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Berger and McGinty both argued that if Gore were to make any statement about Homestead in the closing weeks of the campaign, it would look as though he were pandering to the environmental community. Their audience was unmoved.
The notion that Gore was trying to keep politics out of the process was met with disbelief. For one thing the final version of the SEIS was supposed to have been published in July but was postponed until after November 7. Many in the environmental community believe the delay was intentional, a ploy that allowed the vice president to avoid taking a position prior to election day. Some were beginning to question Gore's motives.
The meeting grew tense when Sorenson asked Berger if it was true he represented Church & Tower, the construction company owned by the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation. (In addition to owning Church & Tower, the Mas family is a major shareholder in HABDI.) Berger acknowledged it was true but said his work for the Mas family had nothing to do with the vice president's position on the airport.
Once again those at the meeting appeared unwilling to accept the answer.
McGinty revealed that Gore was contemplating a campaign rally in South Florida that would emphasize his lifelong defense of the environment and the Clinton administration's efforts to restore the Everglades. If the vice president were to hold such a rally in South Florida, McGinty wondered, would there be protesters?
The answer she received was unambiguous: You can count on it.
According to those present, McGinty replied, "It breaks the vice president's heart" that he can't schedule an environmental event in South Florida for fear of being embarrassed by protesters over the Homestead issue.
"There were a lot of questions about whether he could risk showing up down here," recalls Chinquina. "And our answer was no. Unless he is coming to announce his position on the air base, don't come."
As the meeting drew to a close, after more than two hours of debate, McGinty tried to end on a positive note. "Win or lose, the vice president wants you to know that he cares about you," she reportedly said.
"Well, take our friendship back to the vice president," Chinquina replied, "and tell him that only a true friend will tell you what you don't want to hear. And what you don't want to hear is that you are going to lose this election because of Homestead. Because no matter what we say, a lot of our folks are going to vote for Nader."
Chinquina was right. Forget about hanging chads and butterfly ballots. Forget about confused voters and missing ballot boxes. Forget about recounts and lawsuits. If Al Gore loses Florida's 25 electoral votes, and with them the presidency, he can blame himself for refusing to stand in opposition to an airport at Homestead Air Force Base.
Ralph Nader received more than 96,000 votes in Florida. In the final week of the campaign, he visited Miami and hammered away at the vice president's silence regarding Homestead. "Al Gore is waffling as usual," Nader exclaimed. "He refuses to take a position as usual."
On the eve of the election, Nader sent out a letter to environmentalists across the state, attacking both Gore and Bush but singling out Gore for particular scorn. "On the Everglades, currently a key issue in a hotly contested state, Gore has worked with the Florida government (including Gov. Jeb Bush) to cut deals for the “recovery plan' that allows for major development around this national treasure," Nader wrote. "Gore has not opposed a proposed commercial airport on the site of the former Homestead Air Force Base, despite the protest of local people working for conservation and his own EPA. There are no airports situated on the border of national parks in America; the Everglades is the last place to consider changing that fact. In general, work to restore the Everglades should be done for the public, and for future generations, not on the basis of debts called in by the sugar industry and local power brokers."
Until now the controversy surrounding Homestead has largely been viewed as a local issue. But that is about to change. Soon it will take center stage nationally. The SEIS is expected to be released within days. That will put increasing pressure on the Clinton administration to make a decision about the base's future before its term expires. Complicating matters, the choice will not simply be airport or no airport.
In addition to HABDI's long-standing proposal, officially backed by the Miami-Dade County government, the federal government also is considering a second development option, known as the Collier-Hoover plan, which would include an office park, retail outlets, a resort hotel with two golf courses, research and educational facilities, and a large aquarium.
The Collier family, Florida pioneers who once owned much of Southwest Florida and for whom Collier County was named, owns the right to drill for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve, 45 miles west of Miami. They would be willing to trade a portion of those drilling rights in Big Cypress for the opportunity to develop the air base.