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

Back then Penelas humbly acknowledged that if asked, he would be honored to run with the vice president. I am very committed to Al Gore and his candidacy, Penelas cooed last year. I think he is what this country needs, and I'm going to help and serve Al Gore in any fashion that he deems appropriate during his campaign.

What a difference a year makes. Ever since little Elian made the Clinton-Gore administration a pariah in South Florida, a person would be hard-pressed to determine whether Penelas was still a Democrat. Now whenever the president or the vice president comes to Florida, Penelas treats them like lepers. He didn't even go to the Democratic National Convention this year.

Fair-weather political friend that he is, Penelas realized it was no longer politically expedient for him to be seen hobnobbing with Bill Clinton or Al Gore. It might cost him votes in the Cuban-American community.

A proud moment for the citizens of Miami-Dade County: Penelas is named "sexiest politician" by People magazine
A proud moment for the citizens of Miami-Dade County: Penelas is named "sexiest politician" by People magazine

The mayor may believe Al Gore is what this country needs, but apparently for Penelas what this country needs isn't nearly as important as what Penelas needs: Cuban-American votes.

A MAN AMONG MEN
On the day Penelas was sworn in as mayor, the Miami Herald published an interview with his wife, Lilliam, in which she decried the personal attacks on and rumors circulating about her husband. I don't care if people attack him on the issues, she said, but what's the need of saying that he is homosexual, or that we bought a house through a deal with the country club, or that he lacks integrity in financial matters? If someone wants to know if Alex is a homosexual, let him come and ask me about his masculinity.

In that 1996 interview, Lilliam unwittingly placed the rumors about her husband's sexuality front and center in the news. (Not surprisingly, the press hasn't heard a lot from Lilliam in the past four years.)

The Herald never addressed the rumor again. For that matter neither have I, largely because it is just that, a rumor. And Lilliam is correct: The primary motivation of those who have circulated it in the past and continue circulating it today is to hurt Penelas. But the true significance of the rumor is subtler.

One reason the gay rumor has persisted is that Penelas is viewed as someone who would do anything to succeed politically. If that meant altering his sexual orientation, getting married, and having a baby just before he announced his candidacy for mayor, then that's what he would do.

In all likelihood the rumor has affected his approach to certain policy issues. Six months after Lilliam made her comments to the Herald, then-Commissioner Bruce Kaplan announced he was introducing an ordinance to protect gays from discrimination. Penelas steered clear of the issue, investing almost no time in support of it. The proposed ordinance promptly died.

Sixteen months later a similar measure was introduced by Commissioner Katy Sorenson. This time Penelas proved to be a staunch supporter of the proposal and played a key role in helping it pass. (Miguel Diaz de la Portilla voted against the ordinance.)

What happened in those sixteen months to make Penelas a more active participant in the debate over a gay-rights ordinance? Many factors could have been at work. Perhaps enough time had passed following Lilliam's remarks for Penelas to feel secure enough in supporting the measure. Also Penelas may have been more willing to help Sorenson than he was to assist Kaplan. But if I had to guess, I'd say the deciding factor for Penelas were the polls conducted at the time, polls that showed a majority of people in Miami-Dade County favored a gay-rights measure.

To be both morally right and politically popular would be a hard combination for Penelas to pass up.

THE ARENA
During Penelas's campaign for mayor four years ago, he loudly proclaimed his opposition to spending taxpayer money on the construction of a sports arena for a billionaire. Furthermore, he declared, even if it were built with private funds, it should not be located on publicly owned waterfront land.

No sooner was he sworn into office than he broke those promises.

The county now spends $8.5 million per year to operate the Miami Heat's new bayfront arena. Even more galling, Penelas has refused to hold the Heat to any of the pledges team owner Micky Arison made while he was courting voters. Remember how we were promised an athletic field between the arena and the bay? A little bit of green space on a site otherwise dominated by concrete and a massive structure? Well, that's gone, and so are other amenities promised to the public.

Penelas may not be a savvy negotiator, and he may not be devoted to protecting the public's interest, but as he says, he is good at raising money. No surprise, then, that Arison and his wife, Madeleine, have contributed the maximum amount allowed by law -- $500 per person -- to Penelas's re-election campaign.

TAKING CARE OF BUSINESS
Let's examine some of Penelas's achievements in the business field, the ones I'm sure he hopes everyone will forget.

Remember Pan Am? Soon after becoming mayor, Penelas put together $7.3 million in incentives to persuade Pan Am to move its corporate headquarters to Miami-Dade County from Manhattan. Shortly after arriving, the moribund airline filed for bankruptcy and the county lost its investment. Making matters worse, Penelas, so eager to announce that he had completed the deal with Pan Am, failed to secure guarantees in the county's agreement with the airline that would have protected taxpayers from losing millions of dollars.

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