By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Kyle Munzenrieder
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By Jeff Weinberger
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By Terrence McCoy
The incumbent further cites as notable accomplishments the so-called Shapiro Ordinance -- "I sponsored the only ordinance named after a commissioner" -- restricting the commission's authority to sell or lease city-owned property, and he takes credit for spearheading the anti-litter contest that resulted in the slogan "Excuse Me, You Dropped Something." Moreover, he sees what he calls "very important philosophical differences" between himself and Bower. Among them, he notes, is a basic disagreement about the issue of affordable housing. "Matti is a leader in the effort to increase government-subsidized housing and homeless housing in Miami Beach," he says. "I think we went overboard with it." He also mentions taxes: "I think she will be very much inclined to raise taxes, not reduce them."
Bower responds that she has no intention of raising taxes. "People who live on fixed incomes do not believe in raising taxes," she notes. As for affordable housing, she says Shapiro is again mistaken; she wants to upgrade available affordable housing, not increase it. "But thank God those are the issues he brings up," she adds. "They're human issues."
Can Matti Bower win? Political consultant Phil Hamersmith says that even if she were to capture a vast majority of Hispanic voters, who constitute about 30 percent of all registered voters on the Beach, it won't be enough to carry a candidate in an at-large election. "It's at a point statistically not to guarantee [victory] in a citywide election," says Hamersmith, who is not involved in the Beach elections this time around. "If the percentage was in the high thirties or low forties, you'd probably have a Hispanic sitting on that commission." (Hispanics constitute nearly 34 percent of voters countywide, and about 49 percent of the total population, but unlike Miami Beach, Metro-Dade is divided into commission districts.)
In addition, the Beach has a more diverse Hispanic population than does the rest of Dade. While residents of Cuban descent account for about 59 percent of the county's Hispanics, they constitute only 48 percent of the Beach's Hispanic population. (At ten percent, Puerto Ricans are the next-largest group.) "Cubans tend to vote as a bloc, but the term 'Hispanic' does not denote a common political interest in Dade," notes Robert Joffee, Miami-based director of the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll. This diversity, coupled with the fact that Miami Beach's Hispanic population is composed of relative newcomers, goes some way toward explaining why Hispanic leadership has been slow to form in the city, Joffee and others say.
Traditionally the Beach's Hispanic vote was largely for sale. "Anglo candidates could court two or three operatives, who would hold breakfasts for 150 voters at a time," says Diaz. "You were brought to a breakfast, someone said a few words in Spanish and served you cafe con leche and Cuban toast." Elderly and poor voters, who made up most of the Hispanic voting bloc, were vulnerable to this sort of persuasion because at other times of the year they were ignored, Diaz explains. That, however, is no longer necessarily the case. "It's a factor of changing demography," he says. "The new breed of political leadership said, 'That's enough. We have needs.'"
FIU professor Abraham Lavender calls the Hispanic vote a sleeping giant, but observes that voters won't go to the polls if they feel disenfranchised from the political process. "There's probably a certain hopelessness that's been at work in the Hispanic community A I think it's just a feeling that if someone of your background and identity was there, you'd feel that your position isn't likely to be overlooked," he says, adding, "If people feel that it doesn't matter, then they don't get involved."
The election of a Hispanic to the commission, argues Victor Diaz, would follow other progressive changes that have characterized the Beach's development over the past decade. From preservation laws to the human rights ordinance, he points out, there has been a "mainstreaming" of ideologies and groups that were once considered fringe. "I think when a Hispanic is elected to the city commission, it will be sort of the ultimate recognition of something everyone knows is happening," the attorney says. "It's part of the same dynamics that have changed the Beach from a sleepy, elderly population to this very diverse, hot, residential community. And I like to believe that this dynamic, if it's properly focused, would eventually transform Miami Beach government into an entity that more closely resembles the community: diverse, progressive, contradictory, but exciting. Matti's campaign is a test of the strength of this momentum. Her election would blow the perceived conventional political establishment wide open."
As momentous as that might be, Bower's backers are equally vehement in expressing their idealism regarding the campaign. First and foremost, they assert, she is a strong candidate whose record of Miami Beach activism has nothing to do with her ethnicity. A by-product of her election -- not the sole intent, they emphasize --would be a commission that finally began to reflect the diverse populace it purports to represent.
Concludes Diaz, perhaps more wishfully than certainly: "It will heal our community.