Alex Penelas's Rite of Passage

But as I said, all that changed last week.
Last week, standing before the county commission, Penelas became his own man. Brushing aside his advisers' warnings, he advocated raising the sales tax by a penny in order to establish a long-overdue dedicated source of funding for transportation. For once this was not the popular thing to do.

"Today we are considering an issue that is much more important than a transportation plan," he declared. "This is about our future vision for Miami-Dade County and where we want this community to go. This is more than just about buying new buses, which we desperately need, and doubling our fleet. It's about the quality of life we are going to be providing to present and future Miami-Dade Countians. This is more than just about expanding Metrorail by 90 new corridor miles, which is also desperately needed, but it is also about bringing 60,000 new jobs to the people of Miami-Dade County in the next twenty years."

I'm telling you, folks, mark that day on your calendar. On June 22, 1999, 981 days into his term as mayor, Alex Penelas finally began acting like one.

Watching the commission meeting unfold, I thought I was witnessing Penelas's political bar mitzvah. I kept expecting chairwoman Gwen Margolis to run to his side, tuck a 50-dollar bill in his shirt pocket, give him a big kiss on the cheek, and cry, "Today you are a man!"

It wasn't easy. Penelas was a reluctant warrior. Transportation, after all, isn't a sexy issue. He's not going to get written up in the Wall Street Journal or Time magazine for replacing the county's ancient bus fleet.

And I couldn't help but remember Penelas's behavior regarding an earlier transportation tax. Three years ago he led the charge in repealing a portion of the county's five-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. He was shameless on this issue, claiming that the $12 or $15 per year (per year!) the average motorist would save if the tax were repealed would make a significant difference in the lives of Dade County's poorest citizens.

Naturally Penelas wasn't stupid enough to actually believe that saving $12 per year would ease the poor's suffering. (Who did he think he was, Sally Struthers? "This is Alex Penelas, and for just pennies a day you can make a difference in a poor Dade Countian's life.") No, the only person Penelas was trying to help by repealing the gas tax was Alex Penelas. He was pandering to the public, particularly to the people who listen to Spanish-language radio. He was, in a word, gutless. But it worked and he won the mayor's race, in part because of his disgraceful performance with the gas tax.

Three years later he finds himself the mayor of the third-most-congested metropolitan area in the nation. (Oh my, how did that happen?) Obviously the gas tax would not have been enough to solve the county's transportation woes, but it did show a commitment on the part of local leaders to try to address the issue. When the county commission repealed a portion of that tax in 1996, it sent a signal that Dade wasn't serious about facing its problems.

Penelas was reminded of that earlier this year, during trips to Tallahassee and Washington. He apparently thought his boyish good looks and insider contacts were enough to get him all the money he wanted from state and federal officials. They weren't. Officials made it clear to Penelas they didn't think he was all that cute anymore.

At the state capital, the governor, Miami's own Jeb Bush, allocated $15 million for transportation projects in Miami-Dade County. But when the governor's budget plan reached the House and the Senate, it expired. The money for Miami-Dade County was stripped out as legislators from other parts of Florida, citing Penelas's efforts to repeal the gas tax, decided the county didn't deserve help from the state. It was only through the efforts of several legislators, most notably State Rep. Willie Logan and State Sen. Daryl Jones, that five million dollars were restored to the budget for Miami-Dade County.

In Washington the news has been even worse. In meeting after meeting with senior transportation officials in Congress and the Clinton administration, Penelas was warned that without a dedicated source of revenue for transportation, Miami-Dade County didn't stand a chance for getting any projects funded by the federal government.

Then in March County Manager Merrett Stierheim did what a leader is supposed to do. He led. He made it clear there was a crisis and that time was running out, so he proposed raising the sales tax by a penny, which would generate nearly $240 million per year for transportation.

Penelas appeared to have been blind-sided by his own county manager, and a day later he came out against raising the sales tax. He said he would come up with his own plan to solve the transportation crisis, and in the meantime he tried to shift the public's attention to the Miami Expressway Authority, publicly vilifying it for raising tolls. After several weeks he offered a plan that looked very similar to what the county manager had proposed. But the mayor suggested the vote on the sales tax should take place only after the public had been educated about transportation issues -- perhaps in 2001, after he'd safely been re-elected mayor.

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