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.

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?

BLACKS
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.

CUBANS
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.

He has far more money than any of his rivals, thanks largely to the fundraising abilities of the so-called three amigos: attorney Christopher Korge, lobbyist Rodney Barreto, and former Latin Builders Association president Sergio Pino.

But holding on to his base will be a challenge. In no other voting bloc will any candidate face such stinging attacks as those Penelas can expect from Cuban voters. His greatest foes, however, won't be rival candidates (at least not directly), but other local Cuban politicians, most notably the obstreperous Joe Carollo, who is on the verge of being elected mayor of the City of Miami, and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who has been a long-time supporter of Ferre and is expected to continue that support in this election.

"With Joe beating on Penelas from Miami and Raul working on him in Hialeah, Penelas could begin to feel that squeeze," says political consultant and former Miami mayor David Kennedy, an adviser to Ferre's campaign.

While Ferre's camp knows that it is impossible for him to win 40 percent of the Cuban vote, they also realize that the closer they can draw to 30 percent, the more likely it is those votes will be coming from Penelas -- which may well explain why Ferre, after supporting the gas tax for years, finally buckled under the pressure of a Spanish-language radio blitz and supported a reduction.

A strong showing among Cubans for Suarez would be between 30 and 35 percent, but Suarez will have to rely on a door-to-door, grassroots, get-out-the-vote effort because he has virtually no money left in his campaign coffers and cannot afford to produce or air commercials on either radio or television. While such community-oriented campaigns are not impossible, they are extremely difficult, especially when facing such well-financed candidates.

For Teele, every vote he receives from Cubans is manna from heaven. He does have friends in the Cuban community, however, and he may try to exploit the fact that he is the only registered Republican in the field, even though this is a nonpartisan race. If Teele could win even four or five percent of the Cuban vote, he'd likely do cartwheels down Calle Ocho.

HISPANICS BORN IN NEITHER THE U.S. NOR CUBA
Registered Voters: 75,000
Projected Turnout: 30-40 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 23-30,000

There are more than 12,000 registered voters from Colombia in Dade County, plus another 2500 from Spain, 2500 from Honduras, almost 6000 from the Dominican Republic, 1500 from Mexico, 3000 from Chile and Venezuela, and almost 20,000 from the rest of Central and South America. Add to that nearly 25,000 registered voters from Puerto Rico and the prevailing view that all Hispanic voters in Dade are Cuban comes tumbling down.

This is a segment of the community in which Maurice Ferre should do extremely well. Without having to say a word, Ferre, who was born in Puerto Rico, becomes the standard-bearer for all non-Cuban Hispanics. And on election day, he benefits from the festering anger and resentment (some might argue jealousy) many of these voters may harbor toward their Cuban brethren.

But how this group votes, and more important if this group votes, is wholly dependent on Ferre. In the same way Teele needs to generate a large turnout in the black community, and Penelas must secure a substantial base among Cubans, so Ferre's chances of making the runoff increase sharply if he can boost the vote count in areas such as the Puerto Rican stronghold of Wynwood and the Central American havens of Little Havana. His goal is to push the turnout to 40 percent (about 30,000 people), and then capture at least 15,000 of those votes.

Penelas and Suarez understand that this segment of the Hispanic vote is Ferre's, but each will nonetheless try to walk away with between 5000 and 6000 votes. Teele, still last in line for Hispanic scraps, will hope to take between 2000 and 3000 votes.

NON-JEWISH ANGLO
Registered Voters: 200,000
Projected Turnout: 30-33 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 60,000 to 66,000

When Steve Clark became ill and it was obvious he would not run for county mayor, the search for a Great White Hope began in earnest. Surely, the pundits reasoned, there must be an Anglo candidate who could mount a serious bid. After all, historically Anglos have trounced Hispanics and blacks in countywide races. Up until 1993 Anglos controlled seven of the nine county commission seats. Indeed it was that apparent unfair advantage by Anglos that led a federal judge four years ago to declare Dade's system of electing commissioners to be a violation of the rights of Hispanics and blacks.

So where's that unfair advantage now?
A few well-known Anglo politicians were available, among them former state representative Mike Abrams, former county commissioner Charles Dusseau, and current commissioner and former state senate president Gwen Margolis. But none was willing to enter the fray, and so there will be no white knight. That leaves non-Jewish Anglo voters in something of a quandary. It also has the potential of turning those voters into kingmakers. "They will choose the next mayor of Dade County," predicts pollster Rob Schroth. "They are the swing voters."

None of the candidates can get to his magic number of 75,000 votes without help from non-Jewish Anglos. "Right now, there is a tremendous reservoir of goodwill in that community that still exists for Suarez," says Schroth. "The question is whether or not he will be able to hold on to it." According to recent polls, this is the only category of votes in which Suarez has a commanding lead -- upward of 35 percent. If he loses that lead, it will be extremely difficult for him to make it up in any other category.

The stakes are high for all candidates. In Teele's case, as it is impossible for the black vote alone to carry him to a runoff, and because he can't expect more than token support in any of the Hispanic categories, he must win a combined total of between 17,000 and 20,000 votes in the Anglo groups (Jews and non-Jews). And because the Jewish vote is comparatively small, he must win the bulk of it here by capturing 25 to 30 percent of non-Jewish Anglos.

Teele's activities make it clear he recognizes the gravity of the situation. On that same Sunday he preached at the Baptist church in Overtown, he also addressed the predominantly white congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Miami. When he kicked off his campaign, he roared down to South Dade in a trio of helicopters and, using Homestead as a backdrop, reminded the public of his efforts to help rebuild that community after Hurricane Andrew. And with the exception of Katy Sorenson, no one has been a more outspoken critic of the development plans for Homestead Air Force Base, a political position that has endeared Teele to the many South Dade residents who also oppose the plan.

One advantage Teele will have over Suarez is money. Last week Suarez's campaign reported it was nearly broke after having initially raised close to $200,000. Teele, who brought in more than $300,000 in just two weeks, has almost all of that still in the bank. And while Suarez, Ferre, and Penelas will have to air commercials on both Spanish- and English-language radio and television, Teele can concentrate all his money on English-language stations.

Neither Penelas nor Ferre needs to do as well as Teele or Suarez among non-Jewish Anglos in order to survive, but neither can afford to languish. Each needs to pick up about twenty percent of the vote, and there is no reason to believe each couldn't do considerably better. This segment of the voting public contains more "undecideds" than any other.

Of course, Teele isn't the only one with money to spend on advertising. Both Penelas and Ferre have hired nationally renowned media advisers to produce their commercials. Penelas in particular appears prepared to spend a small fortune raising his profile in the Anglo community.

The one key variable money can't buy is the Miami Herald's editorial endorsement, which may be announced as early as this week. Penelas says he has ruled out any chance of gaining the paper's support, and believes it is a contest between Teele and Ferre, a sentiment shared by many. For both of those candidates, as well as for Suarez, the Herald's endorsement is estimated to mean between five and possibly eight percentage points in the Jewish and non-Jewish Anglo communities, and a slightly lower figure in the American-born Hispanic community.

In terms of total number of votes within those three segments, the Herald endorsement could be worth an additional 5000 to 8000 votes on the journey to 75,000.

JEWS
Registered Voters: 60,000
Projected Turnout: 40 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 24,000

Once the dominant power in Dade County politics, the Jewish vote has steadily declined over the years and is now primarily concentrated in the high-rise condos of Aventura and the retirement centers of Sunny Isles and Miami Beach. Despite its failing political health, the Jewish bloc is a segment candidates desperately covet, as signaled by the brazen dealmaking that recently occurred between Penelas and Commissioner Gwen Margolis. In exchange for her endorsement, Penelas pledged that if he is elected, he will appoint her chairwoman of the county commission.

Margolis's ability to deliver the so-called condo vote remains in doubt, however, and Penelas is expected to spend a considerable amount of money on advertising to reach Anglo voters overall, and Jewish voters in particular. Among Jews, a good showing for him would be 25 percent of the vote, or about 6000 ballots.

In order for Ferre to make the runoff, he will have to do much better than Penelas in the Jewish community, securing closer to 35 percent of the vote, or about 8400 ballots. Toward that end, Ferre has lined up the support of half of the newly elected Aventura City Council, as well as its mayor Art Snyder. He also counts long-time activist Ginger Grossman and State Sen. Ron Silver among his allies.

If Ferre decides the overall race is so tight that he needs to stretch his lead in the overwhelmingly Democratic Jewish community, it is almost certain he will attack both Penelas and Teele for their ties to the Republican Party. Ferre is quick to recall Penelas's trip to New Hampshire last winter in support of Bob Dole. (Penelas, a registered Democrat, says he was just tagging along with his wife and isn't endorsing anyone for president.)

And Ferre gleefully describes the image of Penelas embracing conservative U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms during a recent banquet in Miami sponsored by the Cuban American National Foundation, a photograph of which ran in Diario Las Americas. "Oh yeah, I plan to use it," Ferre says of the picture. "You can't embrace Jesse Helms in one community and then, when it suits your purpose, act as if you are a staunch Democrat in another community."

Likewise Ferre is expected to attack Teele's association with House Speaker Newt Gingrich and loudly point out (at least within the Jewish community) that Teele is a lifelong registered Republican who worked for Ronald Reagan. Which is why estimating Teele's support in the Jewish community causes fits for so many political consultants. Some argue that the traditional liberal support among Jews for blacks (along with apprehension over the rising Cuban dominance in Dade County) will naturally guarantee Teele between 20 and 30 percent of the vote. For his part, Teele is counting on it.

Lost in this battle is Suarez, who has neither Ferre's string of endorsements nor Penelas's money to attract significant interest in Northeast Dade. But the former Miami mayor has great name recognition and a group of energized volunteers he hopes will attract about 20 percent of the vote.

AMERICAN-BORN HISPANICS
Registered Voters: 50,000
Projected Turnout: 40 percent
Expected Votes Cast: 17,500

Until recently pollsters and consultants lumped this category of voters in with the overall Hispanic-Cuban-foreign-born category. But as their numbers have grown it has become necessary to separate them because they do not predictably view the world the same way their parents do.

Though determining their precise numbers is tricky, most consultants agree they represent about fifteen percent of the total Hispanic vote. They are the children of those who came to the United States in the Sixties and Seventies, they are under 35 years of age, college educated, and politically less conservative than their parents. They read the Miami Herald, get their news from Channel 7, and they are much more likely to listen to WSHE-FM (103.5) or WIOD-AM (610) than to Spanish-language stations such as Radio Mambi or La Cubanisima.

On election day, American-born Hispanics can be expected to go to the polls at a slightly higher rate than Anglos but at a lower rate than their parents. It would be to Penelas's and Suarez's advantage to draw them out. In the case of Penelas, their support can be attributed to the fact that he is one of them -- a 34-year-old attorney whose parents came from Cuba. He is the symbol of their generation, the embodiment of their readiness to assume power.

Suarez's support, on the other hand, derives from the same attributes that make him attractive to Anglos -- he is seen as clean, untouched by the corruption and special-interest pandering that taints those already in power at county hall.

In the end, Penelas and Suarez are hoping to secure between 30 and 35 percent of the vote each (between 5000 and 6000 votes apiece). Ferre will be satisfied with between 20 and 25 percent. Teele will try to claw his way to about ten percent of the vote.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...