Jeff Perlman is cooler than Jeff Pearlman.
I actually just proved that, by calling myself as “Jeff Pearlman.” Which reminds me how tons of athletes used to refer to themselves in the third person. I always found that to be quite lame, and quite obnoxious.
So, again, Jeff Perlman is cooler than Jeff Pearlman.
Jeff Pearlman is a loser writer with a seldon-read Q&A series. Jeff Perlman was the thrice-elected mayor of Delray Beach, Florida; a problem solver who recently authored the book, “Adventures in Local Politics: How leadership brought Delray Beach back.” Jeff Pearlman picks his nose. Jeff Perlman may well pick his nose, too, but he does so with the confidence of a man who understands the intricacies of governance and—despite the awfulness of men like Donald Trump—believes public service can genuinely result in positive change.
Jeff Pearlman stinks.
Jeff Perlman is the 248th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, Jeff, I’m gonna start quirky: How do you feel about our name, and what’s your history with it? What I mean is, when I was a kid people used to call me “Pearlgirl” at school. Then, with age, I’d be asked whether I was related to Ron Perlman, and the guy who managed all those boy bands, or Itzhak Perlman. So, how about you? And why’d you even get the name?
JEFF PERLMAN: Great question, Jeff. Like most people, I was born with the name. I was not consulted prior to or after the fact. My parents were pretty traditional, they felt it was their responsibility to name me. I was never called “Pearl Girl” at school, but I’m sure that you put that out there, I can expect that now. I was asked about Ron Perlman and there were the obligatory “Beauty and the Beast” jokes when people saw me with a cute girlfriend. I was always asked about Itzhak Perlman and also about Rhea Perlman and I admit I tried to claim them as relatives a time or two.
But as you became famous, I started getting questions about whether I was the guy who interviewed John Rocker and wrote those great books about the Mets and Walter Payton. And while it saddened me that someone else with my name made it as a writer and I never did, I was also very proud of you. And I was keenly aware that it could have been worse; I went to Hebrew school with a kid named David Berkowitz, not the “Son of Sam”, but just a nice Jewish boy. So I am grateful that you have brought fame and fortune to our name and that you did not become Son of Sam.
I also feel a responsibility to you, so I will not do anything heinous, if I can avoid it. As an ex-politician, I always want an out, but I promise to try to make us proud so that when people Google you, I don’t mess up your rep.
I should also say that I like our name, but I do prefer Jeff to Jeffrey.
J.P.: We spoke when I was running for city council in New Rochelle, and you seemed pretty upbeat about politics. Now, a decade removed, I thank God every week that I lost to Barry Fertel. Meetings, more meetings, complaints, rubber chicken dinners, etc. You served as the mayor of Delray Beach—which seems like a nightmare of a gig. Am I off? And why, or why not?
J.P.: You’re right and you’re wrong. Does that make sense?
Yes there are meetings after meetings and chicken dinner after chicken dinner and stress beyond belief, but serving a city that you truly love is also an amazing experience and a great honor and responsibility. It is beyond cool.
Local government is also perhaps the best place to make a difference since most state capitols and Washington are cesspools of dysfunction. But in theory, in a place like Delray, which is a magical city by the way, if you have an idea on a Tuesday night and two of your colleagues like that idea, change can occur Wednesday morning. That’s very powerful and an incredible opportunity to make a difference. If, of course, you choose to make a difference. When you get elected to local office there are two fundamental questions I think you need to answer. The first is: Do you see the role as a job to do or a job to have? That’s a very simple but profound question. Because if you see it as a job to do, you will take risks, you will seek to move the “big rocks” and you’ll be willing to lose an election if need be. If you decide it’s a job to have, you will spend your term playing dodgeball, avoiding issues, kicking the can down the road and pandering. We have too many dodgeball players, empty suits with egos and too few people willing to frame reality and then have the courage of their convictions. As I grow older and crankier, I have less patience for the panderers and way more appreciation for the transformational leaders—who unfortunately are very rare these days.
The other question you have to ask is who do you want to delight? Being a mayor is a complicated job, but you can simplify it by asking yourself who do I want to please? Because you cannot please everybody; although people try.
