What Makes Alvaro Run?

Alvaro Fernandez takes on Bruno Barreiro, his friends, and all their money. Ask him if he's worried.

Forget about smoke-filled backroom deals, angry convention-floor fights, or black-bandanna-clad anarchists running through the streets. Right now, on a sweltering August afternoon in mid-Miami Beach, the campaign trail is pretty uneventful. Alvaro Fernandez and his girlfriend, Patricia Bravo Segall, are working their way door to door up Alton Road, and the only drama so far is the sudden barking that has erupted from the other side of a tall hedge-flanked gate. Bravo Segall stops abruptly, balances her clipboard full of voter information, and nervously turns to Fernandez. "That sounds like a pretty big dog...." she murmurs, but Fernandez is already through the gate and bounding up the walk.

The front door opens and Bravo Segall and Kulchur are immediately facing off with a growling Doberman. Undeterred, Fernandez cheerfully zooms in on the curious homeowner standing in the doorway: “Hi, I'm Alvaro Fernandez and I'm running for county commissioner. There's an election in September and I need your vote.” Sure enough, Fernandez is invited inside; the now-pacified dog is satisfied licking Kulchur's hands.

There's endemic corruption at the airport and the schools need overhauling, Fernandez explains to the neatly dressed Anglo gentleman; what the county needs is new leadership. It's an eloquent pitch, received politely, but it's also becoming obvious this guy has heard it before. Fernandez downshifts with a provocative edge creeping into his voice. Being a leader, he continues, means standing up and taking positions that may not be the most popular but are the right thing to do.

Stuck in the middle: Alvaro Fernandez tries to bridge the gap between Miami Beach and Little Havana
Stuck in the middle: Alvaro Fernandez tries to bridge the gap between Miami Beach and Little Havana
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October
Whole lotta shakin' goin' on: Cuban exiles protesting Los Van Van's Miami Arena concert last October

“Such as?” asks the now-intrigued homeowner.

"I fought against the Cuba ordinance," Fernandez proudly answers, referring to the (now stricken) Miami-Dade law that barred county funds from any arts groups interacting with Cuba.

Bingo. The homeowner's eyes widen and he lets out a surprised “Ooh.” Fernandez touts his work as vice chair of the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council, as well as his continuing belief in cultural exchange with Cuba. Impressed, the man is soon asking for some extra campaign brochures to give to friends.

The scene is a good metaphor for Fernandez's seemingly quixotic quest for the District 5 county commission seat -- a schizophrenic constituency that includes two communities that would seem worlds apart: Little Havana and Miami Beach (as well as the Roads and a slice of Overtown). Fernandez's opponent, incumbent Bruno Barreiro may have a war chest three times as large, a close ally in Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, and the support of much of the local political establishment, but Fernandez remains undaunted. To him it's all just so many dogs whose collective bark is far worse than its bite -- literally.

“I was bit by a dog out here just last week,” he offers good-naturedly, striding over to the next house. It obviously hasn't slowed him down. “My biggest worry is that people won't go out to vote. They'll say, 'Oh, two Cubans.' But these are two Cubans who offer two different distinct programs.”

Indeed. Both Fernandez, age 48, and Barreiro, age 34, may be Cuban Americans reared in Miami (Fernandez arrived in 1961 when his parents fled Cuba), but that's where the similarities end. While Barreiro, a Republican, is a member of the Cuban American National Foundation, Fernandez, a Democrat, takes a new approach.

“People are tired of politics as usual in Miami-Dade,” Fernandez avers. “You walk around this town and you hear people saying, 'I can't believe we lost the Latin Grammys, the Pan-American Games.' Not only are we hurting our stature with the rest of the country and our own cultural life, but also our economy. It represented millions of dollars to an economy that needs it.”

Shaking his head, he recalls the public flap this past May between Miami Beach exile-activist Victor Diaz and the Miami City Ballet. As reported in the Herald, alarmed over the MCB's executive director Pam Gardiner's stand against the Cuba ordinance, Diaz called Mike Eidson, president of the company's board. Eidson claimed he was warned that unless Gardiner was convinced to change her position, the MCB might suffer a Cuban-American boycott, as well a problem with its certificate of occupancy for its new building. “[Diaz] said, “I'm just saying that if you as an institution get involved in [opposing the ordinance], we will take these steps,'” Eidson recalled in the article. “Victor said they would take any steps they could to punish the Ballet if [the MCB] did not do what they wanted them to do.”

Last week the Miami Beach Design Review Board, which includes Victor Diaz, did indeed vote to deny the Ballet its certificate of occupancy. Ballet officials refused to comment, except to say they hoped to go before the board again in September. To Fernandez the incident smacks of blackmail plain and simple: “Do you know what [Diaz's] whole argument was? “It's not the right time.' Oh, there's a right time for free speech? Please!

Fernandez also is president of the Citizens Accountability Network, a League of Women Voters-affiliated group dedicated to weeding out civic corruption and enacting strong campaign finance reforms. To many, his opponent Barreiro is the epitome of why those reforms are needed.

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