Friendly Fire

State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle should have coasted to election victory. Instead she's dodging bullets from the police unions in the political fight of her life.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle is trying to sign an oversize placard in the lobby of the Miami Police Department, but the felt-tip marker she's holding won't work. This is a signing ceremony to kick off a fundraiser for victims of domestic violence. Police chiefs from all over Miami-Dade County are standing stiffly behind a podium, strained smiles on their faces during the wait for a functional pen. A battery of TV cameras is trained on State Attorney Rundle, who can do little more than crack a quick joke about the department's budget woes. It's a small moment, but it neatly symbolizes her fortunes of late. Make that misfortunes. Rundle is up for re-election, and things could be better.

For instance, the police brass gathered here are skittish when it comes to talking about the race. Homestead's Chief Alexander Rolle smiles and sidesteps questions with a quick: “I'd rather not comment.” Coral Gables' Chief James Skinner notes dryly that men who run police departments generally don't announce their positions in political contests. Others simply laugh out loud when asked for comment.

The reticence arises from more than decorum. The race pitting Rundle against little-known Broward County prosecutor Alberto Milian has divided the law-enforcement community. Unions representing the county's two largest police departments oppose her, putting Miami-Dade's number one law-enforcement official in the awkward position of being criticized by the very police officers she ostensibly leads. Milian, meanwhile, has gained traction with relentless talk about a weak, underperforming prosecutor's office he aims to whip into shape.

Rundle confers with Miami police officers during a training session
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Rundle confers with Miami police officers during a training session

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

In 1996 Rundle ran unopposed. Even a year ago she looked to be a daunting candidate for re-election. Her seven-year incumbency gave her a huge head start on name recognition. She was the handpicked successor to her former boss, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, and that cachet extended far beyond the county. Crime rates had plummeted locally (a trend in big cities nationwide), thus allowing Rundle to take credit for achieving one of the top goals she'd set when first taking office. She counted some of the most influential local dignitaries as supporters, among them Donald Warshaw, Miami city manager and the trusted former police chief. Warshaw was an especially helpful weapon against her only significant enemy at the time: the countywide Police Benevolent Association (PBA). And most important, as 1999 ended she could boast of a $130,000 campaign war chest, enough money to intimidate any potential challenger. (That figure has since grown to roughly $380,000.)

But her clear command of the battlefield has slipped. Even though she is a heavy favorite to retain her seat following the November 7 vote, it is unclear whether she will ever be able to repair relations with the police unions. Further complicating matters, her stalwart law-enforcement defender, Warshaw, has been indicted by a federal grand jury for bilking a police department charity. Her opponent has been able to shift attention from the drop in crime to a perception that not enough has been done to combat public corruption. An embarrassing office melodrama became public when an ex-secretary successfully sued Rundle's office, claiming she was fired for complaining about sexual harassment. And former mentor Reno now threatens to become a serious liability in the politically powerful Cuban community, thanks to a kid named Elian Gonzalez.

“I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't think the police endorsements weren't important,” says Rundle supporter Bob Levy, a political consultant. “What the impact will be is not known.”

Another confidant, who asked not to be identified, puts the matter more bluntly: “Is she running scared? Absolutely.”

Rundle's predicament is partly of her own making. Her office has been slow to present an image that it is adequately fighting public corruption and is equally slow to resolve some of its larger cases. Critics say she's too quick to hand off politically sensitive investigations to federal authorities.

The incumbent insists her dilemma is the product of a political vendetta orchestrated by John Rivera, head of the 6000-member PBA, whose antipathy toward Rundle began after her office investigated a county commissioner friendly to the union. Despite assertions to the contrary, it's true that Rivera helped recruit Alberto Milian to run. But it also is true that Rivera has tapped into a broader sense of dissatisfaction among the troops.

In almost any other year, Rundle could have easily and quickly dispatched Milian, whose most noteworthy recent accomplishment was punching out a defense attorney in the Broward County Courthouse. Instead, for the first time in her career, she is facing the political equivalent of friendly fire.

In the past 43 years, Miami-Dade residents have known just three State Attorneys, a sign of the trust the public has historically placed in the officeholder. Richard Gerstein, a respected old-school liberal, served 21 years before retiring in 1978. He passed the torch to his indomitable chief assistant, Janet Reno. Only two years into her tenure, Reno faced a major setback when four police officers accused of beating to death a black motorcyclist were acquitted at trial. Afterward rioters in Liberty City were heard chanting, “Reno! Reno!” She spent the next couple of years relentlessly meeting with members of the black community to mend fences.

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