Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Political gangster or humble servant, Miriam Alonso wins either way

That much was clear in 1989, when Alonso declared that the Hispanic vote would carry her to victory over Rosario Kennedy. "The political reality is that I can win that way, and I will win that way," she told reporters. And the election results proved her right.

While just one in five Anglos turned out, and barely more than one in three blacks, voting in Alonso territory neared half of all registered voters. In one Anglo stronghold along Brickell Avenue, Kennedy garnered barely ten percent. A dozen blocks away, in a Little Havana precinct, the turnout for Alonso tripled that. She won by more than six percentage points.

In upsetting Kennedy, Alonso also upset conventional wisdom. Back in 1985 the national press had naively dubbed the election of Kennedy and Xavier Suarez as the "Cuban takeover" of Miami. In fact both candidates were thoroughly Americanized and enjoyed tri-ethnic support. If anything, Alonso's 1989 election marked the true "Cuban takeover," for it proved that a cultural purist could beat a crossover candidate. Her term as commissioner has confirmed that shift. While many Cuban voters have grown to view Xavier Suarez as a disinterested technocrat, and Victor De Yurre as a slick power broker, Alonso's stock has rocketed. Running for mayor as an incumbent commissioner, and as the lone Hispanic, Alonso hopes to win on November 2 without the need for a runoff.

The man aiming to stop her, Steve Clark, has gotten off to an indisputably wobbly start. Political observers laughed when city officials shut down his original headquarters a few months ago. His search for a campaign team has been something of a running joke. An aide to the avuncular former Dade County mayor initially approached Phil Hamersmith to run the race. It quickly became apparent that Clark "didn't want to run a modern campaign," Hamersmith says.

Clark also contacted political consultant Ric Katz, who within weeks reached the same conclusion. "The mayor was more inclined to run a traditional Steve Clark campaign," Katz explains. "Same signs. Same colors. Same nonmessage. We outlined an aggressive neighborhood-by-neighborhood schedule. But I just didn't see him willing to put in the time or energy." Halfhearted efforts, Katz warns, are not going to defeat Alonso, an around-the-clock campaigner.

"Steve called me three weeks ago to set up a meeting," recalls one insider. "He gave me his mobile phone number, but I could never get through. Finally I called a mutual friend. She said, 'Oh, he's always forgetting to turn on his phone.' I said, 'What? He's in the middle of a campaign.'"

Clark, who now personally answers the phone at his new headquarters, says these days he's "more or less running the campaign myself," with help from consultant Jorge De Cardenas and some friends from the Latin Builders Association. "I plan to run on my record," the 69-year-old veteran says. "People know me."

Clark does hold a distinct advantage in campaign funds, with $150,000 to Alonso's $42,355 as of July. However, all but $2000 of Clark's money was transferred from his aborted campaign for Metro mayor after a federal judge abolished that position in April. Probably the best measure of Clark's dismal prospects are the persistent rumors, often spread by alarmed Alonso opponents, that another major candidate is set to jump into the race.

Even assuming Clark's well-heeled effort gears up, Phil Hamersmith is doubtful that an aging good old boy will wrest the mayoral throne from a Cuban: "The truth is Steve Clark is running where he should have retired. He's off his turf and in over his head. Everyone knows that. They just can't bring themselves to tell him."

Alonso backers, meanwhile, are relishing the contrast between "Alonso the activist" and "Clark the ribbon-cutter." And they are already writing off black candidate T. Willard Fair. Allies say Alonso's real ambition is not just to win, but to win a mandate. The linchpin, she knows, will be revamping her image in the black community, where she is still widely reviled because of two incidents.

In July 1990, police in riot gear clubbed a crowd of Haitians who had been protesting for three days outside the store of a Cuban merchant who allegedly mistreated a Haitian customer. Sixty Haitians were arrested in the ensuing melee, and dozens injured. An internal city report later found that police had used excessive force, and earlier this year the city commission voted to settle a lawsuit with the Haitians by awarding them $650,000.

During the standoff, Alonso sent a memo to City Manager Cesar Odio and went on Spanish-language radio demanding to know why police weren't making any arrests. In a deposition taken later as part of the Haitians' lawsuit, she admitted she had been in contact with Odio at least a dozen times during the crisis. Two highly placed city officials say Odio told them Alonso was pressuring him to order the cops to disperse the protesters. (Odio declined comment for this article.) Alonso also admitted she had spoken to Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross "several times," and records show she placed a final call to police headquarters a half-hour before the cops were finally deployed. Alonso insisted she was merely checking on the situation. But Ira Kurzban, the Haitians' attorney, says he was so convinced of Alonso's inflammatory role that he considered naming her as a party to the lawsuit.

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