A Day of Reckoning

Less than ten minutes after the county commission voted to pass the gay rights ordinance, a stunned Miriam Alonso rose from the dais, walked solemnly to her office, closed the door, and threw an old-fashioned, wall-rattling temper tantrum. She screamed. She ranted. She raved. According to several bystanders who walked by Alonso's office at the time, the commissioner could be heard shouting for several minutes. Miriam Alonso was once again a loser.

For more than a week leading up to last week's commission meeting, Alonso had positioned herself as the commissioner who would decide the ordinance's fate. She believed there were six votes in favor and six opposed, with only her vote remaining undecided. It was a position she loved because it made her relevant.

Since her election to the county commission two years ago, Alonso has struggled to find just such a position of relevance. It hasn't been easy. She's not particularly smart or articulate, and there isn't much about her that is likable. But with this ordinance, Alonso apparently thought she had stumbled upon an issue in which her views mattered. She would be the center of attention.

In the end, though, it was Alonso's pettiness that cost her the respect and attention she so craves. Many people close to her believe she favored the ordinance, which bars discrimination against homosexuals in housing and the workplace. Alonso decided, however, to oppose the measure out of a combination of political cynicism and personal spite. Thanks to her husband's constant prodding, she came to believe that the safest thing she could do politically was vote against the ordinance. Plus she couldn't get over the animosity she harbored toward some of the ordinance's supporters, me among them.

She was particularly angry at my report last month that she voted in favor of granting the ordinance a public hearing following a personal appeal from Mayor Alex Penelas. In the days leading up to the vote, Alonso told people my column made her seem like a puppet of the mayor. This time, she vowed, her vote would show everyone she was willing to stand up to Penelas.

How pathetic.
In addition to demonstrating her independence, Alonso expected that she would be the deciding vote. Right? Wrong.

Alonso had assumed that Dennis Moss, who had voted against the ordinance in the past, would vote against it again. He didn't. As soon as he voted in favor, and the ordinance passed 7-6, the commission chambers erupted in celebration. Katy Sorenson, sponsor of the ordinance, leapt from her seat to thank Moss. Others in the crowd waved at the South Dade commissioner and applauded his decision. All around the dais, supporters of the ordinance hugged each other and wept for joy. And as the noise settled and the commission chambers cleared, Miriam Alonso slipped back into a well-earned position of insignificance.

As that realization sank in, she left the dais, walked back to her office, and lost it. Her chief of staff, Elba Morales, disputes reports of a hissy fit. She says she and her boss enjoyed a quiet lunch together. "Commissioner Alonso was not angry at anything," Morales claims.

Silly to deny it. But in any event, it will probably be one of the last times Alonso's voice will be heard.

Dennis Moss had spent the 48 hours prior to the commission vote in bed with a nasty flu. When he woke up December 1, he was running a 103-degree fever and felt sick to his stomach. "Unless I was in the hospital, I was going to be there," Moss recalls a few days later. "This was a major, major issue in this community, and I knew I had to be there to cast my vote. It was just important for me to do that."

As he drove to county hall, Moss says, he was still unsure how he was going to vote, but he was leaning in favor of the ordinance. Eighteen months ago, when the measure was first introduced by then-Commissioner Bruce Kaplan, Moss voted against the ordinance. Today he acknowledges that his opposition was based in part on his distrust of Kaplan. "When this issue first came up [in 1997]," he explains, "I wasn't so sure that it was a genuine effort on the part of the sponsor."

This time the ordinance was sponsored by Sorenson, a commissioner Moss likes and respects, and who shares many of his views on issues facing the county. Despite that, a month earlier Moss had voted against allowing a public hearing on the ordinance. He says he thought the public wasn't ready to deal with the issue. But once a public hearing was approved and scheduled for December 1, Moss requested that the county's Community Relations Board hold a series of town meetings so people could learn more about the ordinance. "I felt it was important to create some sort of community education process," he says. "Until that process actually occurred, I didn't feel I could support moving the ordinance forward."

As a result of those meetings, as well as media efforts to clarify that the ordinance had nothing to do with gay marriage or health care benefits for gay partners, Moss says he was able to see it for what it truly was -- a measure outlawing discrimination. "Unquestionably, in my mind," he says, "I know the gay community faces discrimination in this community and across this country."

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