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After ten successful years in the Miami city attorney's office -- first as an assistant city attorney, then as the chief deputy, followed by four years as the city attorney -- Jorge Fernandez abruptly quit in 1991. He and his wife pulled their three children out of school, packed up a houseful of belongings, and moved away from South Florida with the deliberate manner of someone crossing the street to avoid an encounter with a deranged person. In this instance, the Fernandez family crossed the state -- to Sarasota.
"I left at the peak of my career," recalls Fernandez, who has been the Sarasota County Attorney ever since. "I left because I was sick and tired of Dade County. I was tired of people thinking I was selected Miami City Attorney simply because I was the next Cuban in line."
It is a phenomenon, Fernandez argues, fostered in no small part by Cuban Americans themselves when they campaign or lobby for positions of influence on the basis of their ethnicity. "I'm repulsed by that mentality," he says. "It belittles the essence of a person's humanity. It insults me tremendously and it diminishes me when I am looked at only as a Cuban American rather than who I really am."
While city attorney, Fernandez says he saw such ethnic appeals increasing in South Florida, and not just among Hispanics. He believed he had to get his family out or risk having that same corrosive mentality infect his three children, who were nine, ten, and eleven years old at the time. Fernandez feared that his kids were developing what he describes as a "closed picture of the United States," and were becoming too "ethnocentric" in their thinking. "I wanted them to live a few years in Des Moines or Kansas or anywhere but Dade County," he says, "so that they could become real Americans." And so when he had the chance to take a job in bucolic Sarasota, he didn't hesitate for a moment.
Last fall, however, Fernandez learned that Dade County Manager Joaquin Avino was resigning and that the county commission was seeking applicants to replace him. Fernandez submitted his resume. Three years had given his children the perspective he believed they needed. In addition, both he and his wife missed their own families, who were still living in Miami. Besides, he thought, maybe things had changed.
Time away may have broadened his children's perspective, but Fernandez's own views remained unchanged. If anything, he was even more adamant about the circumstances under which he would consider returning to Dade County as its manager: His appointment could have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he is Hispanic. He was almost confrontational on this point in his interviews with Hispanic commissioners. "I made it clear to them," he recalls, "that if that was their criteria, then I would say, 'Thank you, but don't choose me.'"
Without revealing names, Fernandez says several of the Cuban-American commissioners were angered by his approach. "They told me I was too immature and didn't recognize the community's interests," he says.
On December 15, when commissioners gathered to select their new chief executive from among nine finalists (seven Hispanic males and two black females), Fernandez was eliminated in the first round. In the political scrum that followed, Armando Vidal, riding a wave of Hispanic hype, was selected county manager in one of the most ethnically charged contests in the county's history. It was a fracas so fierce it literally drew blood when Chairman Art Teele punched a lobbyist in the mouth for allegedly spreading the rumor that Teele, who is black, was secretly backing the Cuban-born Vidal over rival candidate Cynthia Curry, who is also black.
Fernandez harbors no bitterness over his loss and believes he was treated fairly by everyoneinvolved. He understood from the outset his candidacy would be a long shot, and that commissioners would likely promote someone already working for the county (Vidal was public works director; finalist Curry is an assistant manager). However, Fernandez does express bewilderment at the state of ethnic relations in his old hometown. "Not a single Anglo candidate dared to apply," he notes. "What does that tell you about Dade County? Do you mean that there was not a single Anglo that felt qualified? Or was it that none of them felt they had a chance so they didn't bother to apply? It's ludicrous. I found all of this much more alarming than any of the stories about who punched who and what deals were being brokered in the hallways."
Dade, of course, is not the first area to experience an ethnic shift in political power. Earlier this century it was the Irish in Boston, the Poles in Chicago, and Italians in New York. "Dade County is going through what some of these other communities went through 30, 40, even 80 years ago," Fernandez correctly observes. "But does that mean we can't learn from their mistakes? Is this what we as Cuban Americans have struggled to achieve -- that when we are in the majority, we act no different from when the Anglos ran things here in the past? We need to act in such a manner that brings this community together, otherwise we are no better than when the Anglos controlled everything."