You’d be a little bit excused if you didn’t know there was a race for mayor happening in Fort Lauderdale this election cycle. That’s mostly because it’s been a somewhat under-the-radar affair thus far.
The pandemic is partially to blame to be sure. It has had a considerable effect on traditional campaigning with in-person events quashed and online and phone outreach to voters often spotty.
Nevertheless, Fort Lauderdale voters have a choice Nov. 3 between the incumbent, Mayor Dean Trantalis, and his opponent, Kenneth D. Cooper.
Mail-in ballots will start to arrive in Florida on Sept. 24 and early voting begins in late October.
Trantalis, 66, began his term in March 2018 as the first openly gay mayor of the city — winning with 65% of the vote. He’s been a part of city politics for years and enjoys considerable name recognition.
Trantalis was a District 2 city commissioner from 2003 to 2006 and from 2013 until he became mayor. He also served for two years as vice mayor.
Trantalis has gotten high marks for helping to navigate the city through the challenges of the pandemic and, perhaps unsurprisingly, enjoys strong support among those in the LGBT community — a formidable voting bloc in Fort Lauderdale.
Cooper, 67, is a trial lawyer doing commercial litigation and personal injury cases. The native South Floridian has lived in Fort Lauderdale for 45 years and is married to his wife Paula. The two have a 19-year-old son who is newly enrolled in the Virginia Military Institute.
Cooper has previously run for office — first against Rep. Clay Shaw in 1996 to represent Florida in the U.S. House. He said he lost the race by 25,000 votes out of 400,000 that were cast, and said he was outspent by a large margin.
Cooper later lost a U.S. House race against Rep. Alcee Hastings and one against Tim Ryan in a Florida House race.
He said he’s running for mayor because he’s disappointed in Trantalis’ job performance and because others asked him to do it.
“The biggest issue is the 220 million gallons of sewer spill that’s still in the Tarpon River, and about 20 million [gallons] in George English Park,” Cooper said. “That’s got everybody upset.”
Cooper blames Trantalis in part for the city’s well-documented sewer and water pipe problems and for what he said are its subpar cleanup efforts.
Even though the problems existed before Trantalis became mayor, Cooper said Trantalis is still responsible because of his years on the City Commission when water, sewer and wastewater utility funds were diverted to the general fund.
“Now we are spending double what it would have cost to fix it,” Cooper said. “And they are not cleaning it up; it’s still sitting there. The Tarpon River runs into the New River and the New River goes to the Intracoastal [Waterway] and then to the ocean reefs. Every time the tide goes in and out it takes some of [the sewage] with it.”
He’s also critical of Trantalis’ campaign website claim that he “successfully closed the downtown [homeless] encampment.”
“Go to the [Broward County Main Library] today and there are 30 tents down there — homeless people sleeping on the street and hanging on the corner,” he said. “They say they’ve solved the problem, but they haven’t.”
Cooper said it’s a failure at the city and country level.
“You’ve got to get them rehabilitation and back to jobs. There are plenty of city buildings that always need painting and businesses and city government jobs they can be lined up within a work program,” he said.
Cooper is also concerned about business closures in the city due to the pandemic, like restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard. He thinks sidewalks should be expanded and that the city should be spending advertising money to entice people to eat out again.
When it comes to the LGBT community, Cooper said he’d earn their vote by protecting rights and creating an environment of nondiscriminatory practices.
“The mayor’s position is about good decision making and leadership, not about being gay or not gay. I make good decisions,” he said. “In addition, I would build a sewer system for them that doesn't explode. If it exploded on my watch, I would take the blame for it and not blame it on a prior mayor. I would build a new water plant so everyone can have clean and safe water to drink. I would retrain the police in the proper use of force and set up new standards for the police to follow. I would not defund the police. You can see Portland is now regretting what they did.”
This “Cooper For Mayor” image shows Kenneth Cooper, his wife Paula, and the couple’s dog Winnie. Photo via Cooper For Mayor, Facebook.
‘He’s done a great job’
While Trantalis declined to be interviewed for this story, his colleague — Vice Mayor and District 2 City Commissioner Steve Glassman, was eager to endorse him.
Glassman, who is also gay, is the only other city commissioner who has a Nov. 3 opponent. The others did not have opponents and were automatically elected to another term in June when the date for candidates to file passed.
“Dean and I have been friends for quite a while,” Glassman said. “Until he was elected mayor, I was a volunteer on every one of his city campaigns and worked hard on all of his city commission races. That should tell you something.”
When Trantalis ascended to mayor in 2018, Glassman won his race to fill the then-vacated District 2 seat.
“As mayor he’s done a great job, the entire commission has done a great job. There are a lot of challenges like infrastructure needs. Prior commissioners paid little or no attention to it,” Glassman said.
Glassman said the city’s infrastructure was a central campaign issue for him and Trantalis in 2018.
“We vowed to reverse the policy of raiding sewer funds. That was a big deal. You can see by the new pipes all over town that we are doing it. We’ve been improving waterways, the homeless situation and affordable housing,” he said.
Glassman said he and Trantalis also led the city to a more comprehensive anti-discrimination policy and a ban on conversion therapy for minors.
“We have a good two and a half years of accomplishment — a good record to run on,” he said.
Glassman pushes back on the criticism that Trantalis is responsible for the recent sewer and water pipe issues because he’s served on past city commissions.
“It takes three out of five to take action,” he said. “Dean was the lone voice sometimes, and often marginalized by some of his colleagues.”
Accomplishments Trantalis highlights on his campaign website include infrastructure upgrades, halting the Wave streetcar project, reducing homelessness through the support of a community court and others.
Dean Trantalis declined to be interviewed for this feature.
Read more about upcoming elections here: Your South Florida and Beyond 2020 Election Coverage