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The Nancy Graham Whom West Palm Beach Knew

Monday, Sept. 8, 2008 | On a brick plaza in downtown West Palm Beach, Fla., a tombstone-shaped monument stands in tribute to Nancy Malley Graham. The pineapple-engraved slab memorializes the public park as Nancy M. Graham Centennial Square, reading:

She inspired us to

Sculpt a Capital City

and her vision became

our shared reality

Nothing embodies West Palm Beach’s reverence for its first strong mayor like that red-and-white monument, dedicated while Graham was still in charge. In the coastal city of almost 100,000, Graham’s name is synonymous with downtown.

Almost a decade after she left office, Nancy Malley Graham is still West Palm Beach’s conquering hero, the public official who catalyzed the city’s massive downtown revitalization, who fought crime and drugs, who once told The New York Times: “I want to make West Palm Beach the downtown for the whole country.”

But in San Diego, Nancy Carol Graham, as she called herself here, the story is the opposite. She resigned July 24 from her post as president of the Centre City Development Corp., the downtown redevelopment agency, after voiceofsandiego.org revealed inconsistencies in her account of her dealings and relationship with a downtown developer.

Court records show she received money from two developers with projects pending downtown. She then participated in negotiations with both, never reporting the income in required economic disclosure forms or abstaining from those deliberations.

The fallout from her relationships and resignation has frozen CCDC, threatening a batch of high-profile downtown projects and leading to the resignation of the downtown redevelopment authority’s attorney. CCDC is now investigating whether Graham unduly influenced any downtown projects, sullying any legacy she may have achieved during her two-and-a-half years at the agency.

Nancy Graham, 62, is known for being salty and sarcastic and for her rise from poverty to public prominence. She has lived the last 20 years of her life in the public spotlight: In Florida as a city commissioner, a mayor, a top redevelopment official and a developer, and in San Diego as one of downtown’s most powerful public officials.

But the legacy of San Diego’s Nancy Carol Graham looks nothing like that of Florida’s Nancy Malley Graham.

Her Tennessee Beginnings

Graham’s life began June 5, 1946 in rural Tennessee as Nancy Carol Roskam, with an upbringing in a poor family that set the stage for a self-made success that launched her to national prominence and ultimately to CCDC.

The Roskam family was big and their house was small, so the six children shared beds, she told The Palm Beach Post in 1992, eating squirrel, rabbit and occasionally groundhogs for dinner. Her father, a Navy veteran and housepainter, died of cancer in his late 40s. Her mother, Virginia, still lives in Tennessee.

Graham spent time in San Diego growing up and returned at age 18, arriving by Greyhound, she told the Post. She worked as a secretary and soon met her own Navy man, Robert Malley, the first of her three husbands. Graham and Malley moved to Jacksonville, Fla., and had three children, though her first-born died after birth and one of her sons, born blind and mentally retarded, died at age 15.

Graham and Malley divorced in 1976, remarried within a month and divorced again two years later, the Post reported. She worked to put herself through college and law school and was in her mid-30s when she received her law degree from the University of Florida.

She worked for several law firms after graduating in 1981 near the top of her class, though she never spent more than five years with any. She has always been on the move, never staying long in any job or marriage. To date, the longest-serving job she’s had was her eight-year post as West Palm Beach’s mayor; her first marriage was her longest and lasted just more than a decade.

Graham’s time in public office began in 1988 in West Palm Beach as a city commissioner — akin to a city council member. She resigned from the part-time post a year later after raising concerns about a potential conflict of interest, the first time she faced such an issue. She said her law firm’s clients had projects pending at the city. “I didn’t want there to be even the slightest suggestion that I’m doing something unethical,” she told the Post in 1989.

She ran for mayor two years later, winning 56 percent of the vote. In a deposition last year, she explained her reasons: “I thought, you know, we need people who are willing to get in office, do what needs to be done, make the tough decisions — then get the hell out and move on with life instead of being a lifetime politician.

“It was rather naive on my part but, you know, but I won.”

West Palm Opportunity

In West Palm Beach, Nancy Malley Graham carried a reputation as being determined but polarizing, a visionary but with enemies. Some attributed that to her role as the city’s first strong mayor, flexing newly established power against the wishes of a historically powerful City Commission. David Smith, a former city commissioner and longtime opponent, said Graham could be difficult to work with.

“She seemed embittered,” he said. “Nancy, I was always struck as being an unhappy lady.”

Graham blamed part of the reputation on gender stereotypes.

“Being a woman, it’s not seen as natural,” Graham told the Post in 1992. “We are called pushy and bitchy and from people who, simply, don’t get what they want.”

Graham’s second term in office — she won a convincing 76 percent in a 1995 reelection campaign — defined her career. She pushed plans to redevelop 77 acres in downtown West Palm Beach. Graham was media savvy. Before the city began acquiring land, she took reporters on tours through the area. She’d point out bullet holes; people passing by would shout words of encouragement to their mayor. Those scenes — “You are great!” — were repeated from The Palm Beach Post to The New York Times.

The redevelopment project forged two important connections in Graham’s life. She met her third husband, Kevin Lawler, whom the city had hired as a real estate analyst. And she worked on her first project with The Related Group and The Related Cos., two of the developers that led to her problems in San Diego.

During the redevelopment push, Lawler, a Harvard-educated consultant, conducted a financial analysis for West Palm Beach that justified selecting a developer team that included the two Related entities. The developers subsequently built an award-winning $650 million downtown mall project, CityPlace, a name that became synonymous with Graham’s.

