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

One of the mayor's challengers, Juan Montes, perhaps said it best: “If it's a hurricane, he's there on TV. If a cow is killed in Hialeah, he's there on TV. Instead of governing, he's out there putting his pretty face on television.”

Pamela Lynn Cheatham, another of the mayor's opponents, argues the point even more succinctly. Penelas, she insists, is a “media whore.”

The first two years of Penelas's term as mayor consisted mainly of him running from one photo op to another. When the Fine Air cargo plane crashed just outside Miami International Airport, Penelas refused to allow police and firefighters to speak to the media or hold a press conference unless he was present.

Alex Penelas loves nothing more in life than a good photo op; here he mugs for the cameras with Dan Marino
Miami-Dade county
Alex Penelas loves nothing more in life than a good photo op; here he mugs for the cameras with Dan Marino
In front of the federal courthouse, Penelas declares war on the federal government over Elian Gonzalez
AP/Wide World Photo
In front of the federal courthouse, Penelas declares war on the federal government over Elian Gonzalez

When Gianni Versace's killer, Andrew Cunanan, was found dead on a houseboat in Miami Beach, Penelas commandeered a police helicopter to speed him to the scene in hopes of taking part in the ensuing press extravaganza. Whenever there is a hurricane in the vicinity, the first person to take to the podium and go live on television at the county's emergency operations center is always Penelas.

Penelas's supporters argue, and rightfully so, that one of the reasons voters switched to an executive-mayor form of government was their desire for a clearly identifiable person to be in charge during a crisis. When Hurricane Andrew hit, for instance, Mayor Steve Clark refused to talk to the press or even to leave his house, a display of sniveling cowardice for which he was roundly criticized.

Penelas, however, equates being present with being a leader. Leadership is more than simply showing up. This isn't the fifth grade. We don't give out gold stars for perfect attendance.

Leadership requires courage and the ability to act decisively. Yet Penelas runs every significant decision through a gauntlet of political advisors, focus groups, and private polls.

That's not governing; that's marketing.

On the campaign trail, Penelas is fond of challenging those who say he is too cozy with lobbyists. “Go to the State Attorney's Office if you have proof I've done anything wrong or broken any laws,” he dares them. It's a brilliant tactic, but it misses the point.

Penelas's brand of corruption requires him essentially to do nothing.

Anyone who thinks the mayor would be stupid enough to pick up a phone and order a subordinate to rig a contract so one of his friends can win it doesn't understand how things work in Miami-Dade County. It is far more subtle. Miami International Airport offers a perfect example.

Over the years I have spoken with dozens of county employees at the airport, people who work at all levels of the bureaucracy. They know without being told that certain lobbyists are friends of the mayor. If they don't want to put their jobs at risk and if they hope to be promoted one day, they understand they must provide preferential treatment to the mayor's cronies.

Two years ago, when I was working on a story about Penelas's chief fundraiser, lobbyist Christopher Korge, a former county administrator explained how Korge's relationship with the mayor helped Korge's clients when it came to negotiating contracts at MIA. The administrator, John Van Wezel, who oversaw the concession operations at the airport before retiring, said Korge's influence wasn't solely based on the merits of the arguments he made. “He was a very tough negotiator,” Van Wezel told me, “because you always knew he had the influence downtown to pretty much get whatever he wanted from the county commission and from the mayor.” Van Wezel said he believed he was at a disadvantage in dealing with Korge, and he would relent on issues as a result -- even though it might not have been in the county's best interest -- because he knew Korge “would eventually get what he wanted anyway.”

Van Wezel's experience resonated with Judith Byrd, a partner in the Chicago-based Unison Consulting Group. Byrd said that when she came to Miami to develop a retail master plan for MIA, Korge's name came up in nearly every meeting with county administrators. “He was looming large over our project throughout,” she recalled. “I've done consulting work for airports all over the country -- Chicago, JFK, Newark, LAX, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis -- and I have never worked at an airport in which a lobbyist played such a major role in how the staff operated.”

The mere existence of lobbyists, much less their substantial influence over county affairs, is one reason Miami-Dade has such a poor reputation within the business community nationwide. “There are many, many companies who would like to do business in Dade County and at the airport,” Byrd noted, “but they refuse to go where they think they have to hire a lobbyist just to be heard.”

Penelas's role in all this is simple. All he needs to do is make sure everyone knows lobbyists such as Korge, Rodney Barreto, Herman Echevarria, and Jorge Lopez are his guys. He isn't even coy about it. Two years ago, during a fundraiser that garnered more than $200,000 for county Commissioner Miriam Alonso, Penelas stood before the assembled businessmen and singled out Korge and Barreto for praise.

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