A True Story About Big Sugar and Political Corruption in South Florida: The Strange Suicide of Art Teele

In the accompanying picture, 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.)

IMG_1934

From left, Alan Farago, Rep. William Lehman, Thelma Gibson, Arthur E. Teele Jr. and an unidentified woman.

At the time, Art Teele was chair of the Miami-Dade County Commission. He died in 2005, too. A decade ago. A decade after this photo was taken. Twenty years after this photograph more or less, Arthur E. Teele blew his brains out in the lobby of One Herald Plaza, the home of the Miami Herald that also no longer exists. 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 an Assistant Secretary of Transportation under President 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 the 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 (Homestead Air Base Developers 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 7 p.m. 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, led 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 the 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 ran 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 led 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 adviser, 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. To Art’s detractors, I have always had a simple response: sometimes, the paranoid aren’t crazy. Sometimes evidence is on their side.

Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

Advertisements

One Response to A True Story About Big Sugar and Political Corruption in South Florida: The Strange Suicide of Art Teele

  1. Mike conner says:

    I remember this quote well Alan. The lies and deceit of sugar during that campaign. I will never forget it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: