Mission Impossible

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

Now, as Echevarria wraps up his infomercial at WQBA, less than two hours are left. Outside the booth political aides and media coordinators work their cell phones. Francois Illas, an assistant to Echevarria, frowns at the window that shows a sky threatening rain. A downpour will make much of the present effort to deliver a "yes" a waste of time.

Illas explains the problem: Hispanics don't go out to vote in the rain. "If they ain't in a bathing suit, they don't like getting wet," he says with a smile.

A light flashes on the control board and a WQBA technician picks up the telephone. "No news today," he responds to a caller who is wondering why normal programming has been preempted. "We have pelota (Cuban slang for baseball) all afternoon."

By 5:00 p.m. Channel 7 showed a massive turnout
By 5:00 p.m. Channel 7 showed a massive turnout
Mayor Alex Penelas delivered his stump speech more than  1000 times
Jacob Bernstein
Mayor Alex Penelas delivered his stump speech more than 1000 times

For Penelas's crew this campaign is all but over. It will be a blowout. In just a few hours the mayor will publicly acknowledge defeat in a conference room in the government center. An impressive 234,309 people -- nearly 30 percent of registered voters -- turned out for a summer referendum 2-1 against the tax. (In Hialeah, where Echevarria mobilized a machine of 800 pollworkers, the plan lost nearly 3-1.) The only areas carried by the campaign were Miami Beach and Liberty City. Voters, distrustful of politics as usual, came to the game but refused to play ball.

Polltaking is a necessary part of modern politics, insists Ric Katz. The public relations man, transportation expert, and political campaigner forms part of the Penelas inner circle. "I don't give political opinions until I see the x-rays," he declares. "The polls tell us how to phrase the issue; they don't make the decision."

Initial surveys indicated how hard it would be to sell the issue to voters. Even before the ballot proposal the polls only showed a 54 percent approval rating. This was expected to drop when a referendum date was announced, thus becoming tangible to voters.

Echevarria says he told the mayor the penny tax would be impossible. According to others involved in the campaign, he was not the only one among the mayor's advisors to voice their opposition. Echevarria says Penelas informed them he would do it anyway. The mayor's willingness to push a tax for public transportation was widely lauded as courageous. Throughout the campaign Penelas told constituents he wished he had more time to persuade them but the federal government's September deadline to apply for transportation funds forced his hand. Those monies, he explained, would not be available unless the county could show it had a dedicated funding source to contribute, and fast.

A quick campaign might have its advantages, however, if enough organizations and institutions bought into the plan and a traditionally apathetic electorate stayed home. To what degree this theory influenced the decision to go ahead is unclear.

(Penelas refused to discuss the campaign with New Times after the election and forbade his staff from talking on the subject as well.)

In the past Penelas had repeatedly relied on Capitol Hill pollster Keith Fredericks to take the pulse of Dade's electorate. This occasion was no different. During the week of May 11 he surveyed 800 of those "quality" voters. The sample demographic was 44 percent Hispanic, 32 percent Anglo, 14 percent black, and 12 percent Jewish. The margin of error was 3.5 percent. Based on the results of the poll, Fredericks reached a conclusion: "We want (and probably need) a very low turnout and a quick election."

The pollster determined the ideal voters to favor the plan would be Cuban men under age 50, black females over 40, Anglo female Democrats under 50, Jews under 65, and non-Cuban Hispanics. Efforts to get out a positive vote would concentrate on this unlikely coalition.

Additional polls further refined the message. A July 2 synopsis compiled by Fredericks from four focus groups polled in June revealed that Cubans over 50 had three main concerns: They believed they couldn't afford the tax increase; they didn't see a gain for themselves; and they questioned whether they could trust the government with their money. Attitudes began to change, however, when they learned how the mayor's public transportation system would bring benefits to them, such as free service for the elderly. An appeal to community pride and the well-being of future generations also seemed to work.

Younger Hispanics with large families were more inclined to be supportive, according to a memo Fredericks wrote about the poll. "Like all other groups, these voters are aware of this issue, highly cynical of giving money to Metro government, wary of life 'under construction,' and hungry for details about the proposed Metrorail/bus system," he wrote. "But something in these voters (maybe it is Penelas or maybe it is their family status) makes them willing to go along with the tax."

Selling the plan to blacks would also take some effort, the poll revealed. "Normal voter cynicism is amplified by the "us" (we have no power) versus "them" (Hispanics) mentality," Fredericks explained.

The promise of jobs would help convert blacks if they could be convinced that the employment benefits would really arrive. "Somehow we must assure blacks that the deck will not be stacked against the black community here," the pollster wrote.

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