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.

Four years later, in 1984, Reno faced her first consequential challenger. By that time Dade County's demographics had dramatically shifted toward Hispanics, the majority of whom were politically active Cubans. Reno found herself up against José Garcia Pedrosa, Miami's city attorney who would later become city manager for both Miami Beach and Miami. Reno won a hard-fought re-election. Rundle, who on Reno's behalf made inroads into the Cuban community, where her father was a well-known figure, was promoted to chief assistant state attorney for community affairs. (Rundle had joined the office in 1978, working in the trenches as a prosecutor for five years before ascending to her administrative role.)

Reno's record on public corruption is still debated, but her reputation was always that of a straight arrow who, whatever her failings, maintained the integrity of the office. This respect carried her through four terms. Twice she ran unopposed. When the Clinton-Gore administration selected her to head the Justice Department in 1993, Rundle succeeded her.

Katherine Fernandez Rundle certainly had the right pedigree for a political post in Miami. Her father, the late Carlos Fernandez, was a pillar of the exile community, a judge who later became a radio commentator. Rundle's own education mixed local loyalty with achievement. She graduated from the University of Miami in 1973 and from the University of Cambridge Law School in England three years later.

The fall that prompted it all: Bruce Kaplan (at podium) announcing his resignation from the county commission while John Rivera (left) lends support
Bill Cooke
The fall that prompted it all: Bruce Kaplan (at podium) announcing his resignation from the county commission while John Rivera (left) lends support
The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera
Steve Satterwhite
The man who would be State Attorney: Alberto Milian (left) with John Rivera

In contrast to the constrained, somewhat stiff Reno, Rundle seems to be a natural politician. Bright and engaging, she exudes a practiced if guarded charm. At age 50 she is trim and vigorous, her sharp green eyes clear and penetrating. She runs her staff of 1200 (300 of which are prosecutors) from a capacious fourth-floor suite in the State Attorney's Office at 1350 NW Twelfth Ave. During interviews there she routinely keeps senior staff members nearby to help with problematic questions.

When Rundle first took office in 1993, Miami civic leaders were in a panic. New forms of violent crime, including carjacking, and new targets such as tourists had blackened the county's sunny image. “Three weeks after I took office,” she recalls, “we were being called the crime capital of the country. Embassies were issuing advisories about visiting Miami. It was awful.”

She helped put together Dade Partners for Safe Neighborhoods, a task force of business leaders, school officials, and law-enforcement heads to address the mayhem. The group pushed for more prison beds to hold suspects and lobbied the governor and legislators to pass new get-tough laws.

In 1998 Rundle helped craft and promote a bill that closed loopholes allowing people to sell handguns at gun shows without conducting background checks. That same year she pushed the so-called Jimmy Ryce bill, which was named after the South Miami-Dade boy who'd been brutally murdered and which allows courts to keep those convicted of sexual assaults in a treatment facility if they are still deemed to be a threat after their sentence is completed. “This is a sharp difference between this administration and my opponent,” Rundle says of her legislative efforts. “My opponent has said over and over again: “We don't need new laws; we need better enforcement of existing laws.'”

Rundle also is quick to point out that while crime rates are falling across the nation, “we're light years ahead of everybody,” violent crimes having dropped more than 30 percent over the past six years. She has added an average of thirteen new positions per year for the past six years (not including an annual attrition rate of about 36 positions per year) and loosened Tallahassee's purse strings to fatten her department's budget by more than $20 million over the past seven years to $58.7 million today. (Recent reports, however, show that rapes and domestic violence have climbed by as much as twenty percent from 1999, a disconcerting development for a State Attorney who trumpets that she established Florida's first felony domestic-violence unit in 1986.)

By her critics in law enforcement, Rundle is perceived as a well-intentioned administrator whose office has trouble handling complicated conspiracy cases. “Any controversial case she dumps to the feds,” complains one highly placed Miami police official. As an example he cites the John Does, a Liberty City drug syndicate. Miami cops took the case to federal prosecutors after Rundle's office allegedly showed reluctance in pursuing the investigation. The two agencies ended up prosecuting the gang together, winning several convictions.

And of course there is the catch phrase of this election: public corruption.

The notion that the State Attorney hasn't done enough to combat public corruption is not unique to Rundle. Her predecessor was dogged by similar complaints. In 1990, after twelve years in office, Reno had brought to trial only five elected officials. She preferred to leave the lion's share of the work to the U.S. Attorney's Office. Prosecutors insist this is a natural division of labor: State prosecutors handle the meat-and-potatoes cases like murder, robbery, and rape, while passing along the more costly intricate matters to the feds, who have greater resources and stronger tools for prosecution.

In 1980 the office had five lawyers handling organized crime and public corruption. Under Rundle the public-corruption unit has become a freestanding division, one of only a handful in the state, and employs nine prosecutors, up from six only two years ago. Since 1994 the unit has handled 227 cases, according to Chief Asst. State Attorney Trudy Novicki. In that time ten elected officials have been prosecuted, although not all were handled by the public-corruption unit. The prize catch in that list is Humberto Hernandez, the former Miami City commissioner.

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