Mission Impossible

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

Penelas's advisors understood there was a tradeoff. "We knew that we would get a lot of grief to raise the money we needed to get the message out," says Katz.

Harper, a real estate broker with little to gain, proved to be one of the campaign's greatest assets: He raised more than a million dollars. Harper believes passionately that the county's transportation system is on the verge of a total collapse. His conclusion comes after 22 years of studying the issue for the transportation committee of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. When he started on the committee more than two decades ago, the goal was to find a dedicated source of funding for transportation. A continued failure to do so inspired his delivery of emotional speeches that included lines such as, "Miami is dying and you are [just] watching it."

"Given the opportunity I can convince 80 percent of the people I talk with that I am right," he asserts.

Penelas offered free bus service to the elderly
Jacob Bernstein
Penelas offered free bus service to the elderly

Harper began fundraising in January, even before Penelas had pledged his full support. "I was going to do it whether the mayor was going to go after it or not," he says. (Originally the chamber envisioned a several-year effort working with property owners to create a comprehensive plan.)

In his search for donors he obtained a list of everyone who had ever made money on a county contract. "No question that I went to the people who had a reason [to give] because that is where the money was," he says matter-of-factly.

He corralled eighteen volunteers, dubbed them captains, and divided them according to the industries they would target. Goals were set at weekly meetings. He even directed one of his own employees to work the phones full-time on behalf of the effort.

"It got easier as we went along," he says, comparing the effort to a minnow trap: Once a few are in, the rest follow.

The bulk of the contributors came from the construction industry, which stood to gain the most from the plan. Non-transportation special interests also donated generously, though some of them, it appeared, at least on the surface, would receive little direct benefit from the initiative. For example the Miami Museum of Science gave $50,000 to the campaign. Museum leaders justify the expense because they say a working Metrorail system would bring more patrons to the institution.

One of the largest donations was made by the Florida International University Foundation, which gave just under $300,000. FIU stood to gain $90 million for minority scholarships over twenty years.

The donation provoked criticism about whether a public institution, through its foundation, should be giving money to a political campaign. The Daily Business Review also revealed that some donors had given to the foundation as a way to funnel money to the (now poorly named) Transit Not Tolls political-action committee, so their gift could be tax-deductible.

"[Funneling money] wasn't the main focus," insists Brian May. "It is more conducive for folks to give to a foundation than a PAC [political action committee]."

The mayor's executive assistant Alfredo Mesa is standing outside the recording booth at Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710) waiting for Penelas to finish a show with station director Armando Perez Roura. Part of Mesa's job is to help manage the mayor's schedule. Penelas appeared on thirteen separate occasions at Mambí in the final week of the campaign, just part of a massive media push that kept him racing around town until the last moments.

The 24-year-old Mesa, who started working with Penelas as a high school volunteer, remembers a saying bandied about during the last mayoral campaign. He believes it sums up the importance of these final days. The author is unknown but the maxim goes: "In the valley of broken dreams, on the plains of hesitation, lie the blackened bones of countless men who on the dawn of victory decided to rest and while resting perished."

Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre enters the studio fresh from the taping of a television show. Despite running against each other in the mayoral primary, Penelas tapped Ferre to cochair the Transit Not Tolls PAC.

"Maurice has always been viewed as a visionary," says Ric Katz. "For a public image Maurice fits the bill. He could hit the ground running, he is Hispanic, and he knows the issues."

For his part the 64-year-old Ferre welcomed the opportunity to champion the importance of infrastructure and public transportation for what he believed to be one of the most significant referendums in 25 years. In the final weeks, his schedule of interviews and debates was almost as hectic as the mayor's.

While stumping for the tax, he enthusiastically followed the game plan to personify the campaign by playing up the image of the popular mayor. After an introduction by Perez Roura, he speaks to the listening audience. "This is a valiant act of this mayor of ours named Alex Penelas," he intones. "If it doesn't pass, I'm not saying he will lose [his next] election, but it will be hard for him. So don't only vote for the penny, vote for Alex Penelas."

Penelas himself competed for sympathy and the loyalty of supporters, particularly his base among elderly Hispanics. He begged voters who have stood by him in the past to do so one more time. On more than one radio show he said: "I've opened myself up like I've never done before. All the demagogues in town have seen this as an opportunity to get Alex Penelas."

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