DeFede

A .22-Caliber Mayor with .357-Magnum Ambitions

Certainly with regard to their respective elections, Gore needs Penelas's help far more than Penelas needs any assistance from the vice president. But in the long run, Penelas needs Gore to lift him out of South Florida. Penelas's mother didn't raise her son to be a lowly mayor. She fully intended for him to become a governor or a senator, and from there to make his way to the White House.

Let's assume for a moment that Penelas is re-elected as mayor, a fairly safe assumption at this point. Term limits will prevent him from running for re-election in 2004, so he must begin planning his next move right away.

Now let's imagine that George W. Bush wins the presidency. Result: no cabinet post for Penelas. He is left with the prospect of finishing his term. But then what? Try for Congress? He won't run against Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Lincoln Diaz-Balart, institutions among their constituents. Beyond that I can't imagine Penelas serving in the House along with 434 other representatives. If he found the rough-and-tumble of serving on the county commission to be debasing, I can't imagine how he'd fare in the mob scene that is the House of Representatives.

U.S. Senate? Bob Graham's seat will be open in 2004. The senator will turn 68 years old that year. Even assuming Graham did retire, Penelas would have trouble winning statewide office directly out of scandal-plagued Miami-Dade County. As much as he tries to convince people he is a reformer (and I'm not sure he's persuading many people in Miami-Dade County), as far as the rest of the state is concerned, he'll be just another one of those "crazy and crooked Miami Cubans."

Governor? Jeb Bush is up for re-election in 2002, and though he may be unpopular among minorities now, his Republican message still plays well across the state as a whole. There's no reason to view him as a one-term wonder.

All of which means Penelas's best hope for advancement is a Gore victory. The most likely cabinet position for him: Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Once in Washington Penelas will crank up the HUD public-relations machine and begin collecting IOUs from all the right politicians in Florida. After a few years in Washington, he could plan his triumphant return here to run for statewide office -- say, for Graham's Senate seat, which would be much easier to accomplish under those circumstances. (The current HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo, for example, reportedly is preparing for a run for office in his home state of New York.)

Penelas isn't the only person pondering how the dominoes might fall if Gore were to become president. Penelas's chief rival, County Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, also is watching closely. Indeed it wouldn't surprise me if Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican, weren't secretly rooting for Al Gore to beat George W. Bush.

For weeks now Diaz de la Portilla has been debating whether to run for mayor this year against Penelas. Many consider such a bid to be suicidal for Diaz de la Portilla, since the cadre of lobbyists surrounding Penelas can raise millions for his re-election campaign.

But with George W. faltering and Gore surging in the polls, running against Penelas for the next five months would be an easy way for Diaz de la Portilla to spread his name countywide and develop rapport with voters. When he loses the mayor's race in September, Diaz de la Portilla could sit back and wait for Gore to win in November. A few months later, after Penelas leaves to join Gore's cabinet, Diaz de la Portilla quickly becomes the early favorite to run in the special election to fill the mayor's post.

jim.defede@miaminewtimes.com

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