Prestige Politics

In Tallahassee he is known as El Mudo -- the mute. When he does speak, his voice barely rises above a whisper as he struggles to piece together sentence fragments into something coherent. It's not a speech impediment or a language barrier that prevents him from articulating his thoughts. It's a timidity of spirit and a failure of intellect.

Bruno Barreiro, Jr., is not a thinker. Although he is neither a leader nor an idea man, he has represented Little Havana and a portion of Miami Beach in the state legislature since 1992. He is considered to be one of the most ineffective lawmakers South Florida has ever produced.

In spite of his shortcomings -- or possibly because of them -- Barreiro is also considered the perfect candidate for the Dade County Commission. The 32-year-old native Floridian is the front-runner in the race to fill the seat vacated by Bruce Kaplan, who was forced to resign earlier this year after being convicted of filing false financial disclosure forms with the state.

Barreiro's opponents in next week's election are Bob Skidell, a long-time homophobe who perennially enters and loses elections in Miami Beach; and Janitza Kaplan, wife of Bruce Kaplan. While it is certainly not unusual for the wife of a politician to finish out the term of a husband who has unexpectedly left office, typically the husband has died -- not been convicted of a crime. But then again, this is Dade County.

Given the less than stellar field of candidates, half-hearted endorsements have been pouring in for Barreiro. "I think he would be the best representative and the most effective representative for the Beach -- of the candidates that are there," says Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin.

"I think Bruno is a fairly stable personality," ventures former Beach mayor Seymour Gelber. "And let's face it, the opponents I've seen come forward hardly warrant a second of consideration. So from that standpoint, he is the best candidate that has appeared in this race."

"I would have supported David Pearlson if he had entered the race, but he decided not to," adds Miami Beach Commissioner Simón Cruz. "Based on who entered, Bruno is the only candidate I could back."

All of which gives rise to a question: Why aren't there more well-qualified candidates running?

The principal reason is this: Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas and a majority of county commissioners want Barreiro elected. He is not a threat to the existing power structure at county hall; he is expected to meekly fall in line -- just as he has done in Tallahassee. To guarantee Barreiro's ascent, Penelas and the commission forced a quickie election knowing that few other qualified candidates would have the time to raise money or put together a campaign.

"If the commission really wanted to encourage more people to run," sighs Gelber, "they would have appointed someone to fill the seat until this fall and had the election then. The way they've done it gives a great advantage to Bruno."

All that remains to be seen is whether Barreiro can make it across the finish line without tripping over it. Political consultant Ric Katz says he believes Barreiro "has a lot of potential" despite his limitations. Katz has been advising Barreiro to speak out more: "I've told him that he's too quiet. He needs to assert himself."

Dangerous advice. As the old saying goes, Better to keep your mouth shut and have people think you're stupid than open it and prove them right. Last week, during an interview in his district office in Little Havana, Barreiro may have proved the truth of the adage. He was asked to address a few general issues, and here's what he had to say:

*On the job the county commission is doing: "I think the commission is -- especially, you know, it needs stability to work on issues, it needs to get them solved. You know, there have been a lot of problems."

*On developing Homestead Air Force Base as a commercial airport: "I think it should be a commercial airport -- you know, an airport. This county is" -- long pause -- "it's time for" -- short pause -- "you know, Orlando, which I think is growing very rapidly, Orange County has already two airports, two major airports. We've got to catch up, you know. And we've got to make sure that we stay out front in international trade and tourism."

*On the environmental impact of developing Homestead as a commercial airport: "From my understanding, and it's something I've got to research more, but my understanding is that the difference between an air force jet and a commercial jet is, you know, as to what their environmental standards are, you know, I think commercial jets, my understanding are not as problem, don't have the problems that air force jets have."

*On ethics in government: "I think, you know, it's an issue that has to be dealt with when it comes across."

Even a family friend like former county commissioner Maurice Ferre has his doubts about Barreiro's abilities. Ferre suggests the secret to understanding Bruno Barreiro, Jr., is Bruno Barreiro, Sr. "Bruno's dad always liked politics," Ferre says, noting that in 1992 Barreiro Sr. ran unsuccessfully for the Miami City Commission. "I think now he is the driving force behind his son," Ferre continues. "He is living out a large part of his life through his son. He sees the world through his son's eyes."

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