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
Joe "Kid Terracotta" Carollo mugs for police paparazzi while Mari Carollo swears for the court that, yes, she knows how to make tea
AP/Wide World Photo
Joe "Kid Terracotta" Carollo mugs for police paparazzi while Mari Carollo swears for the court that, yes, she knows how to make tea
Mr. Big: Free at last to womanize, Carollo caresses the hips of Mexican songstress Lucía Méndez (left) and of former Miss Florida Lissette Gonzalez
Enrique Tubio
Mr. Big: Free at last to womanize, Carollo caresses the hips of Mexican songstress Lucía Méndez (left) and of former Miss Florida Lissette Gonzalