DeFede

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

The decision last week by the nation's largest gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, to produce safer, less child-friendly handguns came about because one mayor had the courage to step forward and challenge the gun industry. That man's name is Marc Morial, the mayor of New Orleans.

It was Morial who filed the first lawsuit in the country against gunmakers. It was Morial who braved the first firestorm of criticism from the National Rifle Association. And it was Morial who made it clear the fight he was waging wasn't about money, but about saving lives.

Morial quickly gained the support of another mayor, this one with a familiar name: Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago. Daley filed suit on behalf of his city in November 1998, a few weeks after New Orleans.

On January 27, 1999, the first city on the East Coast joined the battle, and that city was none other than Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Oh yeah, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas filed a similar lawsuit that day, but it was only after the other mayors had braved the political land mines. One area in which Penelas didn't lag behind, however, was posing before the cameras at the White House last week when the agreement with Smith & Wesson was announced. Mayor Morial was unable to make the victory celebration because he had to stay in the Big Easy and attend to the affairs of his city.

But not our Alex. Apparently Miami-Dade County is running so smoothly that, between fundraising events in Tallahassee and New York and everywhere else special interests have been stuffing his pockets full of cash, our sexy little mayor had time to fly off to Washington to have his picture taken. Heaven help the man, woman, or child who gets between the mayor and a bank of cameras.

Was the lawsuit a good idea? Certainly. The gun industry was far too slow in responding to the growing number of accidental shootings involving children. Under its agreement with the White House, Smith & Wesson will provide trigger locks to all gun buyers and design safety features that should reduce the number of these tragedies. The lawsuits filed by New Orleans, Chicago, Bridgeport, Miami-Dade County, and more than twenty other cities, as well as a couple of states, forced Smith & Wesson to take steps the company should have taken years ago.

But I have a problem with Penelas regarding his motives. Do I believe he filed the lawsuit because he thought the gun industry should be held accountable for the consequences of its practices? Yes, I do. Do I believe Penelas hoped the lawsuit would save lives? Once again, my answer is yes. Do I believe those were the primary reasons he filed the lawsuit? I'm sorry, but the answer is no.

This lawsuit was a chance for Penelas to step on to the national stage and curry favor with the White House. It was intended, first and foremost, to advance the name Alex Penelas, and if in the process it eventually managed to save a few lives, then all the better.

Now, you're probably wondering: If Penelas wanted to make a big name for himself, why didn't he rush to file a lawsuit against gunmakers before New Orleans? Doing so would have required courage and vision, and Penelas has neither. Too often his instinct is to avoid taking risks, which makes courageous action impossible. Likewise his sight is obscured by a myopic fear of failure. Coming in third or fourth with a lawsuit must have felt comfortable for Penelas. That way he could say he was one of the first mayors to file suit without actually being the first to break down the door and draw a hail of politically risky gunfire.

I've had this argument with Penelas supporters before. They maintain that challenging the gun industry and making a lifetime enemy out of the NRA took guts. And that Penelas did so because it was the right thing to do.

Realistically what choice did he have? As the Democratic mayor of a major American metropolitan area, Penelas knew he couldn't sit on the sidelines. Gun control and gun violence have always been the key wedge issues Al Gore intended to use against the Republicans during the presidential race. If Penelas wanted to show his fidelity to Gore and demonstrate why he should be tapped for a cabinet-level post should Gore win the presidency, then participating in the gun lawsuit was the very least the mayor could do.

Ironically, though, the lawsuit's success comes at a time when relations between the vice president and the mayor have grown chilly. Karen Branch's story in Sunday's Miami Herald was right about the tension between Penelas and Gore. Branch, however, did not identify the source of that tension: the commercial development of Homestead Air Force Base. Believing he had the backing of the White House, Penelas last year all but guaranteed residents of South Miami-Dade that the air base would be developed into a reliever airport. But Gore, fearful of alienating environmentalists, has allowed the project to languish.

Penelas's allies have dismissed the notion of any friction between the two men, asserting that Penelas is keeping his distance from Gore because the mayor needs the support of his Cuban-American constituents to win re-election, and as they are overwhelmingly Republican, actively campaigning for a Democratic presidential candidate wouldn't help Penelas. Pollster Rob Schroth was quoted in the Herald saying Gore needs Penelas far more than Penelas needs Gore. A Penelas ally told me the same thing recently. But I'm not so sure that's correct.

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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