Collision Course

On one side are politicians and influential business interests. On the other are environmentalists and some very wealthy private citizens. In the middle is Homestead Air Force Base. Dead ahead: An explosive confrontation.

Three weeks before election day, Al Gore dispatched some of his top advisors to South Florida to shore up support among environmentalists. With Green Party candidate Ralph Nader looming larger and larger in the final weeks of the campaign, Gore needed to make sure his own base was secure within the local environmental community and that its members would turn out for him in record numbers.

Leading the delegation was Kathleen McGinty, former chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. As a senior policy advisor for both Gore and the Democratic National Committee, McGinty was instrumental in helping define many of the vice president's positions on ecological matters during the campaign.

Playing chauffeur for McGinty on this day was Mitchell Berger, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer and member of the South Florida Water Management District's governing board. A passionate defender of the Everglades, Berger has been friends with Gore for more than fifteen years. If Gore were to win the presidency, Berger, one of the Democratic Party's biggest fundraisers, would be a strong contender for appointment as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Rounding out the contingent was Sam Poole, an environmental attorney and partner in Berger's law firm, Berger Davis & Singerman. Poole, a Democrat, was the executive director of the South Florida Water Management District from 1994 until 1999, at which time he was unceremoniously fired by Gov. Jeb Bush's new appointees to the governing board.

McGinty and the others had tried to keep their visit a secret, inviting only a few key local environmental leaders they believed they could count on to fall in line behind the vice president. Among the invitees were Karsten Rist and Don Chinquina, president and executive director, respectively, of the Tropical Audubon Society; Frank Jackalone, senior regional representative of the Sierra Club; and Mark Kraus, representing the state chapter of the National Audubon Society.

The October 18 meeting was conducted at the Tropical Audubon Society's South Miami headquarters, a 69-year-old historic home known as the Doc Thomas House. With the sun beginning to set, the group gathered in the living room. McGinty began the meeting by stressing how important it was for environmentalists to rally around Gore in the closing days of the campaign. She noted that throughout Gore's career in public office, protecting the environment had been one of his highest priorities. Now it was time for the environmental community to come to his aid.

Whatever hopes McGinty had for enthusiastic cooperation were quickly shattered. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Katy Sorenson -- who had not been invited to the meeting but showed up anyway -- demanded to know why the vice president hadn't come out against plans for converting Homestead Air Force Base to a commercial airport.

Ever since the base was devastated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the federal government has been considering a proposal to give a large portion of the airfield -- approximately 1300 acres -- to Miami-Dade County, which already has decided to lease the base to a group of politically influential local businessmen working under the name Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., commonly known by its acronym HABDI (pronounced hab-dee). In January 1996 the county commission awarded development rights to HABDI in a 70-year no-bid contract, the largest such contract in county history. (Some knowledgeable sources have estimated those development rights to be worth more than $500 million over the next twenty years.) Sorenson has been the deal's most persistent critic.

Sorenson's objections, however, were not limited to the sleazy appearance of county commissioners awarding a sweetheart contract to a group of politically connected developers. Her principal concern was the potential negative impact on the environment. The proposed airport, which would generate up to 230,000 flights annually, sits between Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park, one of the most ecologically sensitive regions in the United States. Nearly every major environmental group in the nation has opposed a commercial airport at the base. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and EPA administrator Carol Browner also have condemned the plan.

By remaining neutral on the issue, Sorenson argued, the vice president was not only betraying his own environmental record, he also was undermining his chances of carrying Florida in the November 7 election. Others at the meeting echoed Sorenson's complaint. Chinquina said the vice president was disappointing scores of environmentalists because of his silence on the Homestead issue. He reported that he had tried on several occasions to recruit volunteers from among his 3000 Tropical Audubon members to participate in phone banks for the Gore campaign but had found few people willing. Time and again, Chinquina told McGinty, Audubon members cited Gore's silence on Homestead as their reason for refusing to help.

The vice president's reticence was driving his supporters to Nader, who already was using the Homestead air base issue in his stump speeches around the nation as proof there was no real difference between Gore and Republican nominee George W. Bush. The Texas governor also was refusing to take a position on Homestead.

McGinty vainly tried to convince the group that the vice president was remaining neutral on the airport debate out of respect for the process under way to determine the base's future. A supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) was being prepared to study the effects of the proposed airport. A draft of that report had been released in December 1999, but until the final report was presented, Gore would hold his opinions in abeyance.

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