"It'll Never Get Off the Ground"

With nothing to show after four years but bitterness and bickering, the plan to turn Homestead Air Force Base into a commercial airport has gone from national model to national embarrassment

While Grimes believes that redevelopment should be allowed to go forward even as the environmental reviews are taking place, not everyone in South Dade agrees with him. Some, such as a consortium of homeowner groups called the South Dade Community Council, insist that the necessary environmental studies should be completed before the transfer takes place. (The council even wrote to the White House requesting a supplemental EIS.) And others cry, To hell with the environmentalists, bring on the bulldozers! "Folks down here view the environmentalists as nothing but carpetbaggers," says Tom Kirby, executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau, an agricultural trade group. "They come down here, tell us how we should be living, what we should be doing, and tell us what our destinies should be, and people resent that."

Concludes Grimes: "It's an unacceptable impasse. We need leadership to step into this breach."

It's difficult not to feel for the people of Homestead and South Dade, and politicians have lined up to express their compassion. But cynics would argue that there's more at work here than simply the desire to perk up spirits and a flagging economy, namely, the possibility of electoral dividends.

In an April 7 letter to his acquaintances, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and gubernatorial candidate Florida Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, environmentalist Nathaniel Reed cautioned that policy should not be sacrificed for politics. He pointed out that, in Florida this past year, Bill Clinton managed to secure the highest percentage of votes of any Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter -- including a remarkable 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, two-thirds of which is located in Dade. How did Clinton do it? Reed asked rhetorically. "The president made frequent trips to Miami," he wrote. "He dined with important Hispanic leaders. He took a strong stand when Castro's air force shot down two unarmed civilian planes, he met with the grieving families, and he promised Homestead Air Force Base would be turned over to Dade County to stimulate economic development.

"Some believe the 'deal' has already been made," Reed's letter went on. "In return for their vote, the Hispanic developers will be delivered Homestead. Others believe that neither the vice president, Secretary Babbitt, nor [EPA] Administrator [Carol] Browner would sacrifice two national parks regardless of the president's campaign promises."

In conversation, Reed elaborates on this analysis and applies it to upcoming elections: A candidate's support for air base redevelopment means support for HABDI, which could translate into political and financial backing from the influential Latin Builders Association, which could result in Cuban-American votes. And the two candidates who would most benefit from such support would be MacKay and Vice President Al Gore (who is almost certain to run for president in 2000). "If either of them can repeat the invasion of the Cuban-American vote in Dade County," Reed speculates, "it would probably carry the State of Florida for Gore and would probably elect Buddy MacKay governor."

The media consultant for MacKay's campaign, Ron Sachs, bristles at the suggestion that political motivations underpin his boss's involvement in Homestead. "Nothing Buddy MacKay does in the public-policy realm is linked to any sort of analysis of what is the political advantage or disadvantage of doing it," Sachs proclaims. "Buddy MacKay believes that conducting good public policy is its own best reward, and if by following that kind of principle there is a benefit, that is by happenstance."

Of course, Sachs acknowledges, benefits from an attempt to expedite the base development could come in the form of campaign contributions from the Latin Builders Association and its members. "There probably will be some political fallout from this that is positive," he concedes.

For the politicians -- in particular the Democrats -- whose responsibilities include Homestead, the transfer presents a difficult balancing act between political exigency (the fear of alienating Cuban Americans by impeding Herrera and HABDI) and policy declarations (party-line support of environmental issues).

Sen. Bob Graham has been following the developing controversy particularly closely. His involvement has involved occasional phone calls to Clinton's environmental advisor Kathleen McGinty and, according to several participants, a very heated meeting with McGinty and several other federal and state officials, during which the senator yelled at the advisor and cautioned her against delaying the EIS review.

"Senator Graham has been trying to figure out how to get the groups together and reach a compromise that will facilitate economic development while at the same time protect the environment," says Graham's press secretary Kimberly James. "It's not easy, but being a senator often puts him in that kind of difficult position." U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek says she too has been on the phone "several times" to McGinty's office to ensure that the review isn't delayed unnecessarily. "I'm trying to be an intervenor and a convener," Meek explains. "The whole thing has been disappointing."

Political pressure on the Clinton administration to unravel the Homestead debacle is particularly great with the looming possibility of further base closings. (Since 1990, the Pentagon has closed more than 240 bases; on May 19, the agency unveiled its most recent plan to scale back U.S. military operations, including two new rounds of closures.) But the administration is facing a credibility problem in this arena. Of the four so-called model bases that were supposed to set a national example for seamless, efficient transition, three have imploded. The fourth is Homestead.

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