Brothers to the Rescue

On the county commission, Miguel has done his share of that. Along with Katy Sorenson, he has been a consistent voice decrying the power of special interests in county government, and he has offered more legislation to control its corrupting influence than any of his colleagues. At times, however, Miguel has proven to be his own biggest problem. During his first few years on the dais, he tended to alienate fellow commissioners with his self-righteousness, losing votes he might otherwise have won had he not been quite so arrogant. Time appears to have taught him the value of humility and patience, even if some would say he still has a way to go.

During last fall's budget hearings, he outshone the mayor, the manager, and his fellow commissioners by deftly moving money to worthy programs that were about to be overlooked. The only serious blemish on his record was his refusal to support last year's gay-rights ordinance. Miguel maintains that his vote on the measure was based on his belief that government involvement in the issue was not warranted, not on some political motivation to curry favor with conservative voters.

In fact he acknowledges that vote will almost certainly hurt his chances to become mayor. The issue may resurface as religious conservatives attempt to place a measure on the ballot that would repeal the ordinance. A petition drive is under way, and the ballot language may soon come to the commission for approval. Would he vote to place the question on the ballot? "My statement," he responds, "is that that issue has already come before us, we dealt with the issue, and it's time to move forward."

Brothers Diaz de la Portilla in younger days
Brothers Diaz de la Portilla in younger days

He is equally vague when it comes to talk of running against Penelas this year. "Alex Penelas is tough," he says cryptically. In truth it doesn't make sense for Miguel to run against Penelas now. For one thing, thanks to the stable of lobbyists Penelas has corralled, he could raise a million dollars in one week for his campaign. (Don't forget that he raised $250,000 for Miriam Alonso in a single night.) For another, Penelas knows how to effectively counter the image of special-interest whore that attaches to such gluttonous fundraising.

Bob Levy agrees it would be foolish for Miguel to run against Penelas this year. Levy says he has seen private polls still placing the mayor's favorable rating above 70 percent, even after the debacle of the failed penny-tax referendum. The best course for Miguel, according to Levy, would be to wait until term limits force Penelas to leave office in 2004. It's possible he could leave sooner. If Al Gore is elected president this year, Penelas most likely will be in line for a cabinet post. "Miguel can wait," Levy says. "In my mind Miguel is the best-positioned political figure in Dade County today." The key is patience, and picking the right moment to run for mayor.

Miguel's brother Alex sees it differently. "There are things that are more important than patience," he asserts. "If you see things going wrong in county government, if you see injustices being committed, and you see widespread corruption, I think you have a moral responsibility as a public servant to step up and try and stop that from continuing.

"Ultimately that is a decision he is going to have to make," Alex continues. "If he decides to run, obviously I will be there for him, fighting on the frontlines for him. I think he will make a heck of a mayor, and will clean up county government, which desperately needs to be cleaned up. I think he will bring integrity to the process. I think he will be a mayor that all Dade Countians can be proud of. And I think that's important."

Alex concedes it would be extremely difficult to win such a race. "We are fighting against very powerful interests," he points out. "We would be fighting against a multimillion-dollar campaign. We would be fighting against people with a vested interest in Alex Penelas, a small group of people who I guess, through sheer coincidence, are getting all the county contracts. So it's a very difficult race because you have to fight against those powerful interests."

Brother Renier seems eager for Miguel to challenge Penelas, despite the long-shot odds. "We've always taken chances," he says. "I think he'll take the risk even if it means he may lose. We've never been afraid of losing. Our father taught us to be courageous and to do what is in our hearts, and let the chips fall where they may."

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