Art Teele left a legacy as a combative and controversial force in Miami-Dade politics, serving for almost two decades.
BY TERE FIGUERAS NEGRETE, LESLEY CLARK AND MICHAEL VASQUEZ
An imposing, brilliant and canny figure in Miami's sharp-elbowed political scene, Arthur E. Teele Jr. landed in Miami with aplomb, pledging to be the voice of the city's poor. But he frequently found himself at the center of a maelstrom of controversy.
The one-time Reagan-era appointee at the U.S. Department of Transportation won two terms on the Dade County Commission in the 1990s – and was elected its powerful chairman three times. He withstood a bitter loss when he ran for county mayor against a rising Alex Penelas, but staged a remarkable second act, rebounding as a Miami city commissioner – powerful enough to survive an effort to recall him from office.
Long haunted by financial woes and improprieties – he was once accused of putting a woman arrested on prostitution and grand theft charges on the city payroll to fetch him coffee – Teele saw his troubles multiply in recent years.
As an attorney, Teele was an influential voice on the City Commission, serving as head of the Community Redevelopment Agency created to renovate blighted areas of Overtown and nearby neighborhoods.
TROUBLE AT AGENCY
But it was the CRA that proved his political unraveling. He was under surveillance in an investigation of CRA-related corruption allegations when he chased and threatened a police officer. And Friday – just four months after a felony conviction for assault – his troubles snowballed: He was arraigned on federal charges of fraud and money laundering.
"This is a tragic end to a story that could have been very different," said Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who had well-publicized feuds with Teele but said he had maintained a professional relationship until the day criminal charges led to Teele's removal from office.
Few disputed Teele's political acumen or his brilliance, but they suggested he had started to withdraw as his legal and personal problems intensified.
"I think Arthur was, without question, one of the smartest human beings I ever met," said former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who sat on the panel with Teele when both men were county commissioners. "He had total recall. He was like a sponge."
DE FACTO MAYOR
Teele presided over the commission as chairman when Miami-Dade had no mayor, making him de facto mayor. Ferré said Teele was "intuitive, conclusive, accommodating and kind. But when he had to cut, he cut deep."
Over the past few months, Ferré – who said he counted Teele as a friend and political ally – said he tried to reach out many times with no success.
'I finally got ahold of his wife, and she said, `I'm sure he'll call you back.' He never did," Ferre said. "I guess it all spun out of control for him. This is a tragedy."
To the end, Teele had fierce supporters who saw in him a man who got things done.
Rev. Richard Dunn II, a Teele friend now campaigning to fill his City Commission seat, criticized some who rushed to eulogize Teele, calling them "hypocrites" who never lent support during Teele's troubles, or worse, celebrated his downfall.
"There were people who were mean-spirited and evil and who have dark souls," Dunn said. "And a lot of them are in City Hall."
A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Teele was a brawler in the political and literal sense. In one of the more notorious – and retold – stories in county history, Teele brazenly punched a lobbyist in the nose.
The reason: Teele felt the lobbyist, Ric Sisser, was circulating rumors that he had turned his back on a black candidate for county manager. To send a message and quell the talk, Teele calmly called two witnesses into his office to watch him pound Sisser in the face.
Following the infamous punch and tense vote that installed Armando Vidal as county manager, Teele believed his life was in danger. He called for police protection, applied for a concealed-weapons permit and bought three guns.
"I've never asked anyone to cut me any slack," he told The Herald in 1996 as he waged a losing campaign for mayor against Penelas. "I am not your ballroom dancer."
Born on May 14, 1946, in Prince Georges County, Md., Teele moved as a child to Tallahassee, where his father was a history professor at Florida A&M University.
There, the younger Teele attended an elite school in the then-segregated city, telling The Herald in a 1996 profile that he had been "blessed and privileged."
'My mother always used to say, `To whom much is given, much is required,' " he told The Herald.
At FAMU, Teele joined the ROTC. After graduating in 1967, he went to Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry.
"The wing of the military I came from was the most right-wing, bloodthirsty, highly decorated soldiers in the Army," Teele said in the 1996 profile. "But if you performed, you made it, especially in combat. Merit mattered."
Teele told the newspaper he became a Republican through his legal contacts, and by 1980 he was the national chairman of Blacks for Reagan-Bush. The political post helped him land a job as head of the Urban Mass Transit Administration.
When he left Washington in 1983, he boasted to The Herald of securing $220 million in federal funds for South Florida for transportation projects, including building the Metrorail and the downtown Metromover.
In Miami, he set his sights on county politics, opposing incumbent Commissioner Barbara Carey, who had helped introduce Teele to the community. She later forgave him for an aggressive campaign.
"It hurt at first," Carey told The Herald in 1996. "[But] I think he did what he had to do. He's the greatest Machiavellian politician I've ever known."
`CONTINUE TO FIGHT'
Almost to the end, Teele maintained his combative edge. Just last August, out on bail but facing charges that he threatened a police officer, Teele pledged to continue to champion the residents of oft-neglected Overtown.
"I will continue to fight for the residents of Overtown, no matter how much The Herald, Manny Diaz and Joe Arriola make light of what I am trying to do by pooh-poohing it," he said in an interview with The Herald. "I fought for this country, and I am not prepared to let some people who have never fired a shot in anger in defense of this country . . . besmirch my character or disrespect me in carrying out my duties to protect the people who have never had anyone to fight for them."
Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Larry Lebowitz and Noaki Schwartz contributed to this report.
Published in the Miami Herald on July 27, 2005