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

Penelas then offered Cunard Cruise Lines more than ten million dollars in incentives to move its headquarters to Miami. Soon afterward, however, Cunard was bought by Carnival Cruise Lines, and while Cunard's headquarters may be in Miami, most of its ships sail out of Port Everglades, making Broward County the real winner in that deal.

Knight Ridder moved its corporate headquarters to California on Penelas's watch, but to his credit, he did help keep Burger King from leaving.

Penelas has formed various committees to study business issues. He launched the One Community/One Goal initiative in 1996, the Mayor's International Trade Council in 1998, followed by the Mayor's Africa Trade Task Force. So far none of those entities has produced anything of note. But they are indicative of Penelas's approach to issues: Form lots of committees that give the appearance you're working hard on a problem but that never actually accomplish anything.

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

And finally there is the vaunted “empowerment zone.” In early 1999 Miami-Dade was selected as a federal empowerment zone, which Penelas promised “would provide significant [financial] resources for inner-city economic revitalization.” A year and a half later, there has been little to show for it and nothing to get excited about. Federal money has been nonexistent. Even more telling, Penelas was unable to secure any funding for the zone from the state during this year's legislative session.

Republican leaders in Tallahassee rejected the mayor's requests because they believed he unnecessarily embarrassed them last January during the debate on the governor's One Florida initiative to eliminate affirmative action. The mayor refused to allow legislators to use county commission chambers to hold a hearing on the plan. Legislators justifiably were angered by what they considered to be Penelas's grandstanding on the issue.

During his State of the County address last year, Penelas dubbed 1999 “The Year of the Child.” A fairly safe move. After all, who could be against children?

The story behind this decision, however, is quite revealing. It began in 1998, when David Lawrence announced he was going to retire as publisher of the Miami Herald. Lawrence's interest in child-development issues prompted several prominent and wealthy community leaders to approach him about creating his own foundation. He agreed.

Politically savvy himself, Lawrence sought to get Penelas involved. Lawrence says it was clear during other discussions with Penelas that the mayor had given little thought to child-development issues. Nonetheless Lawrence urged Penelas to get involved and the mayor subsequently made his pro-child declaration at his next State of the County address, during which he also put Lawrence in charge of an initiative called Champion Our Children.

The mayor's official Website ( notes that during the address “the mayor unveiled an initiative ... which details long-range plans to better prepare children to begin school. The initiative addresses obstacles to healthy child development, such as poor health care and nutrition, inadequate daycare, and child abuse.” The Website goes on to note that in September 1999 Penelas convened the Mayor's Children's Summit, a “landmark” event.

The truth is Penelas has had little involvement with the initiative outside of making a few remarks at his “landmark summit,” which was funded by Lawrence's group, the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation.

Certainly one of the powers of a mayor is the ability to focus attention on a problem by lending his name to an event or cause. And the issues being addressed by Lawrence and the dozens of community leaders who are working with him are essential to this community's survival. Penelas deserves credit for recognizing that fact, but he shouldn't take more credit than he deserves.

Recently the mayor sought to exploit the needs of poor children in an even more blatant way. In early August he held a press conference to announce that the county was going to spend an additional four million dollars next year for increased child care for needy families and for renovation of nineteen Head Start centers.

A week later he held another press conference to announce that he was going to allocate an additional $100,000 to the Deaf Services Bureau so they could hire two more sign-language interpreters.

With an election coming up, Penelas suddenly wants to play Santa Claus. The worst part, though, is that the mayor didn't say where he would find the money to pay for these gifts. All he would say is that he would pull the money from somewhere in the county budget, which actually means he will make the county manager assume the role of Grinch and cut the money from some other program or office.

Penelas's approach to these issues is both cynical and irresponsible.

As a commissioner Penelas orchestrated the largest giveaway in the county's history: a no-bid contract to develop Homestead Air Force Base. In January 1996 the 70-year, multimillion-dollar sweetest of deals was handed to a group of politically influential Cuban Americans who had formed a company called HABDI (Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc.).

Since then the transfer of the base from the U.S. Air Force to Miami-Dade County (which in turn will hand it over to HABDI) has been stalled as the federal government studies the environmental impact of the county's plan to turn the base into a commercial airport. Nearly every major environmental group in the nation has spoken out against the idea of placing an airport on land that sits between two prized and ecologically sensitive areas: Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. The U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carol Browner, also have condemned the idea of turning the base, severely damaged eight years ago during Hurricane Andrew, into an airport.

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