Alex Penelas's Rite of Passage

Last week something remarkable happened. Something I wasn't certain was possible. Last week Alex Penelas became mayor.

Oh, sure, I know he was elected mayor back in 1996, but all that did was confer on him a title. Until now Penelas has simply been playing mayor. He dresses up in his suit, and he makes earnest speeches at the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, and he flies off to Washington to hobnob with powerful people who tell him he's a rising star. But let's face it: He hasn't really accomplished much since being elected. He's been a strong mayor who refused to do any heavy lifting.

Look at his record. He spent his first year in office showing up at crime scenes and plane crashes, assuring everyone he was in charge. He was his own Al Haig. Eventually Penelas recognized that arriving by helicopter every time there was a catastrophe, while getting him major face-time on TV, was actually bad for his overall image. The public began associating him with carnage. He was Dade's Angel of Death. Even when he'd appear at some normal, noncalamity-related county event, people would look around for bloody corpses and sniff the air for burning jet fuel.

Penelas staked out some bold policy initiatives that first year. He declared, for instance, that crime was a bad thing, and announced a novel plan using these things called "police officers" to fight the bad crime. I remember thinking at the time that Penelas was taking a chance here, because criminals might be less willing to vote for him in the future. But then I learned Penelas's handlers had already done some polling on this issue and discovered felons aren't allowed to vote, so they really weren't much of a threat at the ballot box.

After the first two years of his administration, Penelas proudly pointed out, crime had fallen. Of course he neglected to mention that crime had fallen the two years prior to his being elected, and that the crime rate has been down across the nation, not just in that tiny portion of it governed by Penelas. But why nitpick.

During the past two years, Penelas further refined his "Crime Is Bad" strategy by stating unequivocally that he thinks it is wrong for children to shoot other children with handguns and assault rifles. This belief prompted Penelas, on behalf of the county, to sue gun manufacturers, claiming they should do more to make guns safer and to keep them out of the hands of criminals. Some have argued that Penelas's decision to square off against the National Rifle Association was actually the moment he finally showed political gumption. I disagree. Don't get me wrong, I applaud the lawsuit and its aims. But I also realize it is a very chic bit of litigation. All Penelas did was jump on a bandwagon with a bunch of other Democratic mayors to sue the gun makers. Why? Because that's what good Democrats are doing these days, especially Democrats who are hoping to have a place in a future Al Gore administration.

(Penelas's obsession with Gore is a different issue altogether. He isn't just trying to curry favor with the vice president; he's stalking him. He follows him around the country trying to get noticed. Last year in St. Louis, Penelas reportedly hip-checked the pope so he could get closer to Gore during a photo op.)

Crime and guns aren't the only matters the mayor has dealt with. He has also led a crusade on the weighty issue of diaper-changing stations in men's restrooms. Talk about a load of crap. This issue reeked of a PR stunt. I can just picture all the mayor's men sitting around saying, "How can we endear Alex to women voters? Sure he's got those dreamy Eddie Munster good looks, but isn't there something we can do to show his sensitive side?" BAM! Diaper-changing stations. Shows he's a modern, caring dad who's not afraid to handle a dirty diaper. Next thing you know, restaurants all over Miami-Dade County are ripping out Korean War-era condom machines in their bathrooms to make space for changing stations.

Suffice it to say Penelas has never been a risk-taker, especially when his future is at stake. You never hear the words bold, innovative, or maverick used to describe his administration. Penelas has treated the mayor's job as if it were the political equivalent of high school senior class president. Being popular, he knew, was the key to success. And since everyone knows you can't make a career out of being senior class president, you view it as a stepping stone, something that helps you get into a top out-of-state college. In Penelas's case that would be a good post in Washington as a senator or a cabinet officer or (dare we say it?) vice president of the United States.

To remain popular you must tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. To find out what they want to hear, you conduct polls, and the mayor employs one of the best pollsters in the country, Keith Frederick. Penelas loves polls. Penelas lives by polls. Penelas is surrounded by more polls than Lech Walesa. Whenever a contentious issue arises and you hear the mayor's spokesman say, "The mayor doesn't have a comment at this time, he's still formulating his position on that issue," it means Frederick is frantically taking a poll to see what the mayor's beliefs should be.

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