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."

The younger Barreiro "is a very nice, well-intended, but naive fellow," Ferre goes on. "He is not an evil person. The problem is he doesn't always have his own mind on things. He's a clean kid who goes around with people who aren't so clean, and that too has to make you stop and think."

Joe Geller, chairman of the Democratic Party in Dade County, echoes Ferre's assessment. "Bruno seems ill at ease with his responsibilities," Geller says. "He seems to me to be somewhat ill-suited for the job of politician. He's a pretty shy person. That may be a nice personality trait for a friend, but it is not an asset when your job is speaking out on behalf of the people. There have been a number of ethical questions raised about his conduct over time and the people he's around."

When people talk about the sleazy crowd Barreiro hangs out with, they are usually referring to State Sen. Alberto Gutman. The Miami Beach Republican and his noxious band of political mischief-makers played a key role in getting Barreiro elected -- and Gutman made sure Barreiro never forgot it.

In 1992 when Barreiro, a Republican, was first elected to the legislature, his family owned a small, financially struggling medical center in Little Havana known as Clinica Fatima. The HMO, which Barreiro's family had operated for more than two decades, was unable to maintain a $500,000 cash reserve as required by state law. The problem had persisted for so many years that state regulators were threatening to bar them from signing up any new patients until the financial troubles were corrected.

After Barreiro was elected, he was appointed to the House committee overseeing health-care legislation, while over in the Senate Gutman was named chairman of the powerful Senate Health Committee.

Within months of Barreiro's election, two cronies of Gutman surfaced and bought a controlling interest in the clinic for $580,000. State officials then certified the clinic to accept Medicaid patients. As a result, over the next year the clinic signed up hundreds of new Medicaid patients. The value of the business rose dramatically.

Eighteen months after Gutman's associates took over the clinic, they sold it to a subsidiary of one of Florida's largest HMOs, Physician Corporation of America (PCA), for ten million dollars. Gutman acted as the broker for the deal -- despite the fact that he had no experience handling such transactions -- and was paid a $500,000 commission.

Gutman wasn't the only big winner in the deal. Barreiro's father still owned fifteen percent of the company when PCA bought it. And PCA was forced to buy out a three-and-a-half-year "service contract" Barreiro Jr. held with the clinic. Although in 1995 the younger Barreiro told the Miami Herald his annual salary under that contract was $24,000, he said last week he was paid "about $200,000" for his service contract as a result of the PCA deal.

Gutman and Barreiro were sharply criticized for the transaction. Many people thought the two men had used their offices to work the lucrative deal. Particularly intense criticism was directed at Gutman, who as chairman of the Senate Health Committee that same year had blocked efforts by Gov. Lawton Chiles to toughen laws regulating Medicaid HMOs -- a reform PCA strongly opposed.

Looking back on the sale, Barreiro sees nothing wrong with the way it was handled. "Not really," he says, offering no elaboration. And Gutman, he asserts, has never controlled him. "That's an issue that a lot of people bring up," he says. "A lot of people have said that I'm controlled. Under no circumstance is that so. I've got my own mind."

Today Barreiro, a former University of Miami business major who dropped out after two years, says he earns a living through his own investment company, BABJ Investments, which manages his parents' money.

Janitza Kaplan is no fool. Those who know her say she is extremely bright and tough-minded. A native of Puerto Rico, she runs the South Florida office of the governor of Puerto Rico. Before that job she worked as a marketing analyst for various companies. She is 34 years old and has been married to Kaplan for eleven years. They have one child.

She claims she is not running as a front for her husband. "I understand where that idea might come from, but it is absurd," she says. "I'm my own person. I speak my mind. Bruce is Bruce and Janitza is Janitza. Bruce tried to talk me out of this, but I said we can't just let Bruno take over this seat, it would be wrong."

Kaplan has had her own problems. When the State Attorney's Office investigated her husband for mortgage fraud, she was also targeted by prosecutors because she too had signed the loan documents. As part of Bruce Kaplan's plea agreement, in return for accepting a conviction for the bogus financial disclosure form and resigning from office, the State Attorney's Office dropped its probe of the loan application. The state attorney's close-out memo in the case, however, also notes there was no evidence that his wife knew about the alleged attempts to mislead the mortgage company. Janitza Kaplan says she believes the effort by prosecutors to push her husband out of office was part of a "political vendetta."

