The Return of Loco Joe

Miami's mayoral meltdown has a long and nasty history

As Joe Carollo stiffly marches down the stairs from his city hall office on the evening of April 27, an adoring crowd presses in around him. "Ca-ro-llo! Ca-ro-llo!" they chant as Miami's mayor struts into the commission chambers with the rigid indignation of a temperance leader in a distillery. His jaw is clenched, his lips drawn tight against his teeth. It's been six days since the riots that followed federal agents' seizure of Elian Gonzalez, and it seems Carollo has harnessed the public's fury.

"Everybody express themselves with the dignity and decorum that this building deserves!" Carollo warns before beginning the meeting. Despite the admonition he is anything but a calming influence. First he announces the ethnically charged firing of City Manager Donald Warshaw. Then he grills Miami Police Chief William O'Brien: How many tear gas canisters were used to control the crowds? How many canisters are in storage waiting to be unleashed on a defenseless public? How many were ordered from other police departments? The audience, which appears to be largely Cuban American, loves it. A bilingual susurration rustles through the crowd. "Comunista mierda," -- communist shit -- whispers one woman. "Janet Reno friend," says a man.

Toward the end of the assembly, just a few minutes before walking out into the cheering mob, Carollo declares: "This mayor will not stand for mob rule." He doesn't bask in his newfound popularity. He says he is tired and must go home to rest. But after exiting through the Plexiglas doors, he steps into his car and zooms off to Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), where he blasts his enemies anew over the airwaves.

Joe Carollo has been an angry man for many years. Since becoming Metro-Dade's youngest police officer in 1973, he has established a record of clashing with colleagues and betraying those with whom he has worked closely. His behavior haunts him. At least one former employer wouldn't rehire him, political enemies battled successfully to keep him out of office for nearly a decade, and a business associate has accused him of welshing on a debt.

Since returning to office in 1998, Carollo had been languishing in the shadows, much to his chagrin. There wasn't a lot he could do about it. He was a mayor with limited powers in a city that, because of a financial crisis and the misdeeds of its former leaders, was legally and effectively controlled by the State of Florida. Nationally and very much locally, all attention went to Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. Carollo was so annoyed at his irrelevance that last year he organized an international summit of mayors to compete with an already established meeting prepared by his rival. He also berated Warshaw and others because he wasn't getting enough media exposure.

The pivotal event in launching Carollo's new media popularity was Penelas's March 29 hara-kiri press conference, when the leader of county government warned the nation the Miami-Dade Police Department would not assist federal officers in the removal of Elian from Lazaro Gonzalez's Little Havana house. The backlash caused Penelas to retreat from the cameras. Carollo, facing re-election in 2001, immediately stepped in to fill the void. He appeared on national television more than 50 times in April on shows such as Rivera Live and Nightline. He has been so effective that much of the nation doesn't even remember Penelas anymore. The mayor of Miami is Joe Carollo. For better or worse, he became our mouthpiece. And what a mouth.

Carollo's anger, fed by the media circus, has swelled. He doesn't sleep much. The hysteria that has swept through the community like a tsunami since Elian's seizure has drawn the mayor in its wake. From Chicago to New York, television audiences have laughed at Carollo's often rambling, sometimes incoherent speeches. The mayor has taken on a new cause that some say has driven him to the brink.

"What Carollo is doing is terrible for Miami, terrible for the Cuban community," says Maurice Ferre, former Miami mayor and Metro-Dade commissioner. "This fool goes out there where angels fear to tread."

Carollo's fiery confrontations with the city manager and police chief, as well as his heated diatribes against the federal government's actions, have prompted many to challenge the "New Joe" image that helped him to win several elections. Some civic leaders and journalists, too, question whether the Miami Herald's editorial page, and to a lesser extent its news staff, have handled Carollo with kid gloves. The newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of a voter-fraud scandal that helped return Carollo to office in 1998. And Carollo provided the paper's staff with information that helped its investigation. Both Carollo and Heraldeditorial pages editor Tom Fiedler scoff at this. "To interpret that we are somehow wedded to Mayor Carollo's defense is mistaken," Fiedler says. Adds the mayor: "There has never been a single story about me in the Herald where they haven't taken a potshot."

Indeed Carollo sees himself as the defender of Miami's honor. "If I had not [appeared so often on national television] it would all have been one-sided against Miami," Carollo says from his city hall office with its sweeping view of Biscayne Bay, while sipping coffee from a Central Intelligence Agency mug. "The rest of America would not have heard our side."

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