When Arthur E. Teele, once the most powerful elected official in Florida’s largest county, committed suicide last week, a shock wave pulsed through Miami, where he had served as chairman of the county commission and, later, as a city commissioner.
An African-American and Republican (he served in the Reagan administration as an undersecretary of transportation), Teele was a brilliant tactician with poor eyesight who saw into every corner of Miami politics.
In the end, a maze of debt and financial difficulties enmeshed him in a very ordinary way. But Teele was not an ordinary man. He will be remembered in sadness—and in one way that has not been remarked: for what he might have meant for the environment.
In minority communities, the environment is often on the low end of priorities, reaching like a ladder to the middle class. The highest costs of pollution and toxics often are paid by the poor, but concern for the environment often is perceived as what rich people can afford—a notable phenomenon that special interests are ready to exploit when it comes to elections and one that accounts for why many politicians from minority communities are silent on the environment.
In 1994, Teele was voted by his fellow commissioners to be chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission. From this powerful position, he joined with citizens who objected to a no-bid deal to privatize a former military base in Homestead, a well-intended plan that turned into a tropical depression of influence peddling after the air base was devastated by Florida’s last Category 5 hurricane.
The no-bid deal galvanized the environmental community, which saw the inevitable development as a billion-dollar train wreck with hopes to restore Florida’s dying Everglades.
It may have seemed counterintuitive for Teele to side against the majority of fellow county commissioners on an issue involving so much campaign cash. But Teele was planning to run as the first strong mayor of Miami-Dade County.
A decorated Army Ranger who served in Vietnam, he was also a student of history. He knew that grass-roots clamoring from outside could capture the flag.
For the 1996 mayoral campaign, Teele made the environment a central theme of his campaign. As simple as the strategy sounds—that minority interests could unite to defeat a powerful, monied majority—it was also revolutionary.
Teele was outspent by his rival, 3-1.
The single television commercial he could afford to air, poll-tested for its resonance with likely voters, was his support for restoring the Everglades.
Today, news reports from Florida are filled with stories of pollution streaming from Lake Okeechobee. Peel back all the layers and causes and you come to the fundamental fact: Local governments have largely stood by while powerful campaign contributors have pressed what they believe to be their vested rights against the rights of people and the environment for clean water.
In 1996, federal legislation to restore the Everglades—whose cost has since spiraled in excess of $13 billion—lay in the future.
In retrospect, if Teele had won, a Republican mayor of the largest county in Florida would have been on record as pushing for the compact later approved by Congress.
Four years later, on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard final arugments on the outcome of the 2000 election, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stood by the side of President Bill Clinton, who signed an agreement that implied shared sacrifice in the multibillion-dollar investment to restore the ecosystem critical to the state’s long-term health.
But Arthur Teele lost the election for mayor, badly. In the last weeks of the 1996 campaign, his organization had fallen to pieces.
That election night, facing certain defeat, Teele told me his campaign manager had abandoned the campaign weeks earlier because his political advertisement on the Everglades had provoked threats by interests associated with the sugar industry.
I can’t help but feel that the news of Arthur Teele’s suicide, the controversial reaction of the media, all rhymes with the news about sickening algae blooms, rivers and estuaries succumbing to corrupting toxics on both Florida coasts and the inevitable hand-wringing of politicians and political appointees. It is no metaphor and no coincidence that the state of Florida is swimming in a sea of pollution.
No one would mistake Arthur E. Teele for an angel. He sought strong currents like a big fish. And once, he was.