Mission Impossible

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

Anglos, particularly in South Miami-Dade, would be much more difficult to convince. The polls showed they were bitter about unrealized Metrorail service, endemic corruption, monies diverted, and never-ending construction projects.

Based on the polls of May and June, Washington, D.C.-based political consultant Tad Devine helped fashion messages for the campaign. On July 1 Devine sent a memo to Brian May, former Penelas chief of staff and one of the campaign's main strategists. The document signaled an important shift in strategy: Voters could be supportive if they were educated on the plan.

The idea of a stealth campaign was rejected as impractical. "They were trying to keep it simple and not talk about the issue," recalls one campaign insider. "The idea was to go for low voter turnout. Don't awaken the Cuban community; keep the monster asleep. And you can't keep that monster asleep."

Penelas even appeared on the radio with frequent critic Matias Farias
Jacob Bernstein
Penelas even appeared on the radio with frequent critic Matias Farias
Voter interviews on channels 7 and 23 were hostile to government and taxes
video stills courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media Histo
Voter interviews on channels 7 and 23 were hostile to government and taxes

Herman Echevarria and others involved in the effort insist they never seriously thought they could sneak the election past voters.

Devine recommended against a "turn-off-the-lights" campaign, whereby pro-tax forces would stay away from television and only focus on certain segments of the electorate. They couldn't depend on a low turnout. They needed a large vote in favor. It was also clear that without knowledge of the plan, voters definitely wouldn't support it.

Devine advised May to back away from the "Transit Not Tolls" slogan the campaign was using. Polling indicated the promised removal of a handful of tolls in exchange for a penny sales tax did not sufficiently excite the electorate. He recommended instead that campaigners emphasize a single penny and trade in on the mayor's popularity, particularly among Hispanics.

The campaigners hoped their boyishly handsome and charismatic 37-year-old mayor would melt resistance with the warmth of his popularity. "You can't pass a tax without a champion," says Brian May. "The community trusts him."

Devine agreed and Alex Penelas became the focal point of the strategy. The campaign would use the mayor primarily to target Hispanics, the largest voter group with 42 percent of registered voters.

"The Spanish-language radio should be dominated by Mayor Penelas, who is our strongest weapon in that community," Devine urged in the memo. "I would recommend limiting his broadcast presence to radio since we are likely to raise scrutiny if we used him in one televised venue (in Spanish-language television) and not in the English venue."

But by the end of the campaign Penelas would appear on almost all available media in a frantic dash to the finish.

Devine suggested the message should focus on the undeniable reality of Miami-Dade County's traffic nightmare. Stump speeches would begin with justifiable anxiety over worsening traffic.

"It's clear from the poll that the 'fear of the future' argument is the strongest," Devine wrote. "The voters clearly understand that this [traffic] problem is bad and it is getting worse."

No help could be expected from the media. Devine warned reporting would likely be negative. "This includes sensational coverage from television stations that will exploit opportunities such as the continuation of tolls on state highways and the prospect of future tolls to sensationalize aspects of this campaign," he wrote to May in the early July memo. "Additionally the print media, including the Miami Herald, may editorialize in favor of this but we are likely to see negative news coverage."

The strategy (stressing traffic, targeting special groups, and boosting the mayor) was set, only now a quick election had become an enemy, not an ally.

In the end the Penelas team miscalculated. On election day people came out in droves for an issue that directly affected their wallets, and they flatly rejected the $1.8 million effort. The focus on "quality" voters had been shortsighted. At the Carol City United Methodist Church polling place, the campaign had identified and focused on 131 quality voters in the precinct, but a total of 340 voters cast a ballot. Of those, 224 voted against the plan. In Hialeah it was no better. At Milander Auditorium 846 voters came out, 619 against, when only 340 quality votes had been identified.


The modern campaign based on commercials, mail, and grassroots mobilization does not come cheap, particularly for an issue that few embrace.

"[We knew] we would need a lot of money," says Allen Harper, chief fundraiser for the penny-tax campaign. "Nobody likes a tax increase."

Roughly 75 percent of the money raised went to publicizing the tax plan in the media, with the remaining funds used for Get Out the Vote, according to Brian May, who directed the dollars. As of July 25, Penelas's inner circle of advisors received more than $500,000, which went for media, GOTV, and their own expertise. (The campaign treasury reports for the final four days, which will reveal what happened to the leftover $336,620, will not be filed until October.) BVK Meka, Herman Echevarria's firm, received $273,590 for its services. Dewey Knight's agency received $105,000 for the work he and his partner Bill Perry undertook. Keith Fredericks's polling and advice cost the campaign $63,367. Ric Katz's firm received $20,174. Tad Devine's firm's work cost $8955. Brian May's firm, Strategic Edge, received $15,306.

When campaign officials approached media consultant Pedro Milian to conduct the push on Spanish radio and television, his assessment was brutally simple. "I told them, 'Bring a lot of money and spend all that you can,'" he remembers.

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