Do I want to please the negative five percent who hate everything and tend to be concerned with their own needs or do I want to help those who roll up their sleeves and are out there trying to create opportunities and move the city forward? Do I want to pander to the critics, or do I want to get behind the people trying to clean up a neighborhood or help kids or create cultural opportunities and jobs. To me, the choice is easy. It’s not a trick question. But I see a whole lot of local officials who piss off the doers and kowtow to the angry crowd. At the end of the day, they don’t accomplish much. And they are not remembered fondly.
J.P.: I always feel bad for athletes when they retire, because they often seem lost, wayward. Is it also that way being an ex-mayor? Was there an adjustment period following your last day? Any depression? Feelings of inadequacy, etc?
J.P.: When you leave office, you instantly become a Pip. Not a Gladys Knight kind of Pip, but a Previously Important Person. So you go from the center of your small piece of the universe to no longer having a vote. But it doesn’t mean you don’t have a say or that you don’t have a responsibility if you truly care about the community.
It is difficult. Most ex-mayors I talk to will deny it, but I have a feeling that most aren’t being truthful. It’s a great experience and then it ends, for most of us just when we begin to figure it out. So unlike athletes who begin to shoot 4-for-24 from the field or throw wounded duck interceptions, we sometimes are retired just when we know what we’re doing. At least that was my experience. I left because there were term limits but I had accumulated all this knowledge and insight—at least I thought I did. Smart mayors are confident enough to look back and involve their predecessors at some level. I had several former mayors I leaned on for advice and insight. There were things that only they understood having sat in the seat.
So yes, there is an adjustment period, but I wouldn’t call it depression. There is a lot of relief—the pressure is off, you get a big chunk of your life and your privacy back. You get to hang with your kids again, but you do miss the action and the ability to make an impact. At least I do.
How do you fix that? You write a book. That was cathartic for me.
J.P.: Your first-ever election. Why? When? What? Tell me everything.
J.P.: I ran once. And I won comfortably against a guy who later became a friend and a neighbor.
We ran a hard race; there were lots of debates and forums. It’s an incredible experience as you know. And it is something that I think is important … you should be willing and able to campaign on your ideas and your vision and if you’re an incumbent you should have to go out and defend those votes. It’s good for the soul. You get heckled, you get doors slammed in your face, you get attacked, you work like crazy and then it’s over.
I was re-elected three times without opposition, which I suppose is a good thing. But I was never afraid to be in an election because I was happy to defend what we were doing. And I was proud of the team’s effort.
When I ran, I raised about $20,000. Now the campaigns in little old Delray are well into six figures. We have Super PACs, candidates writing huge checks for their own campaigns, negative attack ads, TV ads, lots of noise on social media but not as many forums in neighborhoods where you actually stand up in front of real voters and debate your opponent. There are a few big ones, but the grassroots stuff has been overtaken by the air war. And the negativity, even on the local level, where we all know each other and have to see each other at the grocery and the Little League field is astonishing. The last mayoral campaign in Delray was a major turn off.
If I showed you the mail you would have thought Delray was Beirut at its lowest point instead of a really successful, vibrant, cool little city with a kick-ass downtown, a gorgeous beach, wonderful weather, nice neighborhoods and tons of culture and fun things to do. It turned me off and others too. I didn’t vote for any of the candidates—the first time in nearly 30 years that I just couldn’t pull the lever. I walked into the booth and couldn’t vote for either of them; and both were people I have known and enjoyed over the years.
The result of the mud is that good people refuse to run. They are not reluctant, they flat out refuse. So you end up with people not quite ready for the job or even completely unknown; people who don’t understand the community they are tasked to lead.
We should have tough debates about issues, but politics has gotten personal and many people just don’t want to deal with it. Most of us are not perfect, we’ve made mistakes. We’ve inhaled, failed in business before succeeding, been divorced, missed a credit card payment etc. I don’t want to vote for the perfect person who hasn’t failed. That’s not real to me. I don’t want to vote for a train wreck either, but give me somebody who has been humbled by life and has learned from it. For the record, I have a good credit rating, done OK with my career, inhaled and was divorced. And I feel bad about saying I was related to Itzhak Perlman.
