Five's a Crowd

Miami Mayor Joe Carollo wants to remain in public life, but there's one problem: His private life

Morning broke uneasily over Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood, a once-wonderful artists&supl; colony that, despite the best efforts of some of the most annoying community activists in the world, has evolved into a chain-store-clogged shopping mall. In the Carollo household, tension percolated. At a little after 7:00 a.m. on February 7, a still-groggy Mari Carollo sat down in her pajamas to enjoy a cup of coffee she'd brewed for herself.

Just three months earlier she had sued her husband, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, for divorce. She had been telling friends she was sick of playing the political widow, that she was tired of her two daughters being raised by an absentee father. She had let her husband of fifteen years stay in the house while they attended counseling and such, but even that was winding down toward an unhappy conclusion. The mayor's eviction seemed imminent. Mari, age 43, decided not to make tea for him this morning, a break from her normal routine.

Joe walked into the kitchen. He is a tall man with a barrel chest, stiff limbs, and a rectangular head topped with an immobile plastic helmet of straight black hair. At age 46 he's as physically graceful and coordinated as a man twice his age. He's kind of like Al Gore but without the macarena. A lifelong anti-communist and political outsider, Carollo may have awoken contemplating how, with his second marriage crumbling, he has failed to maintain a stable relationship with a single human being.

The mayor tries to seduce Sissi (left) with an official city chafing dish. Later Sissi beat the stress of dating in the public eye by relaxing in a hot tub with Raul de Molina and Lili Estefan
AP/Wide World Photo
The mayor tries to seduce Sissi (left) with an official city chafing dish. Later Sissi beat the stress of dating in the public eye by relaxing in a hot tub with Raul de Molina and Lili Estefan

"How do you make tea?" he asked his wife in his stilted monotone, reaching for a carton of Kuangin tea donated without declaration by the wife of a Taiwanese government official. Mari told him to get a pot, fill it with water, pour the tea in, and boil it. The man who cooked up such engineering feats as rerouting Biscayne Boulevard to accommodate the Florida Marlins stood flummoxed by these simple instructions.

"He asked again if he put water in the pot, and I said, No, point your finger and water will appear,'" Mari later told police.

Maybe it was the pressure of pretending to have led Miami from bankruptcy to the brink of greatness, as his lawyer would later claim. Maybe it was the prospect of running for re-election against seven attractively nefarious challengers. Maybe it simply was the boiling stress of the not-yet-boiling tea. Whatever the reason, Carollo snapped. Winding up his throwing arm as if he were Fidel Castro tossing the first pitch in front of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, Carollo flung the hard cardboard tea box at his wife, smacking her in the forehead. According to the police report, Mari sustained a "golf-ball-sized" bruise to her left temple. She also got mad.

"I went to hit him, and he grabbed my arms," Mari told police. "I scratched his neck, and I started yelling for my daughter to call 911. One of my daughters, my youngest daughter, came into the kitchen, told him to leave me alone.... Then she went to another room to call 911."

"My dad's hurting my mom!" cried ten-year-old Kelley Carollo to the 911 operator. "Please come now! Please!"

Carollo was arrested and charged with domestic battery, a misdemeanor. The leader of 625,000 largely impoverished citizens spent the night in the North Dade Detention Facility, a circumstance his chief of staff described to reporters as "business as usual." Indeed Carollo reported that he fit right in among the dregs incarcerated with him. "Some inmates were saying, If they didn't want you in the city, well, come here and we'll elect you mayor,'" he recalled after his release. (No word if any of these people were named Manuel Yip.)

Joe Carollo's arrest was only the beginning of a very public soap opera more riveting than the finale of Betty la Fea. When Mari first filed for divorce, Carollo vowed to give up political life and devote himself full-time to rebuilding his marriage. The tea box heard round the world marked a sudden reversal of his priorities: To hell with the marriage; I want to be mayor. And I may not be the sexiest mayor (the holder of that title, Alex Penelas, is solidly married -- sorry, ladies), but I will have the sexiest girlfriend.

In short order Carollo has been seen squiring a series of semifamous starlets, from Univision bikini model Sissi to Lucía Méndez, telenovela starlet and past-her-prime Mexican diva. The message for divorce court is clear: Mari may have been Miami's first lady, but she won't be the last under Joe.

Only days after his release from jail, and as the domestic-violence charges first settled over him, the mayor held a press conference. He was asked to address an earlier statement that he wasn't going to run for mayor again so he could devote time to his wife and family. He replied with solemn sincerity: "I would like to take this time to publicly apologize to my family, who has had to deal with this private matter under the watchful eye of the media. My heart grieves every time I think of the pain and hurt they are experiencing at this time."

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