“She really was a hero,” said Al Zucaro, a former West Palm Beach city commissioner who served alongside Graham. “You can’t take away from the fact she’s had a dramatic impact on West Palm Beach, its ability to survive in the future and its tax base.”

Graham left office in March 1999, a few weeks after the tombstone-shaped monument was unveiled, immediately taking a job with Watermark Communities Inc., a high-end residential golf communities developer. That same year, Graham married Lawler alongside her namesake downtown fountain.

Graham didn’t enjoy suburban residential development, and two years later, she switched jobs again, forming a development business with her husband focused on her passion: Urban development.

Their company, N-K Ventures, soon began working on a condominium project in Lantana, Fla., with Lennar Corp. and The Related Group. The deal netted Graham and Lawler $7.5 million and continued paying Graham while she was at CCDC, a detail that eventually led to her troubles in San Diego. When she filled out annual conflict disclosure forms during her time in San Diego, she never reported receiving that money. Records show that at CCDC she worked on projects involving Lennar and an affiliate of The Related Group.

Conflict-of-interest questions again rose after Graham returned to public office in April 2003, serving as executive director of West Palm Beach’s Downtown Development Authority, akin to CCDC. Lois Frankel, a new city mayor whom Graham enthusiastically endorsed, had appointed her. Their alliance was short-lived.

Graham later lamented the decision to take the job, which she resigned after 14 months. “I agreed to do that,” Graham testified last summer “Why, I don’t know.” She used the same excuse to explain her departure that she would use four years later when she left CCDC: Her aging mother was sick. She would later say she’d resigned in Florida because “I was not happy with what I saw going on.”

Graham had a bitter falling out with Frankel, who told the Post that Graham’s relationship with The Related Group had forced the two apart. “I mainly felt that her role as a developer had the potential — it was either causing conflict or the appearance of a conflict,” Frankel told the Post in 2005.

Ten days after that statement appeared in the Florida newspaper, Graham was hired in San Diego.

Graham often lamented her departure from Florida, from the town with her namesake plaza. She told a Post reporter her decision to leave was “very, very painful.” She clearly felt a deep attachment to that place. To understand why she ever left a city that had so idolized her is to understand the fallout from that rivalry.

Graham had been West Palm Beach’s larger-than-life persona; someone whose every move had been documented. The mayor who immediately followed her was not as popular. But Frankel, elected in 2003, took a share of Graham’s limelight. The two constantly criticized each other; Graham continued opining on her rival’s shortcomings long after leaving Florida.

“Things had shifted here,” said Dennis Grady, longtime chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches. “We had a different strong mayor, and there’s only one leader of the band.”

‘Painful’ Move to San Diego

When longtime Centre City Development Corp. President Peter Hall announced his retirement in 2005, a worldwide search was launched to find a replacement. The three-member search committee narrowed the list to a few candidates; they received detailed briefing notebooks on each.

Former City Manager Lamont Ewell and county Supervisor Ron Roberts were quick to confirm they’d been contacted. But one out-of-town candidate had a resume that seemed complete: Strong mayor, developer, land-use attorney, knew development from both sides. The accolades in that notebook were icing. Governing magazine named her one of the top 10 public officials in 1998. Newsweek named her one of the top 25 mayors in America.

Her name, of course, was Nancy Carol Graham. She was CCDC’s choice. The agency included the Newsweek honor in its press release announcing her October 2005 hiring. Graham provided that biographical claim; CCDC frequently reprinted it but never verified its accuracy. That type of trust was routinely afforded Graham while she served at CCDC.

The agency’s employees and board members took her at her word.

Newsweek had in fact not made an editorial judgment on how Graham ranked among the nation’s mayors. The magazine actually named Graham one of America’s 25 mayors to watch, citing the $1,000 quarter-page advertisements she’d purchased in a local paper publicizing the names of johns arrested (and not convicted) for soliciting prostitutes.

That decision subsequently got the city sued for libel by a 75-year-old man who was arrested, acquitted and later presented evidence in court showing he’d been impotent for two years before his arrest. The city spent at least $30,000 on legal fees and ultimately settled for $10,000, the Post reported.

Neither the search firm nor a CCDC attorney, Helen Holmes Peak, who did background checks on the final candidates, revealed that subtle but significant difference in the Newsweek article’s semantics.

Robert McNeely, a banker and CCDC board member who served on the committee that selected Graham, said the group considered the Newsweek recognition. But her resume alone was convincing. Graham had experienced development from all sides.

“On paper, it made a very attractive candidate and opportunity for the organization in a post-Peter Hall world,” said CCDC Chairman Fred Maas. “But as we’ve all learned, there are many more intricacies and facets of the personality which can supersede their strengths or weaknesses on paper.”

Graham interviewed twice. McNeely said he wanted her to return. Something had seemed amiss the first time. Hard to pinpoint, he said. But she seemed too polished. When she returned, McNeely said he was looking for “human characteristics” he didn’t see at first.

“The second time she came back,” he recalled, “either she was prepped or she had a more relaxed sense of being the final candidate. The true Nancy came out. That for me worked better.”

But McNeely said he and CCDC have lessons to learn from the search that landed Graham.

“If something like this happens on your watch, you have to take some of the blame for it,” McNeely said. “You have to say what could I have done differently? Maybe I was too trusting.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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