The Reports of My Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

Steve Clark battles cancer and fierce rumors of his demise. He says he's more worried about the rumors.

At the spot where the Miami River meets Dupont Plaza, Miami Vice Mayor Willy Gort grasps a large pair of scissors, slices a fuchsia ribbon, opens the Brickell Avenue bridge, and fuels rampant rumors that Mayor Steve Clark faces imminent death. The moment seems morbidly appropriate: Clark's political image, after all, is inextricably linked with ceremonial occasions, yet as Gort presides over the dedication, Clark lies in a hospital bed in Coconut Grove, an IV dripping into his veins.

The mayor checked into Mercy Hospital a bit before 9:00 a.m. on Friday, November 8. He'd risen with the sun, as always, and dragged his wife Teresa (a self-described night person who can barely function before noon) with him to 8:00 a.m. mass and then to Room 6139 at Mercy, where a nurse attached to his left forearm a tube connected to a plastic bag filled with one liter of potassium chloride in water. The salt solution prepares the mayor's body for the dosage of chemicals that he must take every three weeks for the next year. "This is to dilate my veins," he says matter-of-factly, "so that they'll be ready to accept the poison."

Today Clark will undergo his third chemotherapy treatment since October, when he discovered that the stomach pains he was suffering portended something more serious than the ulcers he suspected. The treatment for the cancer, which started in his esophagus and has spread to his stomach, will last all day. The mayor brought his pajamas, as instructed, in case he gets woozy and must stay the night. But Clark is wearing his street clothes: charcoal-gray slacks. Black suspenders. The kind of green-and-blue short-sleeve silk shirt that can only be worn in the tropics, a pack of Salems in the left breast pocket. The pajamas remain tucked in a black leather bag in a corner of the Spartan room.

The sixth floor of Mercy's main building is devoted to cancer patients. The mayor's room faces Key Biscayne, and as he lies on his back with a blanket covering his legs, he can see the Cigarette boats skimming across the gold and blue ripples of the bay. Teresa, the mayor's long-time companion who he married in August, lounges on a recliner near the window, scanning Ann Landers's column and struggling to stay awake. Lael Schumacher, Clark's top political aide, sits in another chair by the window, watching The Price Is Right out of the corner of his eye and chatting about the rumors that the mayor is soon to resign.

Rumors are an accepted part of Miami politics. "I've always told my staff you don't listen to rumors, you listen to facts," says Willy Gort, who, as the chairman of the Downtown Development Authority, was called upon to open the Brickell bridge in the mayor's absence. The dominant rumor of the past few weeks has Clark resigning after the new year and Miriam Alonso winning the vacated post. (According to the city charter, if the mayor were to resign, or to die while in office, commissioners would have ten days to appoint a successor, by majority vote. Should they deadlock, a special election would be held.) Alonso, a former city commissioner, lost in the 1993 mayoral election that returned Clark to city government after twenty years spent serving Dade County. Another rumor scenario has the popular Gort ascending to the mayor's post while a politician handpicked by Alonso and newly elected commissioner Joe Carollo -- probably Humberto Hernandez -- assumes Gort's commission seat.

The common denominator of all the rumors is that the mayor is going to resign. His poor health is so widely accepted that Schumacher has been inundated with phone calls from friends expressing condolences. "Things were so bad rumorwise that our office received 60 calls in one day about the mayor's health," he mutters. "It was just outrageous."

Clark was perturbed enough by the rumors to address the matter at the December 7 city commission meeting. Looking fit, his slick hair dyed a new shade of copper, he spoke forcefully, lashing out at his detractors. "I would like to disprove and silence those comments that, without any known authority, are speculating about my health and political future," he declared. "I'll be your mayor until God and the people decide otherwise."

The remarks put Alonso on the defensive; she promptly scribbled a letter to Clark denying any involvement in the rumors: "I join you on the record in denouncing such despicable conduct and call for the absolute cessation of further comments on the state of your health and your ability to carry on your mayoral duties."

Lying on his narrow hospital bed, Clark expresses doubt about Alonso's sincerity. "Why would she send a letter unless she was behind it?" he asks. "That's an admission of guilt if I ever heard one." Teresa turns down the volume on the TV so her husband can better make his point. "It's jealousy. A lot of people want to be in the mayor's position."

Clark should know. He has been in the mayor's position, in one form or another, since 1968. The 72-year-old Kansas native, who arrived in Miami soon after the Depression forced his family to migrate in search of work, was elected to the Miami City Commission in 1963 and rose to the top office after then-mayor Robert King High died suddenly. He has held the title of mayor either at the city or county ever since, with the exception of two years in the early Seventies when he lost the Metro mayorship to Jack Orr. When Orr died in office, Clark became county mayor and served until the position was abolished in 1993.

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