J.P.: When John McCain nominated Sarah Palin, much was made of her time as a mayor in Wasilla, Alaska. It was pretty pumped up—tough decisions, business-minded. And I think a lot of us sighed, in that, “Gimme a break–you’re going to use small-town mayoral experience as a reason we should put you in the White House?” But, whether you liked her or not, was there something to it? Can the argument be made that mayoral experience might be helpful as a high-powered federally elected official? Or is that just dumb? And, for kicks, what DID you think of Sarah Palin?
J.P.: I think it’s a big leap from Wasilla or Delray to leader of the free world. But I do think good mayors are problem solvers, great marketers for their cities, non-partisan and solution oriented. And isn’t that what is missing on a national level? Are they solving problems in Washington? I think they are creating them. I think they are ignoring problems and denying facts. I think we ought to be embarrassed and fighting mad about what’s going on. Do I think our best and brightest are running for federal office? No way. Our best and brightest are becoming entrepreneurs and then philanthropists. Our politics have become a clown show and that’s being charitable.
What do I think about Sarah Palin? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about her.
J.P.: How do you deal with the kook? I mean, every town has them—the man or woman who attends e-v-e-r-y public meeting with some oddball agenda (the aliens are eating our corn; we need more guns in the hands of teachers, etc). I’m sure you know who I mean—loud, obnoxious, irritating, ubiquitous. And do you have a story about one? No names required …
J.P.: Well, we have more than our fair share of charmers in Delray. We had one lady who swung a dead cat in the air while speaking in rhyme. We had people who threatened to kill us in creative ways and we had one woman who walked around and filmed us incessantly, following us to the car hoping to catch us saying something heinous. And Jeff, I have promised to try and not be heinous. My favorite story had to do with a woman who was upset because a builder needed to cut down a tree on a property. It was a big tree. It was an old tree and it was—in its day—a beautiful tree. We had a tree doctor give us a report on whether it could be relocated and the diagnosis came back that the tree was dying and could not be moved. The woman insisted that she grew up playing in the tree and she strapped herself to it in protest. I happened to know the guy who owned the property for 50-plus years and he told me he had no idea who the woman was and she certainly did not grow up in the tree.
On the eve of the tree vote, I got a call from the woman who said she was coming to the meeting and was going to humiliate me. She screamed through the phone, “the only thing that will stop me is if I get hit by a truck.” The next night as we are poised to vote on the tree, we have the tree doctor there, our city horticulturist etc. No sign of the woman. I kept looking out into the crowd and into the hallway—nothing. Turns out, she was hit by a truck on her way to the meeting. She was hospitalized but made it … sadly, the tree didn’t. We felt bad about the tree … you simply cannot make this stuff up. Which should have been the title of my book.
J.P.: What’s your back story? Like, why politics? Womb to office, how’d that happen?
J.P.: I was born in Queens, N.Y. and raised in Stony Brook N.Y., which was on the eastern end of Long Island. I was a sports fanatic as a kid and a pretty good baseball and tennis player. I grew up listening to classic rock and going to concerts with my friends, one of whom was the little brother of ESPN broadcaster [and 211th Quaz] Linda Cohn. Linda was a few years older and drove us around. We made her laugh and she knew more about sports than anybody we knew. When we turned 50 a year ago, Linda met us in New York City for a sports weekend and she hooked us up—sideline passes to the Giants pre-season game, US Open tickets, Mets tickets. It was great.
I graduated Ward Melville High School, one year ahead of Kevin James, who was a great baseball player, wrestler and football player and who bought a house in Delray. So he has great taste in home towns, too.
I had great parents, a great sister and grandparents who I worshipped and who told incredible stories. We grew up talking politics at the kitchen table, but I never thought I would run for office. I went to college at SUNY Oswego and went to work for local newspapers. I came to Florida in 1987 to escape the snow of upstate New York and committed the cardinal sin of journalists—I fell in love with the town I was covering. I was encouraged to run for office by a mayor I really admired, Tom Lynch, who was incredible and that conversation led me to run in 2000.
