Mission Impossible

An emphatic mayor. Tons of polling. Heaps of money. But something went wrong with the Penelas campaign that couldn't.

It is the waning afternoon hours of a special election day, July 29, and the scene at the Spanish-language radio station WQBA-AM (1140) is frenetic. It's GOTV (Get Out the Vote) time -- the final push. Inside the broadcast booth long-time political consultant Herman Echevarria and the mayors of Sweetwater and South Miami exhort listeners to vote for a penny sales tax. The target audience is Hispanics under 50 years old driving home from work. Elderly Hispanics are assumed to have voted in the morning. It is the second 24-minute infomercial in what will be almost 90 minutes of pro-penny programming this afternoon.

"We will show that we support our own," Echevarria appeals to the listeners. "We will do something historic here today."

Across town Dewey Knight III drives through the streets of Carol and Liberty cities. He checks on his lieutenants who work the polls, handing out pro-tax propaganda, and urging drivers stopped at intersections to vote. Campaign research indicates that blacks represent the largest target of swing votes in this election. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas is depending on them to come out in force for his transportation plan. Almost every elected black official has campaigned on behalf of the tax.

"It is going to be on us again," sighs Knight, a lobbyist who was hired to run Penelas's campaign in black precincts.

Both Echevarria and Knight know there is no margin for error on this one. As part of a team of informal Penelas advisors, they have helped their mayor win elections in the past. Now they are involved in their hardest assignment to date: Convince the electorate to voluntarily increase its taxes.

As early as May the campaign's surveys of frequent voters showed that a low voter turnout could work in their favor, if only those supporting the tax came out to vote. (Publicly the mayor said he chose the election date in part because he was fearful there would be even fewer people around to vote in August. "Somebody might accuse us of trying to sneak in this thing," Penelas told the Miami Herald on June 18. "I am concerned that it would lead to a very low voter turnout.") A victory would be testimony to the political power of the tax's main protagonist and the efficacy of scientific political campaigning. At Penelas's prompting, on June 22 the county commission approved an ordinance that put the referendum to ballot.

In ethnically and racially Balkanized Miami-Dade, a politician needs two of the three Anglo, Hispanic, or black voting blocks to win a countywide election, according to Echevarria. Early polls suggested a close election, but there was a chance for victory. Anglos didn't support the tax and responded poorly to arguments in favor. Hispanics, who comprise a majority of the electorate, were divided. Blacks were more supportive. Slicing and dicing Miami-Dade's voting population by race, ethnicity, and age, the Penelas team tailored an individual message and strategy for the constituencies with whom they thought they had a chance.

But the surveys involved only "quality" voters: people who cast their ballot in the last four or five elections. The quality voters would come out in the dog days of summer for an election called just two months earlier. The wild card was what percentage of the remaining normally apathetic voters would join them.

The Penelas team stacked the mayor's plan with the promise of future gains for a multitude of interest groups. If the plan passed, funds from the penny tax, estimated to be $240 million annually initially, would supplant the current transportation budget of $103 million per year. A portion of that $103 million would find its way to a variety of special interests, including the arts, tourism, and education.

If the campaign strategy worked, the special interests slated to receive those millions would join in GOTV with organized labor, which supported the plan for its promise of unionized municipal jobs. Polls of frequent voters didn't register these groups, made up mainly of Anglos and affluent Hispanics. On election day it was hoped they would make the difference. In an ideal world, Echevarria envisioned a tie in the traditionally anti-tax Hispanic community, a large "yes" vote in the black community to neutralize the Anglos, and a big special-interest vote to put them over the top.

The tax team had done all the legwork required of a modern political campaign. They raised a staggering $1.8 million and convened focus groups. They scripted talking points, tested them, and then revised them. They mobilized a grassroots organization and launched an aggressive media campaign. They activated phone banks and mailed elegant, three-color pro-tax literature. For election day they arranged transportation to the polls and stocked precincts with eager advocates.

Yet as early as 2:00 p.m. on election day, Dewey Knight had detected a disturbing trend. "The Anglos are coming out," he fretted at the time. "If we make it, we will just nip them. We have to get more people on the street."

Voters in the black community traditionally cast their ballot between noon and three o'clock, according to Echevarria. Knight, whose political education began at the feet of his father, Dewey Knight, Jr., a former deputy county manager, knew not enough of the right people were showing up.

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