Mission Impossible

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

Interspersed between the mayor's media appearances have been forums, luncheons, and visits to community centers. Two days before the election he makes a quick lunchtime run through the cafeterias of Miami's senior centers. He is accompanied by Mambí radio host Marta Flores. Mesa says Flores often accompanies the mayor when he visits the centers.

The mayor, a driver, Mesa, and Flores descend on an Allapattah community center. Penelas and Flores are greeted warmly by several hundred seniors assembled for lunch. Many of the older women beam with pride at the mayor, who basks in their adulation.

Flores begins by saying she understands taxes are a hard issue. An elderly man sitting at a table nearby interjects loudly: "It's not taxes; it's thievery." She continues to stress how important the vote is and then introduces Penelas. The mayor points out that the center's denizens know him well and have supported him in the past. He tells them about the free bus service for the elderly that the plan contains. A few clap. Within minutes he has finished his speech and the group is heading for the door.

Car dealer Norman Braman became the victim of radio attacks
courtesy Louis Wolfson II Media History Center
Car dealer Norman Braman became the victim of radio attacks
Penelas had high hopes the black community would support the plan
Jacob Bernstein
Penelas had high hopes the black community would support the plan

As the entourage prepares to leave, a small wrinkled woman follows Penelas and Flores out of the building to the Lincoln Town Car waiting to whisk them away. Yolanda Montes wags her finger and insistently chants, "No al penny! No al penny!" until the car has driven out of sight.

The pitch of free bus service failed to win over people like Montes. Similarly mistrust of government proved an insurmountable obstacle. Penelas had proposed a citizen's oversight body, chosen by the county commission, that would have the authority to conduct audits. In the end the creation of one board was not enough to ease the anger and anxiety about corrupt government.

There was a strategy to placate that opposition, according to one member of the campaign: Every municipality, for instance, would receive public-works money from the plan. There were also attempts to neutralize or incorporate political figures, lobbyists, and media personalities who might oppose the tax. According to one campaign official, the pacification efforts included payoffs to radio personalities.

Mambí's Marta Flores and Armando Perez Roura, who both supported the plan, hotly deny their favors were purchased. Indeed Perez Roura points out that the main figure against the campaign, car dealership magnate Norman Braman, appeared several times on Mambí.

"[Spanish-language radio hosts] were wonderful," Braman seconds. "If they did [give bribes] they didn't get their money's worth."

The campaign extracted a promise from frequent Penelas critic and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez that he would not join an organized opposition group. But this did not stop him from publicly lambasting the plan at every opportunity.

"I am not in any group like I promised you," Martinez says during an impromptu debate with Maurice Ferre on Matias Farias's show on La Poderosa (WWFE-AM 670) the day before the election. "This is a Christmas tree with more lights than I have ever seen."

"This Raul is an eagle," jokes Ferre. "Where [he] puts his eye, he puts a bullet."

In the humorous conversation between two old friends that followed, Martinez raised the issue of county government's support for the plan. The county budget had been predicated on passing the tax. Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim put pro-tax literature in the paychecks of all employees, pushed it on the county's public-access television station, and solicited volunteers from all county departments. (Stierheim says the volunteers were never called on.)

"The other question I have is, how can the government be partly paying for a political campaign?" Martinez asked. "I have a ballot to separate Hialeah from Dade County and I'd like to see if the county will help pay for that campaign."

On the Monday before the election, Braman flew back from the south of France to campaign against the tax. The worst fears of Penelas's campaigners were about to come true. They would now have to fight against an opponent with real money. In an effort to respond to his comments blanketed across Spanish-language radio and television, the mayor's team went negative, attacking the credibility of their accuser.

"It is very clear," political consultant Herman Echevarria remarks on one of the last election-day radio programs. "Why would a [car sales] businessman invest millions? He is just looking for a dollar."

As the campaign ended, the attacks turned ugly on both sides. One radio commercial in particular raised eyebrows. In it a husband says to his wife: "Y que se Honda el vendedor millionario de carros." The phrase is a play on words that alludes to both a car Braman sells and a vulgarism that roughly translates to "let the millionaire screw himself."

Braman himself repeatedly attacked county government as a den of thieves. In an impromptu radio debate election morning, Penelas forced Braman to admit he didn't believe the mayor himself was corrupt. Ferre apologized to Braman the same morning, giving the car dealer more ammunition for his own attacks throughout the day.

"[The attacks] became way too much of the message," concedes another campaign official.

On a hot, humid Saturday morning five days before the election, about 80 people gather in a Burger King parking lot in Liberty City. These are Dewey Knight's soldiers. Most of them are being paid 50 dollars to distribute leaflets to homes in the county's black neighborhoods. (In Hialeah pollworkers also received 50 dollars for a day's work.)

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