Meet Miami's Next Mayor

Part 2: Miriam Alonso knows how to put votes together, but she can't seem to separate dirty tricks from politics

Part 2: Miriam Alonso knows how to put votes together, but she can't seem to separate dirty tricks from politics

By Steven Almond
Miriam Alonso wanted to make the point crystal clear: She was not responsible for the "Miriam Alonso for Mayor" banner that flew overhead during the recent burial of seven Cuban refugees who drowned off the coast of Mexico. She would never be so crass as to exploit the dead. Such skullduggery, she announced at a press conference this past Wednesday, could only be the doing of Steve Clark, her principal rival for mayor in the November 2 election.

"He should raise his campaign out of the sewer," she told the assembled journalists and partisans. Indignant aides held aloft Clark's alleged handiwork: desecrated campaign signs, anti-Alonso bumper stickers, photos purportedly showing a young Miriam posing with Fidel Castro. The most galling artifact, a huge homemade poster branding Alonso a comunista, hung before her, red paint spattered like blood over the offending word. Nor had Clark's nefarious tactics stopped at slander. Alonso implied that his campaign also had vandalized her daughter's home. Two grandchildren, victims of this putative strike, scampered in front of the podium.

As she spoke, Alonso's army of supporters yelled her name in exaltation. Her husband Leonel, who until August 1966 had spent six years in Castro's diplomatic corps, skulked among the crowd, content to be forgotten amid this redbaiting.

But Alonso vowed revenge. She brandished a letter addressed to State Attorney Kathy Rundle, demanding an investigation of Clark's alleged airplane-banner trick. Miriam Alonso a political opportunist? The very idea was an outrage.

Unless, that is, you happened to be present at another press conference held a week earlier. This one, sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation and convened in a basement room of Coconut Grove's Hermita de la Caridad Church, starred the eight Cubans who had survived the harrowing trip from Cuba to Mexico to Miami. Instant heroes in the exile community, they now faced dozens of reporters itching for firsthand stories of their adventure. With a Catholic Mass slated in less than an hour, and hundreds waiting outside to see them, time was of the essence.

All of which made Alonso's appearance a bit baffling. While Foundation officials were there to recount how they had pushed Mexican and U.S. authorities to accept the refugees, it was not immediately apparent why the commissioner had shown up. As she edged past reporters toward the podium, her purpose became obvious: she wanted to be part of this grand photo opportunity. Even if it meant interrupting the entire proceeding.

Which is just what she did. With chants of impatience rising from the throngs outside, and television cameramen turning to leave, Alonso bustled across the room, proclaiming her need to make an announcement. Much to the consternation of Foundation officials and restless reporters, she commandeered the podium and improvised a speech welcoming the survivors on behalf of the City of Miami. Then she flung her arms around refugee Hilda Perez.

Presumptuous? Perhaps. But what more appropriate way for Miami's newest exiles to meet the woman who would be their mayor?

AWOL from Miriam's Army Jorge cannot give his real name because, he feels sure, he would be fired. Or worse. The last time he was caught fomenting against a leader -- and that was in Cuba more than a decade ago -- he went to prison for six years. That kind of trouble he doesn't need. He has a job with the city. Menial. Low-paying. But a toehold. Enough to cover the cost of his home, a tiny aluminum trailer where five people live in a space meant for two.

So there is reluctance, and a few excuses, before Jorge finally agrees to excavate the remnants of his tour with Miriam's army. "They held weekly meetings where Leonel ordered us volunteers to steal the newspapers with negative things about Miriam," he explains. "We were also supposed to call to the radio talk shows." Jorge reaches into a closet and hands over a satchel of papers. "We were supposed to read these on the air." Atop each sheet is the name of an Alonso enemy; beneath is a series of different scripts to be read on various radio call-in programs. Many are blatantly racist, such as this excerpt from a script aimed at Victor De Yurre: "Everything this man touches ends up in a black neighborhood. I'll grant that for Miller Donkey, but senores, this senor gives more benefits to the blacks than to his own Cuban race. Could it be that he finds Africa so near to his family, or that he likes it?"

In other scripts, Mayor Xavier Suarez is condemned as a spineless skirt-chaser, while City Manager Cesar Odio is accused of "selling his soul to the devil of Fidel" because his sister-in-law is on the board of the Cuban Museum of Arts and Culture, which has exhibited paintings by Cuban artists who remain on the island. The stapled packet contains a typewritten telephone directory of Spanish-language radio stations and a schedule of shows to be called, with "Jorge" scribbled beside three time slots.

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