The Enigma

The new chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation sets his own course in Tallahassee

What do you call a Republican who is pro-choice, supports the National Rifle Association and gay rights, and believes in treatment over incarceration for juveniles but is considered to have one of the worst voting records in the state on environmental issues?

In Miami we call him Gus.

State Rep. Gustavo Barreiro is not an easy man to categorize. As the legislative session opens this week in Tallahassee, Barreiro is hoping to play a more prominent role than he has in past years, when some of his positions angered both the governor and the House leadership. Barreiro led the charge in 2000 to derail a portion of the governor's proposed "10-20-Life" bill for kids. Among its provisions: Any juvenile who commits a crime while carrying a gun automatically would be sentenced to ten years in an adult prison. Barreiro believes the measure was wrong. "I did not want to take discretion away from judges, especially for first-time offenders," he explains. "I felt strongly about it." Barreiro enlisted the help of state Rep. Manny Prieguez, and the two men attacked the bill at every opportunity, lobbying members of the House and Senate until they knew they had enough votes to defeat it.

Once they had the votes, the governor agreed to back down and soften the bill. Being outmaneuvered by members of their own party was an embarrassment to Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker John Thrasher, and their retribution was swift. Nearly every bill Barreiro tried to pass for the remainder of that year, and all his budget requests, were killed. "He was willing to sacrifice his own standing for principal," lobbyist Bob Levy opines. "And you have to admire that."

After spending the past two years as vice-chairman of the community affairs committee, most observers expected Barreiro to become its chairman, overseeing sensitive growth-management issues around the state. Instead the fact that he was given the chairmanship of the house juvenile justice committee was seen by some as yet another bit of political retribution for his earlier stand. "The leadership may have decided that since he was so interested in juvenile justice issues last year, we'll just go ahead and make him head of that committee," comments Levy.

Barreiro, however, says he asked to be chairman of juvenile justice. "This has always been my dream," he notes. Typically, Barreiro admits, juvenile justice is viewed as one of the least desirable committee assignments in the legislature. He says he hopes to turn that perception around. And certainly his background makes him well suited for the task.

Barreiro was born in Mantanzas, Cuba, and came to the United States 39 years ago, when he was just two years old. His younger brother is Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. For those who only casually know the Barreiro boys, it's hard to believe they are related. Gus, a former high school football star, is barrel-chested and extremely outgoing, while Bruno is much more mild-mannered. And though they both are Republicans, Gus is considered a moderate while Bruno is more conservative. On several occasions the two men have endorsed opposing candidates.

What most folks don't realize is they actually are half-brothers. Same father, different mothers. Gus Barreiro was raised principally by his mother after his parents divorced shortly after leaving Cuba. Barreiro's father remarried and started a family that included Bruno.

"I wouldn't see my father that much when I was growing up," Gus Barreiro remembers. "My mother and father were both new immigrants; they were both struggling to make their own lives."

Barreiro won a football scholarship to a Wisconsin college, where he studied criminal justice and child development. While in school his girlfriend became pregnant. "I was in my dorm room, it was the week before Christmas, and Patty came to me and said, `I'm pregnant,'" he recalls. "There are many choices you can make at that point. We decided to get married." Barreiro was twenty years old.

Eighteen months later he dropped out of college and went to work at a group home for juvenile delinquents. Eventually he opened his own facility, housing up to eight kids at any one time.

"I had a philosophy which I still believe in today," he explains. "If you have a troubled kid, you don't put him in jail unless you absolutely have to. Instead you should try to place him in a house with structure, give him a family-type setting, and see if he responds to it. Most will. The important thing is for these kids to make a connection with somebody. When they make that connection, they don't want to disappoint that person, and eventually they will begin to realize they don't want to disappoint themselves by screwing up, either."

After seven years his marriage failed, and he returned to South Florida in 1989, leaving behind his ex-wife and his daughter, Nicole. Barreiro was ordered to pay child support, but by 1998 he owed more than $22,000 in interest and delinquent payments.

At the time he disputed the amount and produced 85 canceled checks written to his ex-wife over the years by Barreiro and members of his family. He said he tried to provide for his daughter whenever possible. "I never felt I needed to defend myself as a father," he offers. "I did what I could do."

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