The Dead-End Kid

Alex Penelas has gone AWOL, and the Democratic Party faithful are furious

Penelas's chief fundraiser, lobbyist Chris Korge, also has been among Gore's main moneymen. During one event in Miami last year, Korge vowed that during Gore's presidential campaign, Penelas would play a highly visible role in Florida and across the nation in "major metropolitan areas with a significant Hispanic population."

As 1999 drew to a close, Penelas's political career seemed to be unfolding exactly as planned. He was moving up in the Democratic Party, laying the groundwork for his own advancement to higher office -- governor, senator, and, yes, president. Driven by his mother's ambitions for him, Penelas always believed he'd one day be president. Serving as mayor of Miami-Dade County was only supposed to be a way station on that journey. Now it looks as though it will be his final stop.

"There was a lot of hope for him, and his future once seemed very bright," a Democratic official in Washington explains. "He was American-born, he was articulate, he was a Democrat. Whenever the president or the vice president went to South Florida, we always made sure Alex was the person to introduce them. We made sure that Alex was seen as someone who had access. This administration has been very good to him and very good to Miami-Dade County. And now he has turned his back on us."

This Washington official recounts that party stalwarts once before felt betrayed by Penelas. In 1996, when Clinton was running for re-election, the mayor made the mistake of being photographed in New Hampshire as part of a Florida delegation campaigning for Bob Dole during the Republican primaries. Penelas blamed the embarrassing episode on his Republican wife; he was just accompanying her on the trip. "Everyone forgave him for that," the official says. "But not this time. We are not going to forgive him this time."


Penelas's political future began unraveling with the arrival of little Elian Gonzalez. Even before the April 22 raid on the home of the boy's Miami relatives, Penelas believed the administration's handling of the Elian affair had hindered him. The mayor's now-infamous statement in front of the federal courthouse was a measure of his personal frustration with a Washington bureaucracy that didn't seem appropriately sensitive to his local political needs.

After Penelas personally attacked Clinton and threatened to hold the president and Attorney General Janet Reno responsible for any violent civil unrest in Miami, the president responded in kind: He froze out the mayor. According to one source close to Penelas, in the weeks following that defiant statement, Clinton refused to meet or talk with Penelas, despite repeated requests by the mayor.

Politically speaking, the president essentially sent Penelas to bed without supper. He didn't publicly humiliate the mayor or retaliate by trying to hold up federal funds intended for Miami-Dade. He simply spanked him.

Penelas's response, however, was stunning. Like a petulant child, he grew angrier and angrier with the Clinton administration. Then, inexplicably, he decided to exact revenge on Al Gore, the one member of the administration who had publicly argued that the boy should be allowed to stay in the United States.

In the weeks following the raid that removed Elian, Penelas's own mayoral re-election campaign began moving into high gear. Perhaps not surprisingly he figured it was best for him to steer clear of Gore, and so he refused to attend any functions with the vice president. Although members of the Gore campaign had hoped Penelas would have shown more loyalty to the vice president, they understood he was in a tough election battle of his own.

But there was an expectation among Democrats that after Penelas won his election, he would be free to help the vice president. Penelas supporters argue there really was nothing the mayor could have done to aid Gore, because Cuban Americans were still seething over the raid. Other Democrats, such as Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, point out that Gore needed surrogates like Penelas to vouch for him and make clear to Cuban Americans that the vice president had broken with Clinton and Reno in arguing that Elian's future should be decided by a family-court judge in Florida.

Martinez recalls that he and Penelas were supposed to host a joint press conference in support of Gore on October 18. Both the date and the time had been selected to accommodate Penelas's schedule. Yet Penelas failed to show. Later that day he boarded a plane for his vacation in Spain. "When the going gets tough, he just hides," Martinez says derisively. "Alex is weak; he doesn't have a backbone. He is just a wimp. He only cares for Alex Penelas and doesn't care for anyone else."

Penelas campaign advisor Ric Katz claims the mayor never committed to attending that press conference. Martinez disagrees. Lobbyist Korge floats this comical excuse: Penelas was unable to attend the October 18 event because he had to get home and pack for his vacation. Katz, however, did promise that when Penelas returned from Spain at the end of October he would actively barnstorm for the vice president and be "visible" in the crucial closing days. Despite that promise Penelas remained virtually invisible. Even during last week's star-studded midnight rally on the sands of Miami Beach -- the very last day of the campaign -- Penelas was a no-show. "It was just very late at night," sputters Penelas spokesman Juan Mendieta.

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