When Miami Beach swears in a new mayor in two weeks, it will be the first time in nearly 30 years that outgoing Mayor Dan Gelber will be out of public service.
During that time, Gelber has represented South Florida in a variety of positions: federal prosecutor, member of the Florida House of Representatives, state senator, and after an unsuccessful run for Florida attorney general, Miami Beach mayor.
Term limits prevented Gelber from seeking a fourth two-year term as mayor, and Miami Beach voters will choose his successor in a runoff election Nov. 21 between Commissioner Steven Meiner and former Commissioner Michael Gongora.
With his time winding down, Gelber said he is more focused on Miami Beach issues than what might come next for him.
“I don’t have a plan, because I typically think you should be focused on the job you’re doing and not looking for something else, and I’ve tried to do that in this job, so I haven’t entertained any other ideas,’’ Gelber said. “I’m at a law firm, so I’ll continue that. I’ll think about things after I leave, but until I leave I’m pretty occupied.”
Since childhood, Gelber’s life has been steeped in public service and politics. His father, Seymour Gelber, was mayor of Miami Beach from 1991 to 1997, as well as a prosecutor and long-time juvenile court judge. His mom was a teacher.
“I got involved in public service because my parents were involved in public service. I come from a family of prosecutors and teachers,’’ he said. “My wife’s a prosecutor. I have a sister who was a prosecutor and who’s now a teacher, ” said Gelber.
It was this mentality that propelled him into office — eight years as a representative for District 106 in the Florida House of Representatives, the last two serving as House minority leader, followed by another two years in the state senate representing District 35. Then, he ran unsuccessfully for Attorney General in 2010. In 2017, Gelber ran and was elected mayor of Miami Beach.
“I felt a desire. I had left public life in 2010, and I had done some legal work that was in the public sphere, but I wanted to do more. When there was an open seat in my hometown, I decided that I should try that.”
Gelbert also credited the constituents of Miami Beach and his attempt to communicate with them for his success in office.
“ I think I know our city and I try to be very direct and straight with our residents, and I think they expect that and reward it.”
Gelber faced several challenges during his tenure as mayor, none greater than leading the city during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m pretty proud of the way I led the city during Covid, balancing the lives and livelihoods, making sure my residents were vaccinated and tested,’’ he said. “I think we did as well as any city in the country, and had one of the lower mortality rates, so I felt that was important.
“I tried to provide a sense of stability to my residents. We immediately created a healthcare committee of experts, locally and elsewhere, to give us advice. We provided easy to understand communication, including near-weekly videos from me showing where we were in the pandemic and what was going on. So we tried to inform the public so they could understand what they needed to do to be safe.”
Gelber also touted a commitment to supporting art and culture in Miami Beach.
“We’re implementing a culture bond of $160 million right now, which I think will be a game changer in the city.”
Approved by voters in in 2022, the culture bond will be used to fund many cultural outlets in and around Miami Beach, including the renovation of the shuttered Byron Carlyle Theatre, as well as maintain and renovate many other city cultural centers, including the Holocaust Memorial, the Miami Beach Botanical Gardens, the Fillmore Theatre, the New World Symphony and the Miami City Ballet.
Voters passed a similar bond in a 2018 referendum, approving $439 million for improvements to parks, public safety and general infrastructure, most notably the construction of a community complex on 72nd Street, including an Olympic-sized pool and a library, a redesign of Ocean Drive to prioritize pedestrians over cars, and complete renovation of the Miami Beach Police Department Headquarters.
“Earlier, we did a general obligation bond for $460 million, which included 57 projects that will improve every park, enhance public safety, and address resiliency. So I think that many of those things are things I’m most proud of.”
There were frustrations too, Gelber said.
“I would have liked to get some projects completed earlier. Sometimes I feel like the government moves pretty slowly. Maybe I think getting things done faster would have been better,” he said.
Gelber critics say his administration was too friendly to developers, which resulted in overdevelopment and increased traffic throughout the city, but Gelber defends his record.
“I think we’ve had a pretty balanced development,’’ he said. “There’s always gonna be people who don’t like anything, and they nowadays have a pretty strong voice. But I don’t think any of the projects were bad projects. It’s not a question of being pro or anti-development.”
“I support good development and I oppose bad development. So there have been projects I’ve opposed and there have been projects I’ve supported. Most of the projects I’ve supported, we’ve done, with the probable exception of the Deauville, which I think was a mistake to not adopt it, because it would have been much better than whatever was gonna be there.”
Gelber referred to the historic Deauville Hotel, best known for a celebrated Ed Sullivan Show performance by the Beatles, as well as concerts by American icons such as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra and a noted speech by John F. Kennedy.
After the Deauville fell into disrepair, Gelber backed a plan from Miami Dolphins and Related Company owner Stephen Ross to preserve part of the building and build a new luxury hotel and condo there. The plan required approval from Miami Beach voters, who rejected it, and the Deauville was torn down.
“We had a developer who was capable of delivering a Frank Gehry condominium that would have been in scale with the neighboring buildings,’’ Gelber said. “ It would have had less intensity because it would have been larger luxury condos, which typically don’t have many residents in them, and it would have been beautiful.’’
Gelber said his best advice to his successor is building a coalition with the city commission to move the city forward. Three of the six commissioners were freshly elected on Nov. 7.
”Try to get the commission on the same page. There will always be people who are demagogues, there will always be people who enjoy the negativity of governance more than doing something good. Try not to let them define your administration.”