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

Because four powerful candidates are running, the consensus among experts is that the race will be very close, with no candidate expected to achieve outright victory by garnering more than 50 percent of the votes. Pollster Schroth is estimating that the top two candidates -- whoever they may be -- will finish with 27 percent and 26 percent of the vote, while the other two will trail closely with 24 percent and 23 percent. Others believe the spread will be even closer. In separate interviews, each of the candidates predicted that anyone who captures 27 percent of the vote is almost assured of making it to the runoff.

The four top candidates have in their minds a specific goal, a magic number of approximately 75,000 votes. If they can persuade that many people to vote for them -- in a county of two million people -- then their political careers remain alive and they can advance to the October 1 runoff. But how do they get there?

Registered Voters: 160,000
Projected Turnout: 30-40 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 48,000 to 64,000

On a recent Sunday, Art Teele was standing at the pulpit of St. John Institutional Missionary Baptist Church in Overtown, reading from the Old Testament's Book of Nehemiah, and eliciting a steady chorus of Amens and Praise Be the Lords from those who came to hear the politician's sermon. "You should have been a preacher!" one woman exclaimed while shaking his hand after the service. "You have the gift."

Teele was happy to accept the compliment, but what he really needs is the woman's vote -- and that of thousands of other blacks like her.

In the first round of voting, Teele's entire campaign will be won or lost in the black community. In order for him to make it to an October runoff against one of his Hispanic rivals, blacks must turn out in large numbers (between 35 and 40 percent) and Teele must receive at least 80 percent of their votes. If he walks away with anything fewer than 45,000 votes in the black community, his chances plummet.

That task was made considerably more difficult this past Monday when Bill Perry, Jr., former executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, announced his candidacy for Dade mayor. "I think my chances of winning are as good as anyone else's," declared Perry, who is black. Perry is wrong, of course. Compared to the four major candidates, his chances of victory are virtually nil.

Assuming for the moment that Perry is neither stupid nor completely blinded by an enlarged ego, the only real purpose for his candidacy would be to siphon black votes away from Teele in hopes of keeping the commissioner out of a runoff.

As Perry is closely linked with several of Alex Penelas's closest advisers, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Penelas's campaign is at least partly responsible for Perry's kamikaze candidacy. But it is also true that in picking up the support and encouragement of H.T. Smith, a respected black leader, Perry has come to symbolize the apprehension many blacks feel about Teele.

Teele has always been something of an anomaly in the black community because of his Republican Party roots, but he is hoping that while fellow blacks may not always trust him, they will be pragmatic enough to vote for him.

The real loser may be Maurice Ferre, who, prior to Perry's entry, stood the best chance of picking up the black anti-Teele vote. His campaign was counting on between fifteen and twenty percent of the black vote to help carry him to a runoff. At one point during his tenure as mayor of Miami, Ferre captured more than 90 percent of the city's black vote. His good reputation among black leaders, at one time damaged by his having fired former Miami city manager Howard Gary, has been restored. In fact, H.T. Smith says he had been leaning toward endorsing Ferre -- at least until Perry joined the battle.

Teele's greatest ally in this campaign will come from the black-oriented media -- the weekly Miami Times and radio stations such as WEDR and WMBM -- and from the pulpits of every black church in the county, where the sermons will likely argue that this election will be the black community's best chance of seizing the mayor's seat for many years to come. And that blacks must not only vote black, they must vote Teele.

Registered Voters: 180,000
Projected Turnout: 50 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 90,000

With three well-known Hispanics in the race, many observers have believed that Cuban-born voters would be profoundly divided. But here again there is a contest within a contest. This time the magic number is 40 percent. Any candidate who can accumulate at least 40 percent of the Cuban vote (about 36,000 people) is assumed to be a lock for the runoff.

The important question is whether that number is achievable. Penelas's campaign staffers believe it is, and the candidate has positioned himself well in this community. He spearheaded the effort to have fellow Cuban Armando Vidal appointed as county manager. He consistently voted with Latin Builders Association president Carlos Herrera's plans to develop Homestead Air Force Base. He became a vocal critic of the county gasoline tax at just the right time. And his opposition to a new downtown sports arena has kept him regularly on Spanish-language radio over the past few months.

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