Ambitious to a Fault

That money can buy a tremendous amount of exposure, but it can also raise uncomfortable questions. "If voters in Dade County are afraid of anything, they are afraid of their county government being too influenced by the powerful economic interests that do business with the county," Bendixen says. "When Alex or anyone raises that much money, the voters are going to look at that issue and are going to wonder what kind of debts that politician is going to have if he's elected, and who the politician is going to owe favors. Penelas has developed the image of a dealmaker and someone who has a lot of debts to the special interests of Dade County."

And Penelas certainly appears to be in a dealmaking mood. Knowing he needed to make inroads into the Anglo community, and specifically the condos in Northeast Dade, he agreed to appoint Gwen Margolis chairwoman of the commission in return for her endorsement and support.

He is also reaping the benefits of an alliance he struck with State Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. Penelas supported Nelson in the past (and will likely support his 1998 bid for governor), and in return Nelson and his political allies have pumped more than $100,000 from the insurance industry into Penelas's campaign from all over the state and across the nation -- contributions have come from Chicago, New Orleans, and Dallas. One local insurance mogul, Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, owner of Associated Insurance Brokers, has added at least $10,000 to Penelas's coffers, artfully dodging the $500 limit by donating through more than a dozen different companies he owns. Another insurance executive, William D. Griffin of the Riscorp Insurance Company based in Sarasota, has given nearly $4000 to Penelas through companies he controls.

Nelson personally sponsored one fundraiser for Penelas in Tallahassee, and Nelson's deputy chief of staff, Brian May, is working as a strategist on Penelas's campaign. How voters -- particularly Hurricane Andrew veterans in South Dade -- will feel about one candidate accumulating that much money from the insurance industry remains to be seen.

Penelas will have a television spot ready to answer such concerns if his advisers think it is necessary. Chances are, though, he won't be using the same script he employed against Jorge Valdes in 1990 -- especially that opening line: "Tell me who you associate with and I'll tell you who you are.

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