Ambitious to a Fault

Thanks to a heavy turnout among Anglo voters -- who never heard the notorious ad -- Penelas won.

Most observers agree that he threw himself into his work on the commission. During his first three years, he was at the center of nearly every major issue, from American Airlines' dramatic expansion to drug treatment for county employees to development of his own plan for single-member voting districts to creation of the position of executive mayor -- the job for which he, Ferre, Teele, and former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez are now vying.

Once again Penelas was soaring. Praised by the Herald and easily winning re-election in 1993, he was not only considered a serious contender for the 1996 mayor's race, but he was also touted as the first Cuban likely to win statewide office in the future.

And then in 1993 he lost his bid to become commission chairman and unleashed his ethnically charged attack. From that moment on, perceptions of Alex Penelas would never be the same. No longer would he command the high ground of the idealist. He was simply another arrogant politician whose sole reason for being was to win the next election.

Penelas says his single greatest accomplishment as a commissioner has been the development and implementation of a plan to aid Dade's homeless population. But in truth he backed into that issue, not by choice but by circumstance: When Art Teele became chairman, he assigned Penelas to the commission's homeless committee. Furthermore, a significant amount of momentum had already developed within Dade's business community to deal with the unsightly problem of street people. Given the time, energy, and resources the downtown elite had committed to the homeless problem, it was in Penelas's best political interest to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the task at hand.

Apart from the homeless issue, and its offshoot program to deal with domestic violence, Penelas has become a ghost on the dais, speaking up only when he is likely to secure a sound bite on the evening news or a quote in the newspaper. In the past year, he has been outspoken on just two subjects: advocating a rollback of the county's gasoline tax, and opposing the proposed new arena -- positions that are immensely popular among many voters. And reminiscent of his days as a Hialeah reformer, Penelas also led the successful drive last year to establish a countywide ethics commission.

A review of the ordinances and resolutions Penelas initiated over the past twelve months suggests a politician more interested in pandering to voters than addressing the problems of the community. He sponsored a resolution declaring February 20 to be "Don Shula Day." He promoted another resolution urging the City of Miami to rename a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as "Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard." In another, he asked the Florida Board of Regents to establish an architecture program at Florida International University.

More than anything else, Penelas pushed measures that allocated money to favored organizations, resolutions that annoyed his fellow commissioners because they circumvented the commission's normal procedure for distributing money.

Sergio Bendixen, the political analyst and pollster for Channel 51, has watched Penelas over the years and expresses surprise at how quickly Penelas has gone from idealistic reformer to calculating politician. The transformation, he notes, has not been lost on voters. "He's grown up too fast for the taste of a lot of people," Bendixen says. "Penelas has developed the image of being too much a politician -- he compromises too easily, he changes his stands on important issues, it is impossible to know what he feels passionately about."

He is a registered Democrat, and yet he traveled to New Hampshire to stump for Bob Dole because he says his Republican friends asked him to.

On September 20, 1993, Penelas voted in favor of increasing the gasoline tax, but as soon as it proved unpopular, he attacked it and now acts as if he had never supported it.

He publicly argued against building a new arena, but then in a private meeting with arena supporter Alvah Chapman, he promised to tone down his criticism (and lowered his risk of alienating the Herald).

He declared his support for the private development of Homestead Air Force Base, but then, on the eve of the commission vote, halfheartedly tried to strike a compromise with South Dade residents who opposed the project.

"The problem that people have with Alex," says one of his current supporters, "is that he tries to be all things to all people, and it can't be done. What does he stand for? Why does he want to be mayor?"

One irony of this mayoral campaign is that Penelas now resembles the type of candidate he used to run against. For example, if Jorge Valdes was once his antithesis, what does it say about Penelas that Valdes now supports his candidacy, and that Penelas speaks fondly of his one-time foe? "Listen, I've developed a very good relationship with Jorge and I think he is a very decent man," Penelas offers. "He's never been accused and convicted of anything."

Today it is Penelas who is surrounded by the county's most influential lobbyists and developers. He has raised close to one million dollars so far, and if he makes it to a runoff, he will almost certainly accumulate another $500,000. With such a mind-numbing amount of money in the bank, he has hired one of the best media strategists in the nation, Bob Shrum from Washington, D.C., to package his life in 30-second increments. Between now and the September 3 election (with an expected October 1 runoff between the top two contenders) the broadcast airwaves -- English and Spanish -- will be saturated with Alex Penelas.

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