Hip hip hooray. The Homestead airport is dead. For now, at least.

Since the air force announcement last week, Mayor Penelas has been acting like a peevish child who didn't get what he wanted for Christmas. He says he doesn't know what the county will do next. Maybe the county will sue the federal government, he shrugs, or maybe the county will reject the air force's offer and let the land go to the Department of the Interior. He bounces from one interview to another, acting as if the decision was so unexpected he hasn't considered the alternatives.

Miami-Dade County can ill afford a pouty mayor.

The first thing Penelas should do is abandon any hope that President George W. Bush will overturn the air force's decision. Some people believe that because a Homestead airport would be built by a group of powerful Cuban businessmen, a Republican administration would be predisposed to reverse the air force. But as far as Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother the president are concerned, these particular Cuban businessmen are personae non grata.

The Homestead runway will be a temptation for years to come
Steve Satterwhite
The Homestead runway will be a temptation for years to come

The largest shareholder in HABDI is the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa. The Bush brothers have not forgotten Mas Canosa's 1992 meeting with then-candidate Bill Clinton, from which Mas Canosa emerged saying Cuban Americans had nothing to fear from a Clinton presidency. The de facto endorsement undermined their father's chances of winning a second term in office. That perceived act of betrayal recently was repeated when Mas Canosa's son, as well as members of the Cuban American National Foundation, hosted a private meeting with Al Gore's running mate, Joseph Lieberman, on the eve of the November election.

The Mas family has no chits to call in with either Jeb or George W. on behalf of HABDI. Furthermore it has been clear for months that George W. wants nothing to do with this matter. Governor Jeb all but begged Clinton to make the Homestead decision before leaving office so neither he nor his brother would have to get involved.

Moreover anyone who thinks Penelas will be handed Homestead as a Republican reward for turning his back on Gore during the campaign misreads the political landscape. Whatever goodwill Penelas has developed with Republicans will be used to help him create a strong-mayor form of government in Miami-Dade County so he can run for another term. Penelas, after all, has nowhere else to go.

The air force decision is not going to be reversed by the new administration. Nor is it likely to be overturned in the courts. If Penelas joins in HABDI's lawsuit against the federal government, he will end up wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money. No judge is going to order the federal government to place a major commercial airport in Homestead.

Commissioner Sorenson says it's time to move forward and will ask her colleagues to accept the land with the no-airport provision, then immediately begin preparing a request for proposals. Even though the Collier-Hoover plan has been endorsed by a wide array of politicians and environmental groups, Sorenson says it would be wrong simply to award the base to that group. "After all these years of arguing against the no-bid decision to give the base to HABDI, it would be hypocritical of me now to say we should offer it to the Collier-Hoover team without any competitive bidding," she explains. "This is what we should have done years ago. Let's choose from an assortment of ideas and proposals and let the best plan emerge. But we have to do it quickly. We can't waste time."

One final piece of business. Leaders in the environmental community should temper their rhetoric regarding the nomination of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior. At the very least they need to be a little smarter regarding their approach to her.

A couple of weeks ago, during the Everglades Coalition's annual meeting, I asked a few questions: Did the coalition have a position on Norton's nomination? Did anyone know if Norton had ever made any statements regarding the Everglades? Did anyone know if Norton had even visited the Everglades?

The response was confused. The coalition wasn't sure what, if anything, it was going to say about Norton, though individual members of the coalition, such as the Sierra Club, already had vowed to fight her nomination. As far as my other questions, no one knew the answer.

It appears Norton will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. I and others may disagree with many of her views, but she cannot simply be written off as the enemy, especially when it comes to the Everglades. As far as the River of Grass is concerned, she's an empty vessel waiting to be filled. "She is not as extreme or as crazy as some people have described her," says Joe Browder, a long-time Everglades activist who runs a Washington-based political-consulting firm specializing in environmental issues. "She is not the kind of person who is going to be inflammatory or take joy in beating environmental organizations or speak in dramatic terms about how evil environmentalists are, the way her mentor, Jim Watt, used to. She is broader-minded than that and smarter than that. It is a mistake to label her as one of the right-wing crazies.

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