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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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“Mayor Penelas, you may very well regret now what you said last week,” the man said. “And I don't doubt that you genuinely mean some of the things you've said in the last few days. But I just -- I want you to know you left a lot of us feeling incredibly disenfranchised from this community. And it is going to be very, very difficult to ever forgive you for that.”
The man's words were greeted with widespread applause from the audience.
“Mr. Mayor, if you want a chance to respond, please,” Koppel offered.
Penelas just stared ahead with a blank look on his face.
“If not, we're going to take a break,” Koppel continued. “Up to you.”
Penelas didn't say a word. Koppel briskly went to commercial.
It's never fun being bitch-slapped on national television. Those present that night say Penelas sank into his chair for the rest of the evening.
There are many lessons to take away from this event, but I'll limit myself to three.
Lesson One: Penelas has no heart.
When that young man stood up and told Penelas he felt disenfranchised from the community, Penelas needed to turn to him and simply say, “I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you feel that way.” Folks in Miami wanted to see a little remorse from Penelas, a bit of humility. Instead they were given pat answers and rehearsed speeches. The reason he hasn't apologized is transparently political: He's afraid he'll appear weak to his core constituency of Cuban-American voters if he publicly apologizes to Anglos and blacks.
This leads to an even more fundamental problem for Penelas: Everything he does comes across so programmed and calculated he has a hard time connecting with people. He is a poor public speaker whose skills have not improved in the past four years. Cuban grandmothers may think he is adorable, but to a lot of other people he appears cold and unapproachable.
Lesson Two: Politically Penelas will always be a Toledo Mudhen.
The best analogy for Penelas's Nightline appearance is baseball. It was as if Penelas, who has been politically playing in the minor leagues for years now, was suddenly called up to the majors and given a chance to show off his skills. But this was no Cinderella story. Every time he came to the plate he struck out, proving that Alex Penelas is not ready for the big show.
Lesson Three: Penelas is no leader.
A lot of people are struggling to decide how prominent a role the entire Elian Gonzalez affair should play in their decision about who to vote for in the mayor's race. Personally I think it is an important factor, but I also believe you have to be clear about why it's important.
At a time when this community was being torn apart, Penelas abdicated his role as a community leader. Instead of preening before the cameras and making insipid speeches on Nightline, Penelas should have been trying to negotiate a settlement to the Elian dilemma. Instead of waiting for members of the business community to step forward, he should have been working behind the scenes to resolve the crisis. Instead of rubbing elbows with celebrities in the front yard of the Little Havana house, he should have been inside working to convince the family that the path they had chosen was almost certainly going to result in a violent confrontation.
Out of every great crisis heroes are born and cowards are exposed.
Thanks to Ted Koppel, the entire nation knows in exactly which category to place Penelas. And thanks to the miracle of videotape, it is a moment that will last forever.