By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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His style is always combative, always intense. "Chris Korge is among the best, most tenacious bulldog presenters before the commission I have ever seen," says fellow lobbyist and political campaign consultant Phil Hamersmith. "He understands the political process very well. He is always extremely well prepared. If I were a company looking to do business in Dade County, I'd hire Chris Korge -- as well as myself, of course."
Preparation and tenacity, however, aren't the only reasons Korge has risen to the top of a highly competitive field. He has also marketed himself as the man to hire based on his access to local politicians and on his friendship with one politician in particular: Alex Penelas.
As Penelas's political fortunes have risen over the years -- from Hialeah city councilman to county commissioner to executive mayor of Miami-Dade County -- so has Korge's predominance over the local lobbying scene. "He has a very close relationship with Alex," Hamersmith observes. "The whole world knows this and he clearly uses it. Does he use it with Alex Penelas's permission and full knowledge? I don't think so. Alex understands some of it but probably not all of it."
Commissioner Barbara Carey agrees that much of Korge's influence stems from his relationship with the mayor. "He draws a lot of strength from that," she notes. "He's into everything. And I know some people don't like how aggressive he can be at times. They think he's a little Napoleon." (At five feet seven, Korge is often compared to diminutive despots.)
Despite Korge's close ties to the mayor, Carey adds, Penelas doesn't always go out of his way to help him. "I've seen incidents where the mayor wouldn't move stuff for him," she says, although she explains with a chuckle that may have been because the mayor had supporters on both sides of those particular issues and didn't want to alienate anyone.
Penelas did not respond to requests for an interview last week, but Korge denies he exploits his connection to the most powerful politician in the county. "I don't think I have ever compromised my friendship with Alex," he contends. "And it's kind of hard when you are involved in politics and you have clients before the county and the mayor is your friend. You've got to be overly sensitive to that."
Hogwash, retorts Hamersmith. "Chris uses Alex's name in a million ways. I have never been in a meeting with Chris Korge when he did not use Alex Penelas's name at least a dozen times. The second that Korge walks into the room it's like Penelas just walked in as well. Chris brings with him the persona of Alex Penelas."
Hamersmith zeros in on what he considers to be Korge's biggest problem: his tendency to let everyone know what he's doing, for whom he is raising money, and to whom he has access. "I think his ego is so far out of control that he hurts himself," Hamersmith asserts. "Chris is continually patting himself on the back while he talks to you. He does it so much that I bet he doesn't even realize he's doing it. You're not supposed to be so outspoken. You're supposed to be a quiet figure who works behind the scenes. But Chris can't do that. And so Chris often becomes the issue."
Nowhere has Korge's influence been more keenly felt than at Miami International Airport. He represents Sirgany-Century and Sirgany International, the companies that run the newsstands and gift shops, and he just persuaded the county commission to let Host-Marriott become the master developer for the airport's many restaurants and fast-food shops. "Of all the lobbyists in the county, I have the most contact with him," reports Gary Dellapa, the county's aviation director. "He is usually pretty up front about what he wants, and I appreciate that. He can be pretty assertive for his clients. I don't mind it so much because I'm used to it."
One way Korge has asserted himself in the past, Dellapa says, is by reminding him that he has powerful friends. "Every lobbyist in town likes to throw around that they are close to this commissioner or that commissioner, and Chris is no different," Dellapa elaborates. "He's attempted a few times in the past to invoke the mayor's name."
A couple of years ago, Dellapa recounts, soon after Penelas was elected mayor, Korge came out to the airport and began acting as if he were speaking on behalf of the mayor. One day Dellapa decided to call Korge's bluff. He picked up the phone and called Penelas. "I asked the mayor, 'Is this the way you want things done?'" Dellapa recalls. "And the mayor said, 'No, no, no.'"
After that incident, the aviation director notes, Korge stopped using the mayor's name during their discussions. "Chris knows better than to do that any more," Dellapa says. "A lot of times Chris is just bluster. He'll come in here and say, 'I'm going to do this' and 'I've got the votes to do that.' And my attitude is, 'Well, go do it, then.'"