Dinner Key's Raw Meat

He's young. He's politically naive. He's Miami's newest commissioner, Joe Sanchez.

The silver Honda Civic careens past a no-entry sign into the parking lot of Little Havana's police substation. After it stops in a space marked "Lieutenant," a man and woman get out of the car and hustle toward the building's glass-doored entrance. But a frowning police officer flings open the door and warns that they have parked illegally. "This is Commissioner Sanchez," responds the woman, 22-year-old Lissette de Armas, an aide to Miami's newest political leader. "Oh," says the man in blue, suddenly smiling. "I didn't recognize you. Come on in."

As a state trooper, Joe Sanchez used to drop off drunken drivers at the station. "One year I made 70 DUI arrests," he recalls. But the 33-year-old Sanchez has far more sober matters to tend to these days.

On June 5 the city commission appointed Sanchez to the District 3 seat vacated by Humberto Hernandez after his arrest on vote fraud charges. Considering his predecessor's record and the phalanx of other Miami officials now in jail, Sanchez may be just what city hall needs: a gregarious former cop who is active in his neighborhood, goes to church every day, and has a lovely wife and two adorable kids. "I'm not a politician, I'm a community activist," he declares. Though neighbors in the Roads section of Miami accuse Sanchez of selling out the area to developers, some supporters term him Hernandez's opposite when it comes to honest politics.

Both Hernandez and Sanchez are thirty-something sons of Cuban immigrants, but the similarities end there. Hernandez went to Belen Jesuit Preparatory School, a breeding ground for Cuban politicos. Sanchez attended Miami High. Hernandez went to law school. Sanchez took courses at Miami-Dade Community College but never earned a degree. Hernandez's dad is a political power broker and Bay of Pigs veteran who was recently accused of illegal vote-brokering. Sanchez's dad is an apolitical retired truck driver who defected from Cuba in 1971.

Ex-commissioner Hernandez entered politics as a Miami assistant city attorney before being fired in 1994 for conducting private business on the job. Sanchez began far from Dinner Key, lobbying state legislators in Tallahassee on behalf of the Florida Police Benevolent Association in 1996 and 1997. That's where he met his chief of staff, 32-year-old Eileen Taulbee, who left Republican State Rep. Annie Betancourt to work for Sanchez. It was also at the state capital that he met and befriended former state representative, now Dade County commissioner, Bruno Barreiro. Those ties could serve him well in his new job.

When Sanchez decided to leave the Florida Highway Patrol in order to run for the state house seat Barreiro vacated in May, police union members offered to help manage his campaign. A veteran lobbyist, Bob Levy, also offered aid. But in the end, Sanchez decided he would rather be a city commissioner.

Sanchez doesn't recall exactly how he was nominated. "My name came up, and the next thing you know the ball was rolling," he says, trying to reconstruct events. "[City Commissioner] Willy Gort called me for a meeting because he was, I guess, interviewing everybody. And then it just started. I spoke to [Commissioner J.L.] Plummer. Maybe I said I was interested in that seat."

Sanchez wasn't everyone's first choice, though. At the June 5 meeting commissioners rejected retired Miami High School principal Diego Garcia and Miriam Alonso, Jr. -- who was defeated largely because of her Metro commissioner mother's Dinner Key enemies. Commissioner J.L. Plummer nominated Sanchez. On the fourth round of voting, the others agreed.

"Crime is the number-one issue everywhere," Gort says. Part of Sanchez's appeal, says Gort, is a close connection to the Roads, located southeast of Little Havana and north of Brickell Avenue. "He was raised in that neighborhood, he's been there all of his life, he knows the problems there."

Sanchez joins the ranks of other present and former cops in the commission chambers. Mayor Joe Carollo was once a police officer. Interim City Manager Donald Warshaw also holds the job of police chief. And Plummer has old ties to police organizations, including the Florida Highway Patrol Advisory Board.

But just where is this ex-trooper coming from politically? "I think he's coming from the expressways," jokes Commissioner Tomas Regalado. "I would like to think that he's a nice young man who's interested in politics, who's very hungry in terms of public service. I haven't seen anything to let me believe otherwise."

But some of Sanchez's neighbors in the Roads aren't so enthusiastic about the new commissioner. They accuse him of embracing corporate heavyweights who want to plop a huge new museum into the quaint neighborhood with homes dating back to the Twenties. The city commission recently ignored its planning advisory board and voted 4-1 to allow the construction of a new Miami Children's Museum next to the Vizcaya Metrorail station. Sanchez's support was pivotal, largely because he was president of the Miami-Roads Neighborhood Civic Association. "Every mountain has two sides," says Sanchez, reciting his favorite aphorism for confronting controversial issues. But he seems to have firmly planted himself on one side of this issue.

"His association doesn't represent us where we live," grumbles Roads resident Rosa Herrera. "We're on the corner across from where they're going to put that monstrosity. It doesn't fit and the neighborhood doesn't want it." Sanchez himself lives about a mile and a half from the museum site.

"Sanchez is a typical Dade County politician, meaning that he goes with the powers that be and not necessarily with the interests of the people," huffs Roads resident Richard Pleban, another museum opponent. "He used his title as president of the Roads Neighborhood Civic Association as his entry to the city commission."

Museum foes also contend that Sanchez has a conflict of interest regarding the museum, one of the largest public/private projects proposed in the city. His wife Betty is an accountant for Greenberg Traurig, the firm that represents museum backers. Sanchez insists the connection has nothing to do with his pro-museum stance. He says development near the Metrorail station is inevitable. "Besides," he adds, "it will be great for the kids."

Greenberg Traurig lawyer Lucia Dougherty met Sanchez a few months ago at a Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association meeting but didn't find out until later that Betty was his wife. She says there's no conflict. "I didn't even know he had a bent for politics at the time," Dougherty asserts. "I think he's got the looks for a politician, though," she adds.

Other Miamians are also suspicious of Sanchez's recent resignation from the highway patrol and decision to enter politics full-time. "He doesn't have a job and he's going to run for city commissioner, and he had been planning to run for Bruno Barreiro's seat?" ponders a Coconut Grove lawyer who frequents commission meetings but requested anonymity. "It scares me, because what it tells me is that he's getting money from somewhere else that we don't know about. And that's dangerous." City commissioners make $5000 a year. Sanchez says he's going to have to look for a job, though he's not sure what kind.

Sanchez insists he simply wants to help his community. "When you see my votes, you'll realize that I'm an independent guy," he promises. "I'm everybody's friend." As for whether he can be swayed by graft, Sanchez intones: "You have to remember who you represent. You represent the people."

But if things get too sticky at Dinner Key, Sanchez has a refuge at Dunkin' Donuts in Little Havana. Still morphing from cop to commissioner, he starts every morning at the doughnut joint, yapping about politics with compadres. The group has met for years at the greasy vinyl counter, and comprises young and old, powerful and powerless. Among the regulars: Miami Assistant Police Chief Raul Martinez. "I know where every Dunkin' Donuts is in the county," Sanchez jovially boasts. "I can't break away from that habit. A state trooper can't get away from a Dunkin' Donuts."

Manny Pacin, a regular at the Dunkin' Donuts sessions, hopes Sanchez will clean up city hall. "He's young, he's naive, but I think he can identify where trouble is and try to avoid it. He'll smarten up. He'll have to, to survive."

Others expect him to have a difficult time on Dinner Key. "How old are you?" talk show host Tomas Garcia Fuste asked the new commissioner recently. "Thirty-three," replied Sanchez with an angelic smile. Garcia Fuste cackled, "Oh. The same age as Christ." When he was crucified.

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