Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Political gangster or humble servant, Miriam Alonso wins either way

Despite a rocky start, she quickly staked out a role as the commission's fiscal hawk by pushing through a proposal to set aside $6 million as a city reserve account. She consistently opposed hikes in municipal taxes and service fees. In 1990 she proposed that the Port of Miami impose on cruise-ship passengers a five-dollar fee to raise money for the city. Two years ago her objection to a tax increase nearly spiked a hard-won pact with local unions. Last year she flew to Tallahassee to lobby against a sales-tax provision.

Her flip-flops, on the other hand, have been striking. In 1990 she blasted Mayor Suarez for proposing to cut the salaries of top city administrators. A few months later she reversed herself and pushed a similar plan. Last fall she yielded to angry citizens and voted against moving Camillus House to the Allapattah neighborhood, just weeks after pledging her support for the proposal. Critics insist that Alonso concentrates all her efforts on Little Havana and accuse her of voting in favor of issues involving prominent political supporters such as her lawyer, Jose Villalobos, and Tony Zamora, a financial backer.

At times, as when hyping a plan to build toilets in a Little League park, she has taken self-promotion to absurd lengths. But most observers agree her transformation from rabble-rouser to insider is now complete. Even foes award her high marks for her knowledge of city issues, accessibility to her constituents, and diligence.

"Nobody has been better at gauging the wants of her constituency and fighting for them," stresses seasoned political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "The truth is, part of the reason Suarez and De Yurre didn't run is that they were afraid of losing to Miriam."

This truth was obvious to the viejitos who sat toward the rear of the commission chambers on July 22. For hours they had waited quietly -- he in a pressed guayabera, she in a modest dress -- listening to a language they barely understood, spoken by politicians who barely understood them. American politicians were like that, even the ones with Spanish surnames. They spoke like bureaucrats. Without passion. Sin coraz centsn.

As the meeting groaned into the homestretch, Xavier Suarez had begun snapping at speakers to speed up. Victor De Yurre was locked in an embrace with his portable phone. Miller Dawkins looked ready for bed. Miriam Alonso, by contrast, was in peak form. Arrayed in a bright-green pantsuit, hair still puffed to maximum volume, she listened as a passel of Coconut Grovers tried to select a committee to oversee a planning study. "Why do we have to complicate things so often?" she asked to a smattering of applause.

"You people want to spend $100,000 on a study when we have parks that don't have safe equipment," railed one man who had commandeered the podium.

"Bring the item to my office tomorrow and we'll talk," Alonso interjected before the man at the podium could gain a head of steam.

Finally the viejitos' item was called. For half an hour Alonso listened to each side's entreaty, her face animated, eyebrows engaged in a dance of well-timed sympathy. Plainly she saw the madness in this supermarket developer who wanted to destroy the viejitos' neighborhood off Coral Way. But the other commissioners, Suarez excepted, were too exhausted. The issue was deferred. Alonso offered an apologetic shrug.

It was then, as the commissioners presented a spate of off-the-agenda resolutions, that the couple bustled up to the front of the room. Their neighborhood crisis may have been passed over, but they were not going to squander an opportunity to meet la doctora face to face.

As they stepped up to the dais, she leaned over to greet them, smiling broadly, and issued the sort of salutation reserved for a long-lost cousin.

"Excuse me! Excuse me! This meeting is not over!" The words came from somewhere in the periphery. "Please!" the voice repeated, this time in heated Spanish. "You must realize we are still meeting!" Looking up, the couple found Mayor Suarez glaring at them crossly, a gavel sagging from his hand.

They were pleased to find that Alonso paid him little mind, that her loyalties and attention were still benevolently riveted on them. And so they turned back to her, enchanted, while the lame-duck mayor closed his mouth and came to the prudent conclusion that the day's meeting was, perhaps, over.

Not Just an Election, a Mandate
It is moments like this, multiplied a thousand times and cast onto the vast loom of Cuban Miami -- the restaurants and community centers and old-age homes -- that have built the foundation of Miriam Alonso's political strength. Years of making appearances. Pushing causes. Unifying the little people. Leading citizenship and voter registration drives. This is what Miami's power elite failed to recognize a decade ago, why they have been reduced to shaking their heads, muttering into their cellulars: "We've created a monster."

Like the Irish in Boston more than a century ago, Alonso has forged a political machine from disenfranchised immigrants. She seems, on the surface, an unlikely party boss: the wife of a one-time Fidelista, a millionaire populist. But she understands her people. They are innately political but alienated by America's bland polemics. They mistrust government but are reliant on social services. They are ravenous for a leader but demand one they know personally. Once empowered, they have proved eager to volunteer. To proselytize. To vote.

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