Mission Impossible

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

It is the waning afternoon hours of a special election day, July 29, and the scene at the Spanish-language radio station WQBA-AM (1140) is frenetic. It's GOTV (Get Out the Vote) time -- the final push. Inside the broadcast booth long-time political consultant Herman Echevarria and the mayors of Sweetwater and South Miami exhort listeners to vote for a penny sales tax. The target audience is Hispanics under 50 years old driving home from work. Elderly Hispanics are assumed to have voted in the morning. It is the second 24-minute infomercial in what will be almost 90 minutes of pro-penny programming this afternoon.

"We will show that we support our own," Echevarria appeals to the listeners. "We will do something historic here today."

Across town Dewey Knight III drives through the streets of Carol and Liberty cities. He checks on his lieutenants who work the polls, handing out pro-tax propaganda, and urging drivers stopped at intersections to vote. Campaign research indicates that blacks represent the largest target of swing votes in this election. Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas is depending on them to come out in force for his transportation plan. Almost every elected black official has campaigned on behalf of the tax.

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

"It is going to be on us again," sighs Knight, a lobbyist who was hired to run Penelas's campaign in black precincts.

Both Echevarria and Knight know there is no margin for error on this one. As part of a team of informal Penelas advisors, they have helped their mayor win elections in the past. Now they are involved in their hardest assignment to date: Convince the electorate to voluntarily increase its taxes.

As early as May the campaign's surveys of frequent voters showed that a low voter turnout could work in their favor, if only those supporting the tax came out to vote. (Publicly the mayor said he chose the election date in part because he was fearful there would be even fewer people around to vote in August. "Somebody might accuse us of trying to sneak in this thing," Penelas told the Miami Herald on June 18. "I am concerned that it would lead to a very low voter turnout.") A victory would be testimony to the political power of the tax's main protagonist and the efficacy of scientific political campaigning. At Penelas's prompting, on June 22 the county commission approved an ordinance that put the referendum to ballot.

In ethnically and racially Balkanized Miami-Dade, a politician needs two of the three Anglo, Hispanic, or black voting blocks to win a countywide election, according to Echevarria. Early polls suggested a close election, but there was a chance for victory. Anglos didn't support the tax and responded poorly to arguments in favor. Hispanics, who comprise a majority of the electorate, were divided. Blacks were more supportive. Slicing and dicing Miami-Dade's voting population by race, ethnicity, and age, the Penelas team tailored an individual message and strategy for the constituencies with whom they thought they had a chance.

But the surveys involved only "quality" voters: people who cast their ballot in the last four or five elections. The quality voters would come out in the dog days of summer for an election called just two months earlier. The wild card was what percentage of the remaining normally apathetic voters would join them.

The Penelas team stacked the mayor's plan with the promise of future gains for a multitude of interest groups. If the plan passed, funds from the penny tax, estimated to be $240 million annually initially, would supplant the current transportation budget of $103 million per year. A portion of that $103 million would find its way to a variety of special interests, including the arts, tourism, and education.

If the campaign strategy worked, the special interests slated to receive those millions would join in GOTV with organized labor, which supported the plan for its promise of unionized municipal jobs. Polls of frequent voters didn't register these groups, made up mainly of Anglos and affluent Hispanics. On election day it was hoped they would make the difference. In an ideal world, Echevarria envisioned a tie in the traditionally anti-tax Hispanic community, a large "yes" vote in the black community to neutralize the Anglos, and a big special-interest vote to put them over the top.

The tax team had done all the legwork required of a modern political campaign. They raised a staggering $1.8 million and convened focus groups. They scripted talking points, tested them, and then revised them. They mobilized a grassroots organization and launched an aggressive media campaign. They activated phone banks and mailed elegant, three-color pro-tax literature. For election day they arranged transportation to the polls and stocked precincts with eager advocates.

Yet as early as 2:00 p.m. on election day, Dewey Knight had detected a disturbing trend. "The Anglos are coming out," he fretted at the time. "If we make it, we will just nip them. We have to get more people on the street."

Voters in the black community traditionally cast their ballot between noon and three o'clock, according to Echevarria. Knight, whose political education began at the feet of his father, Dewey Knight, Jr., a former deputy county manager, knew not enough of the right people were showing up.

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."

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.

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."

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.)

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.

Teele believes Penelas's promise of jobs in the black community boomeranged. "They walked into their own artillery," he says. Black men voted against it.

"They didn't recognize the deep concern black men have that they can't get jobs because they go to Hispanics," he continues.

By the end of election day, Knight and those who worked the black community will have been only partly successful. Black turnout is average and only Liberty City will vote resoundingly for the penny tax.

Brian May speculates that residents are still angry about broken promises regarding the Miami Arena and the jobs that never arrived.


Sometime shortly after the polls closed on election day, the rain finally broke with a fierce but short-lived intensity. Even a daylong downpour probably wouldn't have given Penelas a victory. Much of the campaign had backfired. The team had followed all the right strategies: They amassed a war chest, took polls, spread the pork, and called in favors from special interests. They did everything but involve the public.

The slick, well-financed organization, which had worked so well in the past, gave voters the impression they were being sold snake oil. The $1.8 million raised from the construction industry and other interests stirred suspicions of quid pro quos. The campaign's effort to create a broad plan to generate support from many special-interest groups brought accusations of a bait and switch. The hope that these special-interest groups would provide a deciding "yes" vote disappeared in the large turnout.

Those who voted against it had not been given the chance, through community meetings and other forums, to buy into the proposal's creation and assert ownership of it. The campaign wagered on voter apathy, usually a safe bet, unless the electorate's own money is at stake. On election day the campaign's precise voter arithmetic got lost in the sea of anger.

But penny-tax campaign strategist Brian May believes the idea that the citizenry is motivated enough to show up at meetings to shape their own future is a myth.

"I would submit to you right now that we could hold charettes and meetings [about transportation] and nobody would come," he insists. "People don't care unless it is sitting on a ballot and they have to pay for it."

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