By Adrianna C. Rodriguez
Don Slesnick (JD 68) still remembers the day he decided to run for mayor of Coral Gables, his hometown and a posh South Florida city of 43,000 residents. Visiting Philadelphia, Pa., for an American Bar Association meeting, Slesnick’s mind was pondering the country’s past and the future of his own city, 1,200 miles away, as he sat in Philadelphia’s historic City Tavern. The tavern had served as the unofficial meeting place of the nation’s Founding Fathers during the First Continental Congress — the personal commitment of these men was not lost on Slesnick as he considered their historic course of action in writing the Declaration of Independence.
“I thought if two centuries ago people were willing to lay down their lives to establish this democracy, then I should, at least, be willing to make a meaningful political commitment on hometown issues for which I deeply care.”
Slesnick began thinking of challenging the eightyear incumbent mayor of Coral Gables in the city’s upcoming election. He had big ideas for improving Coral Gables and decided to give his best effort at seeing them through.
Back at home and with the invaluable support of his wife and campaign manager, Jeannett, Slesnick ran a whirlwind campaign, “idyllic” as he describes it, and won. That was eight years ago and Slesnick hasn’t stopped working for the residents of Coral Gables.
This year, he was appointed chair to the National League of Cities City Futures Panel on Democratic Governance.
“It’s an exciting time because with the new administration in Washington trying to be open and outreaching that’s exactly what this panel is about,” Slesnick said. “The challenge is how do we develop effective systems to authentically involve the public in policy deliberations?”
The panel comprised of public officials from cities across the country, works to improve citizen involvement in local government and facilitate communication between elected officials and their constituents. Slesnick explained this often involves first conducting opinion polls to understand which issues most concern residents. Then, workshops and focus group sessions are held to delve further into the core motivations driving residents’ opinions and thoughts. These activities provide elected officials with the information needed to begin building consensus on the direction the city should be moving.
Building consensus has become especially important as cities around the country struggle with shrinking budgets, a stagnant real estate market, declining value of commercial property and a dormant retail market, Slesnick said. The hard economic reality is that government revenues are shrinking as demand for government services continues to grow.
“People need to get involved and tell us what services they can live without,” he said. “Are they willing to pay more taxes and keep the services as they are? If they aren’t, which services do they think should be considered for trimming back?”
Slesnick holds roundtable luncheons with residents every other month to discuss issues affecting Coral Gables and its residents. Topics have included tourism, culture and making the city more environmentally friendly.
Slesnick stays busy juggling two full-time jobs — his practice at Slesnick & Casey representing public sector employee organizations, and as mayor of Coral Gables, a position that keeps him hopping between meetings and official functions.
In his “spare” time, Slesnick is very active in the ABA, where he serves in the House of Delegates and is a member of the governing Council of the Labor and Employment Section. He is also on the Board of Governors of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.
“Most of my activities involve either the city or the ABA,” Slesnick said. “It’s not just because I am mayor and lawyer, but because my heart is with my hometown and the legal profession.”
Slesnick has been in public service practically since graduating from law school. He spent a decade serving on Coral Gables’ Planning and Zoning Board, he was a member and founding chairman of the Florida Historic Preservation Advisory Council and led the Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council for two terms as chair. Slesnick has also dedicated many volunteer hours to organizations such as the Coral Gables Community Foundation and the Dade Cultural Alliance. He has a special love for his work on the Orange Bowl Committee.
A Vietnam veteran, Slesnick did not grow up with law as a career in mind, but he learned to love the profession and its potential for impacting the community.
“I still preach to lawyers and law students to be involved with their community,” Slesnick said. “Don’t get so bogged down in the practice that you overlook the lawyer’s critical role in the well-being of the community.”
He laments the decline he has seen during his career in the number of lawyers going into public service and elected office.
“The training and background lawyers have is well suited to helping the nation stay on the right course while transforming into a dynamic, inclusive 21st Century society,” he said.