The Morning After the Night Before

Three scenes from a botched election

When he decided this past Monday to allow ballot recounts by hand, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks ensured that the political madness engulfing South Florida would rage on. For a few days at least, the future would be known: Lots of people would be examining lots of ballots.

One week ago, though, nothing appeared to be certain. The future was unknowable. But somehow people successfully navigated their way through one of the strangest days in memory.

Miami

At Miami-Dade County Hall they were prepared for 
chaos, but the day proceeded with an eerie calm
Steve Satterwhite
At Miami-Dade County Hall they were prepared for chaos, but the day proceeded with an eerie calm
Palm Beach residents wasted no time getting their 
messages and mugs before the cameras
Irene Secada
Palm Beach residents wasted no time getting their messages and mugs before the cameras

On Wednesday, November 8, 2000, the day after the most surreal election in modern American history, a shadowy apparition lurks around county hall as the world awaits the presidential ballot recount. Above the passions of partisanship, the media's lust for news, and the weary movements of stressed-out bureaucrats floats a ghost, a spectral presence that is felt more than seen or heard. It is the spirit of little Elian Gonzalez.

Fresh in the minds of everyone here today is the circuslike atmosphere in Little Havana less than a year ago: the crush of the cameras bent on making news where none existed, the inflamed emotions of the participants, and the struggle of public officials to maintain order. This time, though, the future of the most powerful office in the world hangs in the balance. A major change in the recount could alter the course of human history.

Yet inexplicably, people seem relaxed.

Up on the nineteenth floor of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami, where the elections supervisor's office is located, ballots are being recounted in a glass-enclosed room guarded by two Miami-Dade police officers. Inside the soundproof room, the whirring of vote-counting machines is almost deafening. Fifteen or so people move about. In addition to those feeding ballots into the machines are representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties. Elections supervisor David Leahy is off in a corner, looking wan. Only a few reporters stand outside.

"I was surprised it wasn't more of a mob scene," comments Ellis Berger, a reporter for the Sun-Sentinel who is spending most of the day here. Occasionally a television crew marches in, films the scene for a few minutes, and then marches out. But most media wait downstairs, where a dozen vehicles representing TV and radio outlets line up along NW First Street.

Among the journalists idling on the sidewalk is Marian Romero, an independent producer for Spanish television. Romero notes that Spaniards don't really understand why the national election hinges on Florida. But many in Europe didn't understand the Elian crisis either, she shrugs. "I was watching [local] Spanish-language TV, and they were talking about the “Elian factor,'" Romero muses. "I said, “Oh my God, they have a name for everything here.'"

Back upstairs on the nineteenth floor, county communications director Mayco Villafaña struggles with a decision: Where should he arrange to hold the press conference announcing the recount results? In the election department's cramped lobby or elsewhere? Early in the morning, before the recount began, several dozen journalists had crammed into the area. "It looked like a sale of good overcoats at Macy's," remarks Villafaña, a sharp dresser himself.

Still he's been impressed by how smoothly everything has gone so far, and he's happy to credit the efforts of his own office. Preparing for the worst, the communications department had set up a television monitor in the lobby that provided a continuous live feed of the ballot-counting.

Although wary of "curiosity seekers," Villafaña opts to hold the press conference downstairs, outside the building. "I want the area secured," he instructs one of his staffers.That job would fall to chief of security Edward Hollander, who doesn't anticipate much trouble. "The media have behaved all day long," he reports.

In his slacks, rolled-up shirt sleeves, and tie, the middle-age Hollander looks like a poster boy for what Richard Nixon once called the Silent Majority: regular guys who get up in the morning and go to work, pay their taxes every year, and vote every four. "They just seem to want what the rest of us want," Hollander says of the reporters milling around outside the building. "For the counting and the election to be over." As he makes his rounds, Hollander's demeanor is closer to concierge than top cop. "Anything I can help you with?" he asks a reporter in search of a phone book.

Outside, near the entrance to county hall, assistant building manager Javier Suarez observes the bored clutch of reporters parked curbside. While the scene is not much to look at, in Suarez's mind it evokes memories of Camp Elian, where the world's media camped out on Miami's front porch. In fact the 67-year-old Suarez believes this amazingly close election has a lot to do with the way Al Gore's boss handled the Elian case. "It is the Cubans paying back the Clinton administration," he says disdainfully.

Suarez doesn't stop there. As he watches over the workers who are fulfilling Villafaña's decision to hold an outdoor press conference by marking off a large rectangular area, he launches into a detailed history of the Cuban exile in Miami, eventually working his way up to the recent past.

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