I left office in 2007 and went back to my entrepreneurial roots, creating publications and working for a family office helping to grow businesses ranging from a hot sauce company named Tabanero and a beverage company named Celsius to various other ventures including hotels, real estate and restaurants.
I remain involved in the community serving on lots of boards, mentoring kids and young entrepreneurs and starting a foundation called Dare 2 Be Great, which identifies, mentors and provides college scholarships to kids we think can be difference makers right here in Delray. We want them to come back and make our community even better. I was drawn to politics because I wanted to make a difference in the town that I love. I never aspired to higher office; there is no higher office than being mayor of a cool city.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your political career? Lowest?
J.P.: My greatest moment was walking out the door in March 2007 after giving a short goodbye speech in front of all the people I respected and loved. They stood and cheered and I knew that I got the equation right. I made the right people happy. I’m proud of that. For me, that was the Holy Grail.
The lowest point was the tragic shooting death of a young man named Jerrod Miller, who was shot and killed by a rookie police officer exactly 10 years before Trayvon Martin. He was 15, I had a 15-year-old daughter at the time. It was the most challenging period I had, because the emotions were raw, there was overwhelming sadness, deep-seated anger and tremendous pain. I had hurricanes on my watch, various controversies and they even discovered that many of the 9/11 terrorists had been living in Delray before the attacks, but nothing compared to the Jerrod Miller shooting. There’s no playbook you can read to prepare you for that kind of challenge … where you feel that if you say something wrong, you could lose a city. So you just be human, you let yourself cry with people, you absorb the anger and you try and provide as much comfort as possible. I went to bed every night with his image in my head and there are still mornings where I wake up to that image, probably because I am a father myself and I couldn’t imagine losing one of my children.
J.P.: The American political system just seems so fucked up right now. Hate, hate, anger. Obama is Satan, Trump is Satan, we need more guns, we need more abortion, on and on and on. Jeff, what happened? And is there a way to fix this?
J.P.: What happened? We lost our way. And it’s ugly and it’s astonishing and it’s depressing and the state of our politics ought to be a source of deep national introspection. It is just gross out there. It’s surreal.
So we have a golden age of political comedy because every day we just see more craziness and I laugh like everybody else at Jon Stewart and John Oliver and Colbert. But if you think about it, it’s deeply, deeply distressing.
But I am an optimist, so I think we can fix this. Or I think the next generation can because we have screwed it up something fierce. I think better leadership is the answer to all of our problems. This dysfunction is a result of bad leadership, corrosive leadership. I want that to be my next book, only I want to put it out under your name so it actually sells.
Things can change for the better if we find better leaders, not perfect people, but better leaders. Ones who are emotionally intelligent, not narcissistic bullies who are there to grandstand.
Would federal term limits help? Yes. Is special interest money a problem? Oh yeah, the average person has no voice anymore.
But those are band aids, needed and necessary but we have to attract better people to the process at every level of government. We need to teach leadership skills in school. We need to learn to compromise and work together. We need to learn to listen and we need to rediscover empathy in this country. Empathy built America. My grandparents came here because this was the land of opportunity and because they were safe here. My grandfather, Abraham Perlman, was a tailor, with no formal education. He came here not speaking the language and his son, my dad, went to an Ivy League school. In one generation—that’s a great country. We have these wonderful traits in our DNA, I don’t believe they are lost. But our political class is awful. They are doing a huge disservice to America. If we trade them out for some of the kids that I am seeing through Dare 2 Be Great and there are thousands and thousands of kids like them all across America, we will begin to fix things in this country. So I say bullies and egotists go away and let’s find, nurture and support servant leaders. They are here. We have them. Let’s get them involved and push out the bullies.
J.P.: So as I mentioned, before moving to California I lived in New Rochelle, N.Y.—an awesome place with a decaying downtown. And there was always talk about improving it, making it more upscale, more businesses, expensive buildings, etc. And yet—lots of low-income people live there, work there. And you can’t just discount that and say, “we need to gentrify.” You had a good run with downtown revitalization in Delray Beach. How does one balance the needs to residents with the needs to giving the city a jump?
J.P.: Progress is not a zero sum game as some would frame it.
You can grow responsibly and keep and I believe enhance your charm. There is nothing charming about blight and decay, but vibrancy is very cool.
The best leaders frame reality and the reality is change is going to happen unless you live in Williamsburg or a museum town. So the key is to have a citizen driven vision that addresses what kind of change that you want to see. What kind of feel and scale do you hope to have and preserve? What are the important buildings? Let’s save them or repurpose them if they are vacant.
We have a responsibility to please our residents but also position our cities for the future. They need to be sustainable economically, culturally, socially and environmentally. A good leader sells that message, seeks input from a wide range of residents and tries to learn as much as possible about trends, design and planning principles. Bad leaders are reactive and chase investment away. They are know it alls, always the smartest people in the room.
You have to establish what you value and then have the courage to stick to the vision because it takes years and you’re never done. You can’t declare victory and get complacent, which is a common malady. If you value affordability, there’s a tool box you can use to try and keep your city accessible to small businesses and young families or seniors on fixed incomes. You don’t have to be at the whim of the market nor do you have to bend over for every developer and lower your standards. But you can and should work with developers, you can and should roll up your sleeves and insist that they build to the vision of the community. The best ones will, the ones who won’t—kick them to the curb. We did.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JEFF PERLMAN:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Butch Hobson, Cary Glickstein, J. Cole, Cheesecake Factory, Sears, Big Apple Circus, Rumer Willis, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, Miami, Dan Fouts, The Gap, fart jokes, guinea pigs: Miami, guinea pigs, Dan Fouts (he was great), fart jokes, Butch Hobson, Big Apple Circus, The Gap, Rumer Willis, Real Housewives, J. Cole (what is that a store?) Sears and Cary. I would have rated Cary the developer higher. He was a good developer.
• Five reasons one should make Delray Beach his/her next vacation destination?: Great downtown, just incredible. 2. Great hotels (especially Crane’s Beach House). 3. Great restaurants (some even have Tabanero Hot Sauce) 4. Great Beach. 5. Free Concerts at Old School Square every Friday night with great cover bands playing music that boomers love.
• Hillary Clinton calls—she wants you to be her running mate. What do you say?: Can you move the White House to Delray? The weather is better and we have free concerts.
• Three memories from your senior prom?: My date was beautiful. I wore a white tux that made me look like Mr. Roark from Fantasy Island. All the girls had really big hair. It was Long Island, 1982.
• Can Taco Bell revolutionize the burrito?: Only if they use Tabanero Hot Sauce (shameless plug).
• How annoying did you find it having to get book jacket blurbs for your book?: Very annoying. I wish I had asked you. Although it would have looked like I’m blurbing about my own book, which must be against the blurbing rules.
• You wrote in a blog post that “civic pride moves mountains.” What if the mountains are sorta gross and covered in dog snot?: Jeff, it was a metaphor. We don’t even have mountains in Florida. For the record, I have two dogs, I have seen it all, stepped in it all, cleaned it all. I’m not afraid.
• One question you would ask Davis Love III were he here right now?: Mr. Love, we’re both 51. I can’t even win at miniature golf, so how did you win the Wyndham at our age?
• Five favorite political figures of your lifetime?: My mentor Mayor Tom Lynch. My predecessor Dave Schmidt. A guy who ran for office in the Glades under the name “Secret Squirrel”. Commissioner Bob Costin who owned the infamous tree we talked about earlier and never had an email account or a computer and Ian Mellul, who’s not yet a political figure but is a brilliant young man in Dare 2 Be Great who will be president and will fix a whole lot of problems. Remember the name. He’s a magician too, which will help.
• Five least-favorite political figures of your lifetime?: I thought Charlie Crist was the worst panderer of all-time. Ted Cruz—Cruz’ college roommate said he would rather pick someone out of the phone book to be president than see his old roomie in the Oval Office. Yikes. I’m not a big Mitch McConnell fan. To show that my dislike is bipartisan, I don’t like Jimmy Carter and I thought Sarah Palin gave small-town mayors a bad name. That’s three Republicans and one Democrat. Crist was a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, a conservative and a liberal—all in one election cycle. That’s hard to beat.