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.

Environmentalists believe that Graham's unflagging support for building a commercial airport in Homestead is directly linked to his interest in protecting those family assets. If environmentalists are successful in blocking the Homestead airport, the theory goes, then the next likely candidate for expansion of Miami-Dade's aviation facilities would be the county-owned Opa-locka airport, which borders the eastern edge of Miami Lakes and is only lightly used today. A major commercial airport adjacent to "Grahamville" would not only have a potentially adverse effect on the value of his family's holdings, it would prove to be a very noisy neighbor.

In other words, by pushing for a new airport to be built in Homestead, Senator Graham is ensuring that one never gets built in his back yard.

"I think Graham is the driving force behind the Homestead plans," says Chinquina. "The only thing I can think is that the man is doing this to protect his family's investment in Miami Lakes. He doesn't want those planes flying over those houses he's building out there.

"As long as this fight has been happening, he has been pro-airport all the way in Homestead," Chinquina continues. "And if there is anybody who has been willing to circumvent the process to get that airport up, it's Bob Graham. I know of meetings leading up to the decision to initiate an SEIS where Bob Graham was in offices pounding his fist on tables saying, “This will be an airport.' He was getting emotionally involved in this thing, trying to twist the president's arm to not to move forward with an SEIS, to get that airport on line."

In 1996, for instance, New Times reported that Graham pressured Sen. John Chaffee (R-Rhode Island) to withdraw a request he had made to the General Accounting Office for an investigation into the Homestead airport proposal.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson says she also has been disturbed by Graham's actions. "I've been frustrated with Senator Graham's position on this issue," she reports. "I've talked to him myself and met with members of his staff. At first he was noncommittal, then he was more pro-airport. I don't think he's ever been with the environmentalists on this issue."

Adds Alan Farago: "Bob Graham has left a trail of anger and disappointment over the Homestead Air Force Base. It is a terrible disappointment that this issue will now be a lasting part of his legacy and will seriously tarnish his reputation as an environmentalist."

"We've talked to Senator Graham many times," says Ocean Reef's David Ritz, "and we have not been very successful. He is more concerned with the airport issues than he is with the environmental issues. It does surprise me that he is not leading the charge to protect this national resource."

Kim James, a spokeswoman in Graham's Washington office, denies the senator has been pushing for the airport development in Homestead. "Senator Graham has had an historic interest in transportation needs in South Florida, going back to the days before he was governor," James says. "On the issue of the conveyance of Homestead Air Force Base, Senator Graham has said that he will await the results of the secretary of the air force's review of the supplemental environmental impact study and will be guided by his recommendations."

Environmentalists find it ironic that, with regard to this subject, their strongest allies have often been Republicans while their fiercest opponents have been Democrats. Outgoing Republican Sen. Connie Mack, for example, opposes the development of a commercial airport at the air base. One of Mack's Republican colleagues, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, tried to guarantee that the proposed airport would not hinder plans to restore the Everglades.

On the other hand, redeveloping the base as a commercial airport has been supported over the years by Graham and fellow Democrats such as Penelas, Congresswoman Carrie Meek, former Gov. Lawton Chiles, Senator-elect Bill Nelson while he was state insurance commissioner, and State Sen. Daryl Jones.

"One of our scariest moments was when [Jones] was up for secretary of the air force," Chinquina relates, referring to President Clinton's 1997 nomination of the South Miami-Dade legislator to the post. Many environmentalists believe that if Jones had been confirmed as air force secretary, he would have pushed through the plan to turn over the base to Miami-Dade County. Jones eventually withdrew his nomination following questions raised by this newspaper regarding his service in the air force reserve and his involvement as a lobbyist in a local municipal bond deal.

Given that history of Democratic support for the airport proposal, it's understandable local environmentalists would have been skeptical at the October 18 meeting when Mitchell Berger, Democratic Party fundraiser and long-time Gore friend, tried to reassure them that his professional ties to the Mas family were no cause for concern.

Berger maintains that his work for Church & Tower is confined to representing them in a dispute with the Broward County school system. He insists he is not doing any work for HABDI. In the past, Berger says, he has been approached by both sides -- those representing HABDI and those representing the Collier-Hoover team -- to discuss the transfer of the base, but he has always refused. "The lobbyists who are working for HABDI have talked to me about it and the lobbyists who are working for the Colliers have talked to me about it," he acknowledges. "They've each tried to engage me to be an advocate for their side, and I've said no. I tell them I do not want to talk to them about that."

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