Kaplan has several things going for her. She is a woman, and women tend not only to vote more than men in Dade County but to also vote for other women. She is Jewish and is expected to appeal to Jewish voters in Miami Beach. She has strong name recognition because of her husband. She is also likely to attract support from some of the groups that have been extremely loyal to her husband, including the gay community and the county's largest police union.

Helping to run her campaign are two of Barreiro's fellow legislators, state representatives Luis Rojas and Alex Diaz de la Portilla. "I think she can win," says Rojas, who has been a legislator since 1988. "She is really a sharp woman. She is articulate; she is tough and independent-minded. If there was ever a debate between the two of them, she would kill him."

Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla recently opened their own political consulting firm, Winning Strategies, and the Kaplan campaign will be their first foray into local elections. "Bruno is a very, very, very nice person," says Rojas. "I want to stress that: He's a nice kid. But he does not have what it takes to survive on the county commission. He gets confused. He doesn't have the depth and the competence to be a commissioner."

Barreiro will fall under the influence of his more assertive colleagues, just as he has in Tallahassee, Rojas predicts. "He will be a guy that will be easy to -- what's the word you use when describing a pile of clay -- malleable," he says. "He'll be malleable."

Malleable, of course, is just a polite way of saying Barreiro can be easily manipulated, which may explain another reason that Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla have taken an interest in this election. If Barreiro is elected, he'll become easy prey for commissioners such as Natacha Millan and Miriam Alonso, and, most important, Mayor Penelas.

Alex Diaz de la Portilla's brother Miguel sits on the county commission and is both Penelas's chief rival and a likely contender to run against the mayor in two years. Opposing Barreiro is another way of trying to thwart Penelas from expanding his power base.

Rojas denies that Penelas was a factor in their decision to run Kaplan's campaign. They simply need the business, he argues. "We talked to other people who were thinking of entering the race," Rojas says. "We even talked to Bruno, and if Bruno had hired us, we would be working for him. But Janitza hired us instead."

Whether or not Rojas wants to admit it, framing this election around the notion that Barreiro will simply become a Penelas puppet is one way Kaplan can raise money quickly. She hopes to pull in between $75,000 and $100,000 during the two weeks before the election, but the only realistic way she can do that is to have Rojas and Diaz de la Portilla successfully tap into the pool of anti-Penelas money that in the past has flowed so generously to politicians like Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez.

Barreiro says he hopes to raise about $150,000. Members of the Latin Builders' Association have already taken out their checkbooks to help him, as have most of the county's other major lobbyists. Add to that Penelas's fundraising machine and Barreiro should have little problem hitting his target.

Given the geographic boundaries of county commission District 5, there are always two races to be fought. The district includes all of Miami Beach south of 71st Street, downtown Miami, a small portion of Overtown, and Little Havana as far west as 22nd Avenue. Candidates generally ignore Overtown and wage their battles in Miami Beach and Little Havana.

Barreiro will likely have the edge in Little Havana, while Kaplan will have an advantage in Miami Beach. Even though Barreiro's current House district includes a small portion of Miami Beach (from Lincoln Road south), he is largely unknown in mid-Beach, where Kaplan resides.

Barreiro is expected to use his war chest to launch an ambitious direct-mail campaign to introduce himself to Beach voters. Kaplan, on the other hand, will try to undermine Barreiro's mainland support by appearing on Spanish-language radio.

The Barreiro-Kaplan race may end up having more subplots than a Quentin Tarantino film. It has become a civil war of sorts, pitting as it does political brothers against one another. There was a time when the machine that is now pushing Barreiro -- Al Gutman, Kiki Berger, Armando Gutierrez -- was Kaplan's greatest source of strength. Now Kaplan's wife is running against them, and the displeasure is apparent.

On Monday, May 18, the day before candidates could officially begin signing up for the commission race, Bruno Barreiro, Jr., and Bruce Kaplan met at the home of Miami Beach Commissioner David Dermer. Also present were Gutierrez and Beach Commissioner Simón Cruz. "They tried to strong-arm me to keep Janitza from entering the race," Kaplan claims. "Armando told me they were going to trash me. They were clearly concerned about the impact Janitza could have on the election."

Gutierrez denies it. "It was just a meeting of old friends," he says wryly. "There were no threats. How can you believe Bruce Kaplan?"

In this race, how can you believe anyone?

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