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
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
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
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

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.

A STAR IS BORN
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.

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.

CRONIES
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.

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

TRANSPORTATION TAX CAMPAIGN
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.

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.

WAGES COALITION
“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.

ELIAN GONZALEZ
“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

ALEX PENELAS, DEMOCRAT?
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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

THE YEAR OF THE CHILD
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 (www.co.miami-dade.fl.us/mayor/) 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.

HABDI
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.

In recent months key members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have argued that it is ludicrous for the federal government to spend billions of dollars cleaning up and restoring the Everglades while at the same time risking irreparable harm to that national treasure by permitting the construction of a major airport so close to it.

Yet through it all Penelas has remained steadfast in his support of HABDI, whose owners include Carlos Herrera, a former president of the Latin Builders Association; Pedro Adrian, a prominent Cuban-American developer; and the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Penelas refuses even to consider other options for the land, among them a widely praised plan offered by the venerable Collier family, which has proposed turning the base into a tourism center featuring, among other things, a golf course, a resort-style hotel, 1.7 million square feet of office space, and a world-class aquarium. The Collier plan would create thousands of jobs in South Miami-Dade and already has been accepted by environmental groups.

Penelas, however, won't budge.

POTPOURRI
Let's run through a few of the mayor's other so-called achievements:

•Crime. Penelas claims he has reduced crime in Miami-Dade County during his tenure. He doesn't mention, however, that crime rates have been dropping across the United States, and that the trend in Miami-Dade County began before he was elected. Many experts ascribe the drop in crime to the nation's booming economy, not to the wisdom of Alex Penelas.

•Name change. Being the mayor of Dade County wasn't such a great thing for the part of Penelas that craves attention, which is to say the biggest part. People around the country may not have realized he was the mayor of a major metropolitan area. So he arranged a ballot measure three years ago that changed the county's name to Miami-Dade County. The new handle may help his name recognition, but to call it a valuable accomplishment is dubious at best.

•Political boy toy. People magazine named Penelas the “sexiest politician” in the nation last year. “I think anything that puts this community in a positive light is good,” Penelas remarked to the Herald. “But this is not the reason why I'm mayor. I have other things to offer people.” Such as?

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