Ambitious to a Fault

The defining moment in the political career of Dade County Commissioner Alex Penelas came on April 22, 1993, shortly after he and his colleagues were sworn into office as part of an expanded commission elected from thirteen newly created districts.

After taking the oath, each commissioner delivered a speech, and all of them stressed the importance of working together for the betterment of the entire community -- a theme reflecting fears that the new district system would encourage divisions along racial and ethnic lines at the expense of broader, countywide interests.

The only item of importance on the agenda that day was the selection of a commission chairman. Although it was largely a ceremonial position, Penelas openly coveted it. The increased visibility and the leadership opportunities would fit nicely with his plans to run for county mayor three years later. In fact, he didn't just want to be named chairman, he expected to be named.

To Penelas's chagrin, however, his fellow commissioners elected Art Teele. The 31-year-old commissioner did not accept defeat gracefully. Instead he threw a temper tantrum as peevish as any terrible two-year-old's. He branded Maurice Ferre and the other Hispanic commissioners ethnic traitors for supporting Teele, a black man, over him, a Cuban American. "I think Ferre betrayed the Hispanic community today," Penelas bellowed in the hallways after the vote. Singling out Ferre made sense, as he was expected to be one of Penelas's competitors in the 1996 mayor's race. Here was an early opportunity to tar him: Maurice Ferre, Hispanic Judas.

Following the commission meeting, Penelas headed for Spanish-language radio, where he repeated his attacks on Ferre and the other Hispanic commissioners who voted for Teele.

Today Penelas's closest aides insist that he has matured, that he is no longer the overindulged brat who was richly criticized for his outburst. He is more seasoned and thoughtful, they argue. This growth and development are the real testaments to his character. Penelas learned his lesson, they humbly contend, and he is a better man because of it.

But what, exactly, is the lesson Penelas learned? Judging from the three years following his infamous fit of pique, it seems the only lasting lesson was this: He would never lose again -- no matter what the cost.

What emerged after that day was not a new, more statesmanlike county commissioner, but a full-time candidate for county mayor whose single-minded focus on winning has not only drawn criticism from his opponents but worry from long-time friends and supporters. Says one old ally, paraphrasing Shakespeare's warning: "Beware the lean and hungry look of Alex Penelas."

In 1987 Penelas was 25 years old and still living at home with his parents when he ran for a seat on the Hialeah City Council. Fresh out of University of Miami's law school, he saw an opening amid the corruption enveloping Dade's second-largest city, with one councilman having recently been indicted and others deciding to retire. "It was a tremendous opportunity," Penelas says of his campaign and subsequent victory. "Running for office is something I have always had inside of me. I always knew I wanted to serve the public. Maybe it runs in the blood." Penelas's father was active in Cuba's labor movement during the Fifties. His mother fled Cuba in 1959 with his two older brothers, and his father escaped through Brazil a year or so later. Alex, the youngest child in the family, was born in South Florida on December 18, 1961.

His tenure in Hialeah was brief but active. From the outset he was part of a slate of council members who gave lock step support to Mayor Raul Martinez, voting consistently with him on zoning and budget matters, including an eleven percent tax increase in 1988. But Penelas did strike out on his own now and then, most notably by sponsoring a code of ethics and new financial-disclosure requirements for city officials.

Young, bright, articulate, and handsome, Penelas was quickly dubbed a rising star among Dade's otherwise lackluster field of politicians. In 1990, still in his first term on the Hialeah council, he was courted by various civic groups to run for county commission against incumbent Jorge Valdes.

He was viewed as the antithesis of Valdes, a nine-year commission veteran who was linked to powerful lobbyists and who was seen as a puppet of local developers. Valdes's reputation was sullied further by the fact that he lived a comfortable life with no visible means of support. With the public left to wonder who was paying Valdes's bills, Penelas once again saw an opportunity and jumped at it. "A lot of people were concerned about the issues that Jorge had gotten involved with, his close ties to developers," Penelas says. "There was clearly a cloud over him."

The campaign was no simple affair, however. Valdes was the first Cuban on the county commission and was still extremely popular among Hispanic voters. To challenge that support in the final days of the 1990 campaign, Penelas began airing controversial advertisements on Spanish-language radio. The commercial opened with this: "Tell me who you associate with and I'll tell you who you are." It went on to insinuate a connection between Valdes and Jesse Jackson, who had years earlier praised Fidel Castro. Valdes had been endorsed by Carrie Meek, and Meek had helped to run Jackson's past presidential campaign, therefore ...

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