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Despite what most people probably believe, the defining moment of Alex Penelas's tenure as Miami-Dade County mayor was not that infamous press conference in front of the federal courthouse on March 29.
Certainly his conduct that day was revelatory of his character, or lack of it. Standing outside the courthouse, he had the audacity to announce that his police department would not assist federal authorities in removing Elian Gonzalez from the home of the boy's Miami relatives. Further aggravating matters, he declared that if there were riots in the streets, the blame would fall on President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno. “If their continued provocation in the form of unjustified threats to revoke the boy's parole leads to civil unrest and violence, we are holding the federal government responsible, and specifically Janet Reno and the president of the United States,” Penelas shouted to the world.
His grandstanding last spring will undoubtedly follow him for the rest of his political life. But I think there is another moment that more accurately defines our mayor, who is now asking us to re-elect him. It came nine days later, April 7, during the ABC news program Nightline.
The program's host, Ted Koppel, flew to Miami for a special “town hall” meeting. Perched on a stool onstage before a packed auditorium at Florida International University, Koppel spent the first part of the show interviewing Reno, who was beamed in via satellite on a giant television screen, and then moderated a question-and-answer session between the attorney general and members of the audience.
Toward the end of the questioning, Koppel looked down from the stage to the front row, where Penelas was sitting. “Mayor Penelas,” Koppel began, “you got -- you got a lot of flack and a lot of publicity for what you said a couple of weeks ago. You still stand on it? In other words do you want to say to the attorney general, to her face, electronically speaking, what you said -- what you said when she was not present, namely if there was violence, it would be on her head and on the president's head?”
Penelas seemed ready for the question. “Ted, I think we are all responsible for our actions, each and every one of us,” Penelas replied. “So there's no doubt that there's a lot of responsibility for all of us, including the response that this community may have at any given point in this dilemma. So -- but I think everyone needs to understand that that comment is more -- was more an indication of frustration, frustration on the part of local officials who have had the weight of this issue upon us for four or five months. It has been a very tense and difficult situation for us to deal with.”
Penelas then launched into a speech he had obviously prepared, arguing that Elian deserved his day in court. As he talked Penelas's spirits seem to rise. Smiling warmly, People magazine's sexiest mayor obviously was enjoying the opportunity to speak to a national television audience. Yet as he prattled on for a few more minutes, Koppel clearly was unimpressed and finally cut him off.
“Mr. Mayor,” Koppel interrupted, “Mr. Mayor, I've allowed you to go on for a long time here in the hope that you would ultimately answer my question, but you haven't yet. Would you like to say to the attorney general's face what you said behind her back?”
In one crisp, clarifying moment, Koppel laid Penelas bare before the nation.
Penelas was stunned. As the attorney general's televised visage smiled wryly, Penelas scrambled to gather his thoughts.
“Ted, what I'd like to tell the attorney general is that we all are responsible for our actions,” he finally stammered.
“What does that mean?” Koppel shot back. “You're -- you're the mayor, right?”
“Yes, sir,” Penelas answered meekly. With Koppel towering high above him onstage, Penelas looked even more like a little boy then he normally does.
“Are you responsible,” Koppel wondered aloud, “responsible to the point of sending police, if necessary, to back up federal officials, which at one point you said you would not do?”
“The role of local police officers is to maintain the public order, and we will do that,” Penelas answered. “In fact today we avoided what could have been a very difficult situation when there was a proposed blockage of our airport. That was avoided. And I think we've all made clear statements that the public order will be maintained in this community. However, I also do not believe that it is the role of local police officers to go into Elian's home and take him forcefully from the home. That is not their responsibility.”
“I don't think there is any suggestion that they are going to be asked to,” Koppel said. “But if federal marshals were to come down here, they can count on the local police to back them up and support them, is that correct?”
“Absolutely,” Penelas agreed. “Public officials will be here to maintain the order, absolutely.”
“Very good, sir,” Koppel said, assuming the demeanor of a professor who finally, after much struggle, extracted the correct answer from one of his dimmer students. Koppel then turned to another member of the audience who had his own comment for the mayor.
“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.