The Ethnic Chopping Block

To win the most important election in Dade County history, the top mayoral candidates have hacked the voting public to pieces

This was supposed to be Steve Clark's election. Eighteen months ago conventional wisdom held that Clark -- the City of Miami mayor turned Dade County mayor turned city mayor -- would return one more time to county hall and easily outpace his younger, more energetic rivals for the coveted and powerful new job of executive county mayor. His only possible obstacle, backers said, was the state of his health -- a prescient assessment, as Clark died this past June after a six-month battle with cancer.

Predictions of a Clark victory had little to do with his being the best candidate or the most qualified candidate to take charge during this critical period in Dade's history. After all, Clark was not much of leader, or even much of a thinker. He catered to special-interest groups and allowed lobbyists unprecedented access and influence over governmental affairs.

What made Clark so formidable was the consistent support he drew from all segments of Dade's diverse population, making him far and away the most viable candidate. In that respect, Dade County may never again see another politician like Clark.

With no single candidate currently capable of galvanizing voters and scoring a certain victory, the race for Dade County mayor is up for grabs among the four major contenders: former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, and county commissioners Maurice Ferre, Alex Penelas, and Art Teele. On September 3 voters will go to the polls to cast their ballots. A runoff among the top two finishers -- a foregone conclusion, experts predict -- will be held a month later, on October 1.

"This is the Super Bowl of Dade County politics," says Rob Schroth, a well-respected Washington, D.C., pollster who has been retained to analyze the mayor's race for WLTV (Channel 23), and whose previous clients have included the Miami Herald. "You have four of the best-known and most powerful politicians in Dade running, and I don't think a lot of the same rules are going to apply here. This will be a knock-down, drag-out fight in which the two left standing will then have to battle each other 30 days later in a runoff."

In public the candidates can be fuzzy dreamers, speaking in the broad generalities their pollsters have told them will resonate with voters. They will be opposed to crime, in favor of the environment, supportive of a strong economy, concerned about taxes, eager to cut government waste, and committed to reasonable management of urban growth. They will use television and radio advertising to define their image, convey their message, and convince you to vote for them -- all in 30 seconds or less.

And naturally they will speak about uniting this divided community. Those speeches, however, will be delivered with a fair amount of hypocrisy. For each candidate knows that in order to be elected, he must secretly play to Dade's racial and ethnic divisions. Effective exploitation of those divisions will be one part artistry and one part meticulously precise science.

From the perspective of the candidates and their campaign advisers, there is no such thing as a "Dade County voter." Instead there are six distinct groups of voters: blacks, Jews, non-Jewish Anglos, American-born Hispanics, Cuban-born Hispanics, and Hispanics born in neither the United States nor Cuba. Victory at the polls will require a different strategy for each, and development of those strategies has required detailed analysis of the number of registered voters in each group, what percentage of them are likely to vote, and -- most important -- how many of their votes must be won in order to succeed.

Call it ethnic arithmetic.
If that seems shamelessly cynical, consider this: Political campaigns are never really about issues, they are about numbers. What percentage of Cuban-born voters does Penelas need in order to give him a shot at a runoff? How large a turnout among black voters must Teele generate to keep his campaign alive? How many percentage points is a Miami Herald endorsement worth in the American-born Hispanic community? How much is it worth in the Jewish community?

With such intense scrutiny being given to all manner of issues, members of the voting public might be forgiven for developing their own hardened cases of cynicism. For instance, they might well wonder whether Teele's opposition to the development of Homestead Air Force Base by a group of Cuban-American investors is based upon principled objections to the selection process or because he needs the support of non-Jewish Anglos in South Dade? Does Penelas truly believe that the gasoline tax is an evil abomination or is he catering to Cuban-born voters because his analysis tells him they form the foundation of his campaign?

Though the candidates and their staffs are reluctant to acknowledge it publicly, such considerations (and dozens of other questions) are being studied, analyzed, and fretted over. Pollsters and consultants are being paid tens of thousands of dollars for answers, all of which derive from a few basic assumptions. Registered voters in Dade County number approximately 775,000. Actual voter turnout on Tuesday, September 3, is predicted to be somewhere between 33 percent and 37 percent, which means 255,000 to 285,000 votes will be cast in that first round of balloting.

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