LAUDERHILL – The race for Broward County’s next sheriff turned downright hostile during a political forum last week, as Republican candidate Al Lamberti and Democratic candidate Scott Israel contended for African-American votes.
More than 200 people, most of them Israel supporters, witnessed the showdown Oct. 15 at the Central Broward Regional Park in Lauderhill, as the two candidates vying to be the county's top cop debated diversity hiring, patrolling, racial profiling, budget cuts and career records.
Garnering the black vote is particularly relevant in this year’s Nov. 4 election, as large numbers of black voters are expected to come out to the polls in support of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, the first serious African-American contender for the nation’s highest office.
Early in the debate, Israel led the offense, bashing Lamberti’s transition team of eight white males who would implement two initiatives the sheriff announced earlier that day: the creation of a diversity commission, and a hate crimes task force.
“We are on the verge of having the first African-American president in the history of the United States, yet my opponent couldn’t find one person of color, one woman or one minority to help him transition so the community and us can regain trust,” Israel said at the political forum, which was sponsored by a coalition of community organizations led by the Urban League of Broward County.
The other groups include the 100 Black Men of Greater Fort Lauderdale, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) of South Florida, the T.J. Reddick Bar Association, the Caribbean Bar Association and the Jamaican Diaspora of the Southern United States.
In his counterattack, Lamberti, 53, recalled his TV ad that details the 10 Fort Lauderdale Police Department Internal Affairs investigations of Israel during his 25-year tenure with the department. The investigations stemmed from allegations of excessive or unnecessary use of force and false arrest. Five of the Internal Affairs files are missing, even though Internal Affairs is required by law to keep them for 50 years, Lamberti said.
“I think there should be some investigation of where are those files. I’d be concerned if I was somebody in the community. We don’t know what he’s hiding,” Lamberti said.
Israel, 52, was cleared of all charges. He defended his record, describing it as “one of the most pristine, unblemished careers in police work.” He said because he was exonerated, by law the records were expunged after a year.
“I was attacked, shot at, and spat at by some of the most violent felons and criminals. What was I supposed to do? Would I do it again? You bet,’’ Israel said.
Political commentator Joy-Ann Reid, a South Florida Times contributor, escalated the clash as she questioned Israel’s decision to switch political parties.
Israel said he was born into a Democratic family and grew up with Democratic values, but registered as a Republican because he couldn’t get a job in Long Island unless he was a Republican.
‘I’m a Democrat now. I will be a Democrat the rest of my life,” Israel said.
In his rebuttal, Lamberti admonished Israel for becoming a Democrat last year after he was passed over by Gov. Charlie Crist for the Broward interim sheriff position.
Crist appointed Lamberti, a 31-year BSO veteran who began his career as a detention deputy, to the interim position in 2007 after former Sheriff Ken Jenne was imprisoned on mail fraud and tax evasion charges. Jenne was released early for good behavior after serving 10 months of his twelve-month sentence.
The Broward Sheriff's Office is one of the nation’s largest public safety agencies with a $700 million budget and 6,300 employees. Its multi-faceted duties include law enforcement, Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services, and securing Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
In his efforts to remain the head of BSO, the incumbent sheriff has gained tremendous support from bi-partisan backers. Campaign finance records show that he has taken the lead over Israel, raking in over $711,000, while Israel has raised $413,253.54, but spent most of it early on in the campaign, fighting off four contenders in the primary election.
With a calm and gentle demeanor, Lamberti took the heat from Israel and the rowdy crowd, which cheered Israel’s charge that he was invisible and out of touch.
Lamberti was invited to the first Broward Votes forum in July, but declined because he had no primary election and did not believe it was appropriate to join the Democratic candidates’ debate.
“I don’t sweat the numbers,” Lamberti said. “I trust the voters.”
Photo by Mychal McDonald. Sheriff Al Lamberti, left, and Scott Israel, right.