Cerabino: In city politics, Boca Raton is having its Hindenburg moment

I got a mailer this week that featured a large photo of the Hindenburg exploding over New Jersey.

It was about the Boca Raton city election.

“Oh, the humanity!” I muttered.

You might not think that the city election in two weeks has anything to do with a dirigible that burst into flames during a botched landing 80 years ago. But then again, this is Boca.

“Boca Raton politics is a blood sport,” said Al Zucaro, a 68-year-old challenger for the mayor’s race. “It wants to present itself as a civil place, but if you don’t go along to get along, you’re intimidated and retaliated against, and if that doesn’t work, you’re ostracized.”

Astute readers may have already figured out that Zucaro is the candidate who has been likened to the zeppelin disaster that killed 36 people.

Which isn’t fair. As far as travel-disaster metaphors go, Zucaro’s no more than a couch in the right lane of Yamato Road.

His crime is that five years ago, he successfully started a blog devoted to questioning the developer-friendly habits of city leaders. The blog, BocaWatch, which advocates “responsible sustainable growth,” has attracted about 20,000 readers and enough political clout to stop a recent city initiative that would have allowed city-owned waterfront property to be leased to a restaurant.

If Zucaro’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he spent eight years as a city commissioner in West Palm Beach. His public life in West Palm Beach ended 10 years ago when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor against Lois Frankel.

“After the race with Lois, I thought I was done with politics,” Zucaro said. “I did my stint.”

Zucaro married philanthropist Yvonne Boice and moved to Boca Raton, where it didn’t take long for him to show up at city council meetings and fall back into local politics again.

“I’m a little too old, fat and ugly to be back in politics,” Zucaro said, “but nobody else stepped up.”

In January, when Boca Raton City Mayor Susan Haynie appeared to be running unopposed for another term, Zucaro showed up on the last day of filing to run against her.

He didn’t imagine that his run would lead to the Hindenburg mailer, which highlights some aspects of his checkered financial past as well as this gem, printed in jumping-out-from-the-page red ink:

“I never denied that I play poker. I DO PLAY POKER. It’s a pastime for me. I’M A RISK-TAKER.”

These are words that Zucaro spoke 10 years ago while explaining his peripheral involvement in one of the zaniest Palm Beach law-and-order escapades in recent times.

It turns out, that in 1997 there was this Palm Beach couple named Gareth and Hattie Whitehead. And they lived in an apartment above the Brooks Brothers store on Worth Avenue. (Yes, this so Palm Beach gansta. Cue up the theme music to C.O.P.S. on the violin.)

Hattie had been the director of couture at Neiman Marcus. (A gateway to a life of crime, apparently). She and her husband were also running a high-stakes poker game in their apartment four times a week where the buy-ins were $500 on weekdays and $1,000 on weekends, according to police.

The Palm Beach vice squad investigated this Worth Avenue poker game for four months before raiding the place and arresting 28 people.

But not Zucaro. Police received anonymous tips that Zucaro was one of the regulars, and the department recommended charging him with a gambling misdemeanor. But Zucaro wasn’t at the game on the day it was busted and the evidence against him was spotty. So he was never charged.

This wasn’t a big deal, anyway. Nobody went to jail, including the Whiteheads, who received 18 months probation.

But now, this poker caper is part of Zucaro’s carry-on baggage on the Hindenburg, which, by the way, would certainly explode into flames if it descended into Boca Raton today, with all the high-density, 160-foot-tall buildings that Zucaro’s political opponents have allowed to rise.

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