An Uneasy Alliance

The real story behind Alex Penelas's secret dealings with Republicans

Should these enticements fail to persuade county commissioners, Lacasa is prepared to brandish one final weapon. If the county commission doesn't act, then in addition to placing the strong-mayor question on the statewide ballot in 2002, Lacasa says he will offer Florida voters another constitutional change that year, this one allowing the state legislature to place any future Miami-Dade charter questions directly on the local ballot.

The effect of such a change would be devastating to Miami-Dade's independence. For instance if the state legislature decided Miami International Airport should be run by an independent authority and wanted to place that permanently in the charter, legislators could bypass the county commission and go straight to the county's voters. "The county commission has been very unresponsive to the public," Lacasa says in defense of his strong-arm tactics. "I'm working closely with the mayor. He would prefer that we have a homegrown solution to these problems, and I agree, which is why I'm giving the county commission a chance to act."

Neither Penelas nor Lacasa had expected these plans to become public for several more weeks. Their meeting, however, fell victim to the blinding glare of presidential politics.

My dinner with Alex: After breaking bread Alex Penelas and Carlos Lacasa began dividing up county government
My dinner with Alex: After breaking bread Alex Penelas and Carlos Lacasa began dividing up county government

Normally commissioners might be able to ignore Lacasa's threats. After all, he is merely 1 state representative among 120, and the county, through its lobbyists and friends in Tallahassee, could push to have Lacasa's proposals killed before they ever made it to a statewide vote.

Carlos Lacasa, however, is no ordinary state representative. In fact he may be the most powerful man in the State of Florida behind the governor. That's because Lacasa is the newly appointed chairman of the House budget committee. In that role he'll be overseeing the flow of billions and billions of dollars in state funds.

Lacasa will leave no doubt that creating a strong-mayor form of government in Miami-Dade is one of his highest priorities. Once he's done that, few of his colleagues will stand in his way. Why should a state representative in Orlando or Jacksonville or Panama City risk the wrath of the chairman of the budget committee by opposing a measure that will only affect Miami-Dade County?

The next question is obvious: Why is Lacasa doing this? Why is he pushing for the creation of a strong-mayor system?

Lacasa contends that the current form of government is not working and that there is no accountability. Miami-Dade County, he says, is so large it should be organized along the lines of a state government, with a strong executive branch (the mayor) and an independent legislature (the commission).

All of that may be true, but it also is true that term limits will force Lacasa out of the state House in two years. Rather than run for the state Senate, or even a seat on the county commission, he wants to be Miami-Dade mayor. And not just mayor but strong mayor.

In that regard Lacasa has something in common with Penelas. The mayor is trapped. Term limits will not allow him to run again under the current system as "executive mayor." His mishandling of the Elian Gonzalez affair and his betrayal of the Democratic Party during this year's presidential election have ruined any chance he might have had to run for higher office. The only place he remains viable as a candidate is Miami-Dade County, where he can count on his Cuban-American base of supporters.

Penelas, therefore, knows his only hope for staying in public office is to change the county charter and create a strong mayor. Once such a change is made, Penelas could assert that he is no longer bound by term limits since he is running for a newly created position.

The relationship between Lacasa and Penelas thus becomes intriguingly complicated. At the moment they have what can best be described as an uneasy alliance. They are true allies in that they both want to create a strong-mayor form of government, though they differ in their approaches to that goal. Lacasa will threaten the county commission with a legislative cudgel while Penelas will try to coax commissioners into placing a strong-mayor proposal on the local ballot next year. If that fails, Penelas and Lacasa will work together to ensure that the legislature proceeds with a statewide referendum.

On another level, though, Lacasa and Penelas are adversaries, both quietly jockeying for a job that doesn't even exist. Lacasa may have the upper hand here. He is expected to write his proposal in such a way that Penelas would be blocked from running again, arguing that the intent of the term-limits provision for county mayor should carry over to a strong-mayor position.

In order to counter Lacasa, Penelas would have two options. First he could persuade the county commission not only to place the strong-mayor question on the ballot but to do so in a way that would allow him to run. If that fails, he then would be forced to amend Lacasa's proposal in the legislature, and to succeed at that he'll need the help of Republicans. The New York Times story was correct in this regard. Penelas did abandon Gore to ingratiate himself with Republicans. But it wasn't for a congressional seat. It was to help him become strong mayor, or at the very least allow him to compete for the position.

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