Alex Penelas's Rite of Passage

Federal officials, however, made it clear to Penelas that 2001 wasn't an option. There was a only a small window of opportunity during which federal money would be available. If the county wanted to be considered for those funds, it would have to apply by mid-August of this year.

The short notice was partly Penelas's fault as well. In his zeal to consolidate power, he had abolished the commission's committee system. Those commissioners who sat on the transportation committee usually kept track of such looming and important deadlines. But Penelas did away with all that, and now he was paying the price.

Suddenly the mayor found himself at the proverbial crossroads. He had ducked and dodged all he could. It was decision time. His advisers were urging him to scrap the penny-sales-tax plan. They told him that as things stood now, he would coast to re-election in 2000. Why risk angering the Hispanic community, which is pathologically deranged on the issue of taxes? If the measure lost, it would be a humiliating defeat in which the mayor would have placed his credibility on the line but couldn't deliver the votes. If it passed he'd be tagged by future political opponents as a tax-and-spend liberal. That added up to a no-win situation.

Politically his advisers were right. And normally for Penelas being politically right is all that matters. But for some reason, on this particular issue, the mayor began talking about the greater good. He told his staff there are times when a politician must do what he knows is right, not merely what he thinks is expedient. He'd made up his mind, he said. They were going to move ahead with the sales-tax plan.

Truth be told, the details of the mayor's transportation plan are less important than the tax itself. Projects can change. Priorities can shift. Perhaps we will spend less on Metrorail and more on buses. The immediate concern is establishing a dedicated source of revenue for transportation needs.

Toward that end Penelas has worked hard to gain support for his initiative. He's brought aboard the business community and the unions. He's attempted to neutralize, or at least temper, the zealots on Spanish-language radio. He's called on an old foe, Maurice Ferre, to head up the citizens committee that will raise money for the campaign leading up to the July 29 referendum. He's tossed in some additional funding for the arts and social-welfare programs as a sweetener. But most important he has remained front and center on the issue.

This is his campaign, his fight. And no matter how it ends, it's good to see him out there finally swinging.

Mazel tov.

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