should enforce dress codes for guests and get rid of big cocktails. Code enforcement and the fire department should ensure safety and quality-of-life violations are handled at bars, clubs and other businesses, he said.

Eith said venues that host musical artists should be required to take out an insurance policy in case an incident, like a shooting, occurs. That would be cost prohibitive to some venues that attract “bad actors that come along with the hip hop crowds,” he said.

“You’ve got to clean up the crowd first and incentivize and regulate businesses to make sure they’re enforcing the rules, and then you’ll bring in a higher caliber of business,” he said.

Eith, who founded a lifestyle streaming-TV network called “Definitely Miami,” said he views the mayor’s job as being the spokesman of the city. He thinks he is the ideal candidate for the job because of his outgoing personality and networking skills, along with his financial background and previous experience running a bar in Long Island, where he grew up.

“I consider myself to be an ambassador,” he said.

He recalled being featured in a 2016 music video alongside rap group Migos, where Eith played a police officer who interrogates the artists and is eventually splashed in the face with water. He said the opportunity came about because the rappers were filming at the Mondrian, where he had a real estate meeting. Eith used a clip of his cameo in a campaign video when discussing his ideas to reduce crime.

The ringtone on his cellphone is “Right Above It” by Lil Wayne, because it was the theme song to an HBO show, “Ballers,” which once filmed in Miami.

“I think that’s why I’m the perfect candidate, because I’m out and about,” he said. “Dan Gelber is probably sitting in the den of his house eating popcorn.”

Eith, who has raised $5,000 for his campaign, criticized Gelber for receiving legally bundled donations from developers using offshoot corporations with similar addresses to exceed the $1,000 contribution limit. Eith filmed a campaign video accusing Gelber of supporting the 2 a.m. rollback because developers support it.

“I don’t know about you, but where I come from, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he said in the social media ad. “Now Mayor Gelber, you might want to call up your fire department. Put out this fire.”

Gus Manessis, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach
Gus Manessis, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach

Manessis, a 50-year-old former restaurateur and the current regional manager of a condo management company, first filed paperwork to run for mayor in 2019 but stepped aside due to personal issues. Gelber ended up winning reelection unopposed.

He said his experience working in the hospitality industry — most recently as the owner of Española Cigar and Lounge in South Beach — informed his decision to oppose the 2 a.m. rollback because he is sensitive to the job loss that would ensue.

He said closing bars early would force some businesses to close permanently and cost the city tax revenue. Still, he said curbing crime in the entertainment district with a greater police presence and better enforcement is his top priority. But business owners can be better partners with the city to police the crowds that gather outside their doors, he said.

He proposed a three-strikes policy, where business operators that repeatedly violate city rules or cause problems would not have their permits renewed. He said some businesses, like The Licking on Washington Avenue, have attracted assaults or shootings. Manessis said his business experience would help improve the relationship the city has with businesses now.

“I’m all about supporting the businesses and the 5 a.m. [last call], but they need to step it up,” he said.

He said he would try to regulate short-term rentals by borrowing a policy he adopted at the condo buildings he manages in Miami Beach: buildings that allow short-term rentals would be required to install wheelchair ramps, fire alarms, security cameras and set up a 24/7 front desk before they were allowed to operate in the city.

Manessis said apart from crime and quality-of-life issues, he wants to focus on overspending in City Hall. He pointed to the 72nd Street aquatic center project planned for North Beach that is expected to cost millions of dollars more than what voters agreed to pay for it in the 2018 general obligation bonds.

“I’m approaching the city as a failing business,” he said.

Carlos Enrique Gutierrez, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach
Carlos Enrique Gutierrez, candidate for mayor in Miami Beach

Gutierrez, 58, who manages rental properties for his family’s estate, is perhaps best known by Beach residents for walking baby strollers up and down South Beach while giving political speeches about Cuba-U.S. history and playing music from an amplifier he takes with him. The Cuban-born activist said he would want to use his position as mayor to raise awareness about the need to bring democracy to Cuba, and he would lobby to approve a ferry service between Cuba and Miami Beach. He is opposed to the 2 a.m. referendum because he said it would force businesses to fire their employees. He would also like to regulate short-term rentals that use third-party booking platforms.

Gutierrez was arrested last May on a charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after a man told police that Gutierrez chased him with a knife on Seventh Street in South Beach. The man said he had been walking home when he overheard Gutierrez speaking about political issues and looked over at him.

Gutierrez, who according to police was later found with a metal rod in his hand and the knife nearby, said he was acting in self defense after the man attacked him while he was having a barbecue. He grabbed a knife and metal rod and chased after him, he said.

“I followed him half a block,” he said. “I’m telling [people], ‘Somebody call the police.’”

Court records show the case was closed in June with no action. Gutierrez filed to run for mayor the following month.

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