DeFede: Deconstructing Alex

He billed himself as a reformer, but a close look at Alex Penelas's record reveals a politician more in tune with ambition than innovation

Alex Penelas is a politician who never loses but rarely succeeds.

He's won every race he has ever entered, whether it was for Hialeah City Council or the Miami-Dade County Commission. Four years ago he took the grand prize of South Florida politics, becoming the first executive mayor of Miami-Dade County. Now, according to conventional wisdom, he is poised to win re-election. The only mystery is whether he will collect more than 50 percent of the vote next Tuesday, September 5, to win the contest outright, or whether he will fall short of that mark and be forced to endure the ignominy of an October runoff election.

I'm not here to argue with the pundits and the polls that see Penelas's second term as a sure thing. The reasons for such confidence have nothing to do with his achievements in office and everything to do with the fact that he has raised a small fortune from special interests whose economic survival depends upon Penelas remaining in office. Along the way he also has picked up the endorsement of several influential leaders, particularly those in the black community, who support him for no other reason than they believe he is going to win, and they are desperate to hitch themselves to the Penelas bandwagon, even if it means being dragged in the dirt behind it.

Penelas has welcomed more than just visitors to the airport; he's also rolled out the welcome  mat for lobbyists
Steve Satterwhite
Penelas has welcomed more than just visitors to the airport; he's also rolled out the welcome mat for lobbyists

According to the parlance of political consultants, Penelas's support is wide but not particularly deep. He attracts sycophants but little loyalty. Which is understandable since it's hard to stand shoulder to shoulder with a man who doesn't actually stand for anything.

In many ways this election seemed to be over before it began. Penelas was blessed with a principal challenger, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, whose message often gets lost in its delivery and whose campaign has failed to capitalize not only on Penelas's abundant shortcomings but Diaz de la Portilla's own vision for the future of this metropolis. A member of the county commission for the past seven years, Diaz de la Portilla has been its leading reformer. He has an insider's knowledge of how the system works but an outsider's disdain for the cronyism that pervades it. He is honest and smart, although those qualities sometimes are undermined by a cockiness he would be well advised to curb.

Diaz de la Portilla is hoping to force Penelas into a runoff so the race can be recast as a referendum on the county's boy king. If Penelas emerges from Tuesday's election with between 45 and 49 percent of the vote, then the runoff should be a cakewalk for the mayor. But if he garners less than 45 percent, then Diaz de la Portilla's strategy may work and Penelas could falter between now and October.

Out of the eight other candidates running for mayor, Jay Love, founder of the Hooligan's Pub chain, is making the most ambitious push to be noticed. Love is running as an outsider, arguing that his lack of government experience is a benefit rather than a hindrance. “The best qualification in today's world is never to have been a politician,” he says. He also criticizes Penelas for turning Miami-Dade County into “the laughingstock of the whole world,” referring to the mayor's ill-tempered comments during the Elian Gonzalez debacle.

The remaining candidates range from a South Miami-Dade architect to a former TV traffic reporter to a retired U.S. Army colonel. Underlying their campaigns is a basic belief that Penelas is nothing more than a political opportunist who has divided rather than united this community.

Diaz de la Portilla's campaign strategy has merit. When a politician seeks to be re-elected, that election should indeed be a referendum on the officeholder's performance during his or her tenure, for voting is an act of faith, a conveyance of trust.

The media, myself included, get so caught up in what we see as the inevitability of Penelas's re-election that often we fail to ask the most fundamental questions: Does Penelas deserve to be re-elected mayor? What has he actually accomplished in four years? What is he likely to achieve if he is given four more?

Penelas is past the point in his career where it makes sense to talk about his potential as a politician; he should be producing results by now. But his accomplishments are so modest, his embarrassments so great, and his aspirations for this county and its people so uninspired that describing him as a disappointment fails to convey the extent to which he has utterly squandered his opportunity to move Miami-Dade forward.

And nobody knows it better than Alex Penelas.

He is terrified to debate his challengers on television because he knows that his “record of achievement” would fall apart under questioning from his opponents. Penelas is such a coward that a producer at WPLG-TV (Channel 10) had to threaten to place a cardboard image of him onstage if he didn't show up for a scheduled debate. That event will be broadcast live tonight, Thursday, from 8:00 to 9:00 p.m.

As voters consider the candidates in this race, I've pulled together a list of issues and key moments from the past four years worth considering.

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