By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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A Colombian-born, MIT-trained engineer, Rhenals drafted a letter that began: “We the undersigned presidents of Democratic Clubs and Caucuses of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party....” It ended with: “Your staunch defense of the rule of law has increased our admiration and respect for you.” He faxed it to the other club presidents for any additional signatures. Instead he got a return fax from a Geller loyalist: “Joe Geller does not approve of sending the letter by or on behalf of the M-D DEC Interclub Council [which oversees the clubs].”
Geller explains his opposition to the letter by saying that its language was misleading; people might have thought the letter came from the Interclub Council, not from the individual signers. And the council has no authority to take political positions. But he adds, “I knew it would drive [Cubans] over the edge.”
Shirley West, president emeritus of the women's group Democratic POWER and chairwoman of the Interclub Council, says she'd sent out an earlier fax to the club presidents, as a feeler, to see how many might be willing to sign the letter. No one responded. And Rhenals believes they were pressured not to sign.
As tensions escalated, Rhenals asked Geller to call a special meeting of the presidents to discuss the issue, but the chairman refused. So at the next full meeting of the DEC on May 31, 2000, Rhenals asked the officers to define the role of the Interclub Council. Geller told him the council had no power, that its function was to serve as a forum for the presidents to exchange ideas. “I have better things to do if it is just a social group,” Rhenals now comments.
Unsurprisingly there are Miami Cuban Americans who oppose the hard line the party has taken under Geller and Garcia's direction. Luis Chinea, a 70-year-old veteran of the Bay of Pigs invasion who still wears his commemorative ring with pride, is among them. Chinea founded his club, the Cuban-American Democratic Council, in 1992 at the suggestion of President Clinton; it has since grown to 250 members who meet in a two-room office in an industrial area of north Miami-Dade, just off Florida's Turnpike.
Chinea harbors deep suspicions about Garcia's party loyalty. “He was put here in the Democratic party as an employee of the Republican party,” the retiree believes. “He doesn't have leadership, and he hasn't done anything.” Of the DEC leadership, he charges, “They aren't interested in winning office. They are interested in helping themselves.”
Jacques Despinosse, president of the Haitian-American Democratic Club, agrees that the party has faltered. “There is nothing to do as a member,” he says. “The only way we can claim victory is if we work together and that is not what is happening.”
Ginger Grossman herds senior citizens, state representatives, and judicial candidates into a conference room at a Courtyard Marriott in Aventura. Grossman is president of the William Lehman Northeast Dade Involved Democrats, one of the last bastions of a voting bloc that once ruled Miami-Dade County: the largely elderly, Jewish, condominium crowd.
“I bet you didn't know there were this many Democrats,” she says, beaming as she surveys the room. There are about 30 people in attendance and half are candidates for nonpartisan office, courting votes.
Jeff Mell, a former aide to the club's namesake, the late Congressman William Lehman, also is here. He's not impressed with the numbers. “Years ago this would have been an embarrassment,” he admits. “They would have had 250 people.”
The 80-year-old Grossman, wearing the dark glasses that have become her trademark, parades candidate Dan Gelber around the room, professing her love for him. Joe Geller is definitely not welcome here. “Joe should have the courtesy and understanding to step down,” says Grossman, who has been a Democratic activist for 60 years and is running for a committee slot on the DEC. Those elected will decide who the next DEC chairman will be. “We are taking the party back piece by piece,” she declares.
State Rep. Elaine Bloom, who is running for U.S. representative this year, and state Rep. Sally Heyman have also put in appearances. In the hallway outside the room, Heyman blasts Geller for the condition of her party. “As the head of the DEC, he didn't build consensus or rally our Democratic clubs,” she says. “In a time when there is a flood of money, he hasn't resolved the deficit.”
Geller knows the sentiments that abound in this room, but he insists the focus on him is misplaced. It's always easy to criticize, he offers philosophically. But most of his critics have griped from the sidelines rather than involve themselves. He muses that it might have been better if he'd stepped down as chairman earlier, yet he believes his presence is too valuable. “I fought hard for my term, and I can still do a good job,” he insists.
“Like I'm the party,” he grumbles. “I'm just the schmuck who takes the heat.”