My Dad, Mandela and a lesson in leadership

My Dad, Seymour Gelber, was elected Mayor of Miami Beach in 1991, in the midst of a national tourism boycott of Miami-Dade County. It was sparked by the refusal of municipalities across Miami-Dade to honor Mandela during his visit here after his release from 27 years in South African prisons.

During Mandela’s imprisonment Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro had made statements of support of Mandela, and when Mandela acknowledged them publicly, Cubans and Jews in South Florida were offended.

So when Mandela visited, city commissions across the county refused to honor Mandela by granting the traditional proclamations awarded to virtually anyone. This snub sparked a well-organized (and well-deserved) national tourism boycott in the black community that embarrassed our County and hurt us financially.

Upon his election as Mayor, my Dad quickly decided to issue a City Proclamation for Mandela. Given that the two major constituencies in his City were Cubans and Jews, he expected some blowback.

Immediately, disapproving letters showed up in the newspaper followed by obscene shouts from passer-byers in public. The name-calling quickly progressed to threats.

My Mom was shocked when one caller to their house told her that her husband “should burn in an oven.”

Most of his fellow commissioners were incensed and even publicly considered revoking his right to issue a proclamation.

In the face of such anger and fury, I wondered if my Dad would back down.

Actually, Dad doubled-down, and announced he would additionally issue Mandela the City’s highest award, the Medallion of Honor.

He told his detractors to pound sand (or less cordial words to that effect).

He told me, “I’d rather be on the right side of history than the right side of an election.”

Soon thereafter the boycott ended as other municipalities followed suit and made appropriate gestures and the County and boycott leaders reached agreement.

As for my Dad, his angry constituents overwhelmingly re-elected him each time he chose to run.