Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Political gangster or humble servant, Miriam Alonso wins either way

With keen eyes for the right cause and a talent for grassroots organizing, they tapped the nascent political energies of Calle Ocho's older exiles. When Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre proposed a penny tax hike in 1982, they led the opposition and prevailed. They rallied for a police substation in Little Havana. Later they lashed out at a proposal to open school health clinics that provided birth control -- what they branded "sex clinics." The crusades resonated among Little Havana's first-generation Cubans. Virtually unknown in the English-language media, by 1982 los Alonso, as they became known, were fast fixtures in Cuban Miami.

Initially it was Leonel who did the talking, he who seemed the aspiring candidate. But at a certain point -- no one can pinpoint precisely when -- Miriam stepped into the foreground. Articulate, charismatic, and perhaps most important, without the stigma of having been on Castro's payroll, she quickly became the couple's public half. Leonel settled into the role of chief advisor and strategist.

By 1983 Miriam was mulling a run against veteran Commissioner J.L. Plummer. But with a new state representative's district cutting a swath across her home turf, she decided to enter the 1984 Republican primary against fellow newcomer Alberto Gutman. The race, which hinged on the exile vote, turned ugly in a hurry. An anonymous mailing accused Miriam of having served as Castro's personal interpreter, and a now-notorious photo, purportedly of a young Miriam Alonso in military garb standing next to Fidel, began making the rounds. She lost by more than twenty percent.

Undaunted, Alonso set her sights on a Dade County Commission seat in 1988. Confounding the experts, she finished a close second to incumbent Beverly Phillips in the primary. But days before the runoff election, she was removed from the ballot after a judge found she did not live at the address she listed on her oath of candidacy. Caught in a lie, she barely averted being charged with perjury; only a technicality prevented the State Attorney's Office from prosecuting her. Pundits suggested the two-time loser could save money on future campaigns by printing posters that read simply, "Miriam Alonso A Candidate." Others joked that she should run her next campaign from a mobile home.

Such public humiliation might have convinced another breed of politician to lie low. But Alonso recast the scandal as an anti-Cuban vendetta and a month later held a breakfast of "indemnification" at which she assured loyalists she would run again. Before long she was considering a challenge to Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez.

Instead she ran for city commission against Rosario Kennedy, a former incumbent who entered the fray only after an ill-fated effort to win the congressional seat left vacant following the death of Rep. Claude Pepper. Though an underdog heading into the November 1989 runoff, Alonso played to her strength -- the Cuban vote. Art Teele's last-ditch support in the black community, where she took a third of the votes after being shut out in the primary, pushed her over the top and into office.

Ms. Alonso Goes to City Hall
Inside Miami City Hall this past July 22, four-fifths of the commission sat fretting over the fate of the city's woebegone downtown arena. As usual the fretting was more ceremonial than substantive. And as usual the real action was taking place off-stage, behind closed doors in Miriam Alonso's office. Here she and Art Teele were tucked away, passionately discussing sewage -- more precisely, the county's need to install a massive sewage pipeline beneath the streets of Miami and across Biscayne Bay.

For months county officials had been warned about their rundown sewage system, the collapse of which could spell ecological doom for South Florida. Teele had come to lobby the city for permission to begin ripping up the requisite roads. The personal appearance was, in the image-conscious world of politics, a gesture of deference, one made necessary by Alonso's public threats to block the project.

A day earlier Alonso had taken the extraordinary step of penning a four-page memo about the crisis. She chided the county for failing to maintain the system and decried the inconvenience the construction would cause. To county officials who had wrestled with the sewer crisis for months, the last-minute ploy reeked of politics. For Teele the issue was one of concessions: What did Miriam want?

When the item came before the commission a few hours later, she took the lead, insisting that the city be paid handsomely for any work not completed on schedule. She also secured from Teele a promise that he would consider implementing a discounted water bill for elderly Miamians on fixed incomes. With the mayoral election drawing near, Alonso had cast herself in a triumphant light -- a city politician willing to go toe-to-toe with the county. At a more subtle level, by eventually voting to allow construction, she had done a favor for her old ally Teele, whose support would prove key come the November 2 election.

Four years earlier such deft maneuvering would have been wholly out of character. In her first months as a commissioner, Alonso's shrill style, her theatrics in the community, and her penchant for packing the commission chambers with partisans often overshadowed her job performance.

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