Three Scenes from the Political Stage

Election night with Steve Clark, Miriam Alonso, and Raul Martinez

-- By Jim DeFede
Captain Polo wasn't moving one inch. A man of substantial girth, he had anchored himself to the one spot guaranteed to assure him maximum TV exposure, the spot where Miami Commissioner Miriam Alonso was expected -- any minute now -- to concede her defeat in last week's mayoral race. He wore a soiled guayabera and a baseball cap that announced his status as a veteran of Brigade 2506, the hapless invasion force overwhelmed at the Bay of Pigs 32 years ago. His disco-era sunglasses had one lens missing. The remaining lens resembled an eye patch, lending the captain (a.k.a. Leo Ramos) the air of an urban swashbuckler. His first mate, Pedro Rotea, stood nearby. Both men stared intently at the TV monitors in front of them.

While Steve Clark and company were boozing it up a few miles away in a downtown skyscraper, Alonso's election-night party was being held in a dingy Little Havana parking garage outside her campaign headquarters. A small portion of the garage, three parking spaces to be exact, had been roped off for the press conference, and two-dozen reporters were wedged into this area, trading rumors as to when Alonso would appear. Dour campaign workers milled outside the press section, mourning Alonso's resounding loss. None of the reporters was much interested in talking with her supporters. What was there to say?

What the reporters wanted was a good angle from which to record their shots of Alonso. And no one was more zealous in this regard than Angel Zayon, Channel 51's officious man-on-the-scene. Microphone tucked under one arm, a portable phone glued to his ear, the diminutive correspondent spent the evening prowling the press cage, guarding the optimum camera and microphone location. Now he was fit to be tied. While his back was turned, Ramos and Rotea had seized his spot.

Zayon marched over and asked them to step aside. The interlopers stared straight ahead, ignoring him. Zayon's entreaties gradually grew louder, until he was nearly shouting. He turned to his producer. He yelled into his phone. All to no avail. Captain Polo and his little buddy stayed put.

During Alonso's ill-fated campaign, the curious pair had become mascots of a sort. Former prisoners in Castro's Cuba, rabid anti-communists, both were quintessential Miriamistas. And both had an inexplicable lust for the spotlight. "We worked hard for Miriam's campaign and all that we ask is that we be allowed to appear on TV with her," Captain Polo grunted when asked why he refused to budge.

Apparently he didn't understand -- or care -- that the picture he presented, even on TV, was not that of a proud warrior but of a somewhat deranged self-promoter. A Cuban crazy. An embarrassment. Precisely the same negative images, in other words, that had torpedoed Alonso's once-promising campaign.

But few astute political observers believe that Clark affirmatively won last week's election as much as Alonso squandered her opportunity. After four years of edging toward the mainstream, away from the extremism that marked her early political career, she seemed to panic. When early polls revealed the race to be a dead heat, the practiced politician disappeared and he dragon lady emerged. She failed to exploit her intricate knowledge of city issues against the doddering Clark. She all but ignored the voting record she had so carefully established in four years on the commission. Instead she roared ethnically divisive appeals. She clung desperately to the outdated belief that whipping up her aging army would be enough. And though she proved to be adept at planting herself in front of reporters' microphones throughout the campaign, the figure she projected was pure Captain Polo.

Just after 10:00 p.m., Alonso appeared at her headquarters, fluttering in amid a phalanx of frowning aides. The crowd had grown to perhaps a hundred, but at this fateful moment no other political luminaries were to be seen, not even those who backed her during the race. No Bruce Kaplan. No Richard Dunn. No Armando Valladares. After embracing her daughter, the loser somberly recited a short speech and answered questions from the press. What little she said appeared to suggest she still didn't get it.

"For all of you who want to hear it, I am proud to be a Cuban," Alonso announced defiantly. "When I went to visit Little Haiti, I told them I am proud to be a Cuban. When I went to Liberty City, I told them I am proud to be a Cuban. I know where I'm from, and because of this I know where I'm going!"

It was this declaration -- along with hints that she would run again for public office -- that provoked the loudest cheers.

But even in defeat, drubbed by a tired old man, Alonso refused to take the high road. She showed no deference toward Clark, urging him only to "clean up his act" and "pay attention to the little people, not just the big-business interests." Asked whether she felt the Cuban community had "lost the election," she told one English-language station, "If we don't move forward, yes. But Miami is larger than all of us." To Spanish-language reporters, however, she repeated her contention that "we [Cubans] lost a seat tonight." In a statement that was at once self-pitying and accusatory, Alonso concluded, "The rejection may be of my place of origin."

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