Mission Impossible

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

The 35-year-old Knight is a soft-spoken gentle-giant of a man who grew up at the center of power. His father, who died in 1995, was offered the position of county manager on several occasions but always declined. Before retiring in 1988, Knight's father had served as the head of the county on an interim basis during three separate stints.

In the parking lot, Knight points to the number of people who showed up this morning at 8:00 to help. "There is no problem getting 80 people to work on a Saturday," he says. "They want to work. They'll work every day."

He welcomes the opportunity to spread a little money around the neighborhood in which he grew up. "Fifty dollars a day is a nice shot in the arm," he contends.

"Let's go! Let's go!" he says, urging his volunteers into the waiting vans that will shepherd them through the county. Each van will cover two precincts. The volunteers will leapfrog one another from block to block. "This is a very important issue. We need your best," he tells them.

The sky is heavy with rain. "That's all we need," Knight groans to himself, "rain today and on the 29th."

The workers are told where to put the literature and not to jump fences. "There are plenty of campaigns coming up," he says by way of incentive.

By 9:30 no one is in the empty parking lot but Knight, who is talking on his cell phone, and two helpers preparing his truck. Knight will spend the morning driving around coordinating the activity. He is cautiously optimistic after seeing a Miami Herald/NBC poll that shows the race in a dead heat.

"It's like a chess game in terms of strategy," he says. "Sometimes you don't have to worry about turnout. This one you do. Sometimes it's educating the public. In this one it is educating the public and getting the vote out. We need two or three more good days. We feel if we can get them to the polls they will vote for it. I think they will get 51 percent of Hispanics. It will be a referendum on Alex."

He is not worried about selling the issue in the black community. "We need transportation," he says. The community is also desperate for jobs and infrastructure, he continues.

Knight stops at a local rental agency to pick up a van. Campaigning in the black community is not as easy as it used to be. Back before the mid-Eighties all a politician had to do was go to Uncle Charlie.

"Charlie Hadley was the get-out-the-vote master," Knight recounts. "Nobody could do it as well as him. He was a legend. Congressmen, presidents, if they wanted something they had to come to Charlie."

The amply girthed Hadley died in 1985 at the age of 72 after almost 30 years in power without ever holding elected office. Following his death the machine he created, known as "Operation Big Vote," began to wither.

Today the leadership of the black community, including its elder stateswoman Rep. Carrie Meek, have come out for the mayor's plan. This political support is flagged in slick mailers sent to frequent voters and on promos that run constantly on black radio stations.

In a nod to the importance of the black vote, the night before the election Penelas attends a town meeting in Commissioner Dorrin Rolle's district. The William H. Turner Technical High School lunchroom is filled with several hundred constituents. The meeting begins with an invocation that includes a request to God to "please make sure the money is directed to the right places."

Perhaps sensing the end is near, Penelas is looser than he has been, even chiming in with an "amen" on one occasion. His executive assistant, Alfredo Mesa, marvels that despite the hectic pace, his boss still appears immaculate. "[Sgt. Eddie Hurtado] and I are all wrinkled," he comments, referring to the mayor's driver and bodyguard. "And he's always [perfect]."

Penelas begins: "As you can imagine I have given this speech about 1300 times. A good thing is that this will probably be one of the last times."

But unlike his other speeches the mayor hits the topic of employment with more force. The penny tax will bring jobs, he promises. "This program is more than just a transportation program," he says. "It is about economic survivability."

But the mistrust he encounters is the same that he has found across ethnic and age lines all over the county. "I fully understand that we live in a period of heightened government skepticism," he says. "People are concerned about our ability to spend this money. You are reminding me that these promises have been made before. 'This dog has already bit me once and I'm not going to let that happen again.' We have been listening very closely."

The mayor trundles out the stock response he has delivered at almost every one of those 1300 appearances. The citizen's oversight committee will ensure transparency. Rolle tells his constituents that the only thing a person gets from looking backward is a stiff neck.

One black politician has been conspicuously absent throughout the campaign: Miami City Commissioner Arthur Teele. Ferre and a Penelas confidant both tried to win his endorsement, he claims. Teele says he voted for the plan but held his nose while doing so. "It was a bad plan with good things in it," he says.

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