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

Being legal and being honest aren't necessarily the same thing. The mayor may never be indicted but he still corrupts county government.

Two weeks ago I noted that Penelas's campaign to increase the Miami-Dade sales tax by a penny (for transportation issues) was under criminal investigation. The probe centers on donations to the campaign made by the nonprofit foundations supporting Florida International University and Miami-Dade Community College, and whether those foundations acted as illegal fronts to hide the identities of contributors and, in effect, launder their money.

I've yet to hear the mayor explain his role in soliciting the involvement of those foundations or reveal what he knew about donors contributing to the tax campaign through the foundations. Nor has he addressed the fact that the only people who actually benefited from the failed campaign were the mayor's friends, who raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.

After bombing at the polls, Penelas's Transit Not Tolls campaign is now under criminal investigation
Steve Satterwhite
After bombing at the polls, Penelas's Transit Not Tolls campaign is now under criminal investigation
Pineapple republic: Penelas, making merry on the arena grounds, has allowed the Heat to renege on its promises
Miami-Dade county
Pineapple republic: Penelas, making merry on the arena grounds, has allowed the Heat to renege on its promises

Penelas's tactics during this campaign were so sleazy (holding the election on a Thursday in late July; misleading voters into thinking all highway tolls would be abolished if the tax increase passed) that he has poisoned any future efforts to address the county's complex transportation problems.

Transportation is a very serious local issue that deserves careful thought and attention. Penelas gave it neither.

“Another critical challenge facing Mayor Penelas is welfare reform.... Today the welfare rolls in Miami-Dade have been reduced by nearly 70 percent since Mayor Penelas took office.” -- from Penelas's biography on his official Website

In 1996 the Republican-controlled Congress, with the backing of President Clinton, abolished welfare in this nation as we've known it for decades. Under the new guidelines, a person could only remain on the welfare rolls for two successive years, and they required all welfare recipients to enroll in job-training programs.

When Congress enacted this legislation, approximately 46,000 people in Miami-Dade County were receiving welfare benefits of some sort. Today that number is down to approximately 13,000, a decrease of 71 percent.

Of course the number of welfare recipients across the entire state of Florida is down by more than 70 percent as well. Congress's action guaranteed a dramatic drop. The real question -- the one with which Penelas should be more concerned -- is, Where are those people who fell off the welfare rolls?

Across the state new agencies were created to assist in job training and placement. They were called WAGES Coalitions -- Work and Gain Economic Self-Sufficiency. The largest WAGES coalition was formed for Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, and Penelas became the group's cochair. (In August WAGES was folded into another group, TANF -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.)

For the past week I have been trying to get a clear answer regarding how many people actually were helped by the WAGES Coalition under Penelas. How many people received jobs? How many of those people held those jobs for more than a year? What type of jobs did they find? How much are they being paid? How many people simply disappeared from the welfare rolls without ever finding a job? No one at WAGES or TANF was able to answer my questions.

As New Times reported earlier this year, researchers from five Florida public universities who conducted a study on WAGES in four regions, including Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, concluded that recipients find it difficult to obtain information on job leads and support services such as subsidized child care and transportation. Those supposedly being helped by the program complain they are being forced into minimum-wage jobs that will never provide enough money to support them or their families.

It's nice for Penelas to declare success in lowering the welfare rolls. But it seems like a hollow victory, not one to celebrate.

“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. I also want to make it very clear, and I speak for Mayor Carollo as the mayor of the City of Miami, and for all of my colleagues, that we will not lend our respective resources, whether they be in the form of police officers or any other resources, to assist the federal government in any way, shape, or form to inappropriately repatriate Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba.” -- Alex Penelas, March 29, 2000

A year ago, when it suited his ego, Penelas had his minions spreading the story that his name was on the list of potential running mates for Al Gore. The rumor eventually found its way into Newsweek magazine. It was laughable, of course. Penelas was never a serious contender. The “list” was really just a collection of Democratic Hispanic officeholders the Gore campaign could point to and say it was considering adding a Hispanic to the ticket. The real function of the list was bait, a hopeful means of attracting Hispanic voters to Gore in California, Florida, Texas, and New York. (And for all the hoopla, a Hispanic didn't even make it on to Gore's final short list, the real list.)

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