Mistaken Identity

In her quest for a seat on the Miami Beach Commission, Matti Bower doesn't want to be labeled "the Hispanic candidate." She just wants to win.

The lunchtime interview has gone on long enough for a busy lawyer with only a few hours left in the workweek, but Victor Diaz has an important appeal to make and he's not going anywhere until it's clear. What he asks is this: that Miami Beach residents go to the polls in the upcoming city commission election and cast their votes with an open and well-informed mind, and without ethnic or religious bias.

There's a reason Diaz, by all other indications an intelligent and well-adjusted citizen, is reaching for such improbable democratic ideals. He wants his friend and fellow Miami Beach activist Matti Bower to unseat two-term incumbent Martin Shapiro, occupant of the Group 6 at-large seat. And, Diaz suggests, Bower can win only if the citizenry does something extraordinary: votes without prejudice.

So Diaz would like to see the populace look beyond the 56-year-old fact that Bower was born in Havana. "There are a lot of people who would like to make her into 'a Hispanic candidate' to pigeonhole her," says Diaz, leaning intently over his tuna salad sandwich in this restaurant a few blocks from the Flagler Street law firm where he works. "We're saying, Judge her as she is and please don't let ethnicity play a part in this election. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was fighting for preservation. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was working to promote economic development in South Beach. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was fighting [squalor in the public schools]."

Yet despite Diaz's entreaties, and despite Bower's having spent nearly two decades waging grassroots battles that largely transcended the traditional divisions of color and class, her ethnicity is exactly what gives her candidacy so much resonance. Even though about half the population of Miami Beach is Hispanic, no candidate of Hispanic descent has ever sat on the city commission. (Abe Resnick, a commissioner from 1985 to 1993, is a native of Lithuania who immigrated to Cuba and then to the U.S. and considers himself Hispanic.) Many political observers say Matti Bower stands the best chance so far of being the first.

Still, it's fitting that Diaz should be the one to put such an implausible spin on Bower's candidacy. The two have been closely associated in recent years through their various civic pursuits. It has been the 34-year-old Diaz -- valedictorian of his class at Duke, graduate of Yale Law School, upwardly mobile, urbane, good-looking -- who has provided the most articulate voice of a movement to socially and politically empower the Hispanic population of Miami Beach.

These efforts have begun to redress a glaring imbalance in political participation by, and government representation of, the city's Hispanics. Compared to the rest of Dade County, change has come late. While other municipal governing bodies are more ethnically representative of their constituents, the Miami Beach City Commission has been dominated by Anglo Jewish males. "[Ours] is probably the most homogeneous group of elected officials in Dade," observes Commissioner Neisen Kasdin of the seven-member body (six commissioners plus a mayor) that now includes two women but remains exclusively Anglo and Jewish.

Bower's candidacy has even galvanized the Hispanic power base on the mainland, which until this race had never concerned itself much with Beach politics. "Cubans never paid attention to the races in Miami Beach because they never felt a Cuban could win," observes political consultant Henry "Kiki" Berger.

"We have not tried to create a Hispanic political machine," insists Diaz. "What we've tried to do is eliminate a barrier to our participation. For years there were all these quality people who were not viewed as credible candidates because of [their ethnicity], and we have worked damn hard to eliminate that barrier. People should be able to participate on a level playing field. But for this empowerment that has gone on, Matti might not have been viewed as a viable candidate."

The astonishing truth was in the numbers. The results of the 1990 U.S. Census provided the first quantifiable measure of the rapidly changing ethnic makeup of Miami Beach: 43,342 A 46.8 percent A of the city's 92,639 residents were of Hispanic descent, up from 22.2 percent ten years before. "People realized the magnitude of the Hispanic population on the Beach," Diaz recalls. "But politically [Hispanics] had been nonexistent."

Mayor Seymour Gelber, who took office in 1991, says the census results didn't exactly "cause a flash" among city officials; everyone was aware that the 1980 Mariel boatlift, coupled with the lure of cheap housing in Miami Beach, had vastly increased the city's Hispanic population. What did have a great effect, Gelber says, were the groups of Hispanic citizens who began to visit city hall after the election, voicing complaints about the city's treatment of minorities.

During his first year in office, the mayor enlisted the help of Abraham Lavender, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Florida International University who prepared a report evaluating the way the commission made ap- pointments to the city's boards and committees. Lavender's number-crunching was revelatory: As of November 1991, only 8.4 percent of all appointees were Hispanic. When it came to the so-called power boards (the Board of Adjustment, the Zoning/Design Review Board, the Planning Board, et cetera), Hispanic representation was even more woeful: 6.1 percent.

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