Donkey Demise

Miami-Dade's Democratic Party is a shambles. Blame Joe Geller, candidate and chairman.

Dressed in their evening finery, hundreds of the Democratic faithful gather on a Saturday in late June for the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a gala fundraiser for the Florida Democratic Party. Supporters from around the state, including Sen. Bob Graham, Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson, and state Rep. Elaine Bloom, file down the plush-carpeted corridors of the Sheraton Bal Harbour and past Secret Service agents, toward one of the hotel's cavernous banquet halls. In what party leaders have billed as a sign of Florida's importance in the upcoming November election, this year's celebrity speaker is none other than presidential hopeful Al Gore.

The vice president isn't the only candidate here tonight. In the foyer outside the banquet hall, young volunteers are handing out campaign literature for Dan Gelber, a former South Florida federal prosecutor and counsel for the U.S. Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Gelber is running for state representative from District 106, which stretches from Aventura to just above Lincoln Road and includes four precincts in the City of Miami.

Joe Geller, a candidate for the same seat, also is present. But he doesn't dare distribute any campaign literature; he knows he'd be vilified if he did. Geller has all but formally announced that he'll run against Gelber in the state primary, set for September, but he's not participating in this fundraiser as an aspiring office seeker. Tonight he's acting solely in his official capacity as chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Executive Committee (DEC).

Even so, Geller is feeling the heat. His detractors, citing what they call a conflict of interest, have said publicly that he has no business running for office against fellow Democrats while remaining chairman of the local party. As head of the DEC, Geller coordinates grassroots programs and volunteers; his position, the critics maintain, gives him an unfair edge over both Gelber and Surfside Councilman Mitchell Kinzer, another primary contender.

But an apparent conflict of interest is the least of Geller's woes. A major power struggle is under way in the county party he heads. And while almost everyone at tonight's fundraiser rides a united-for-Gore bandwagon, rigid smiles mask fierce antagonisms among a number of those in attendance. Many elected Democrats ignore the DEC as irrelevant. And some critics say mere identification with the party could be lethal to one's political ambitions.

Missing from the crowd is Mayor Alex Penelas, the highest elected Democrat in the county. Raul Martinez, the Democratic mayor of Hialeah -- the state's fifth largest city -- is another no-show. Together the two control perhaps the top political machines in Miami-Dade.

Martinez says the party has ignored him for years and that he has little to gain from associating with it. No state chairman had ever paid him a visit, in fact, until the day before this Jefferson-Jackson dinner. Penelas, a member of the Democratic National Committee, has little involvement in the local party, though, like all Democratic officials elected countywide, he's an honorary member of the DEC, which also includes 160 representatives from 80 districts, the heads of about 25 county Democratic clubs and caucuses, and a number of at-large members appointed by the chairman.

Still, one might think the mayor would turn out to see the vice president. Until recently the two reportedly had such a close relationship that party officials speculated about a cabinet position for the rising Cuban star if Gore were to win the White House. Then the Elian tsunami swept up both men, and many now say it does neither any good to be seen with the other. (Penelas's campaign manager, Ric Katz, explains tonight's absence as a break for “scheduled time with his family.”)

After twelve years as chairman of the DEC, Geller admits he has become the lightning rod for criticism of all that is wrong with local Democrats. But he fires back, pointing out that there's plenty of blame to go around. And, indeed, Paulette Wimberly -- the first black state committeewoman in the DEC, whom Geller helped elect in 1996 -- says, “We can't blame Joe for all our problems. I'm not going to let anybody off the hook, including myself.”

Nonetheless under his leadership, say his foes, the local party is broke and has lost hope of recruiting supporters. Thanks to him the party has abandoned its moderate base by courting Cubans at the expense of a rapidly growing population of non-Cuban Hispanics. The party is so impotent, they add, that only a fraction of the DEC's districts is currently active. Geller, they complain, doesn't even work in the county (he and his wife, University of Miami neurology and pharmacology professor Deborah Mash, live in North Bay Village, but he maintains a law office in Hollywood.)

A few days before the dinner, Cindy Hall, president of the South Florida AFL-CIO and a DEC committeewoman, contacted Bob Poe, the state Democratic chairman, to object that if Geller the chairman shared the stage with Al Gore, the appearance would be a showcase for Geller the candidate. Poe assured Hall that Geller would follow protocol by simply introducing the next person in the party hierarchy and then leaving the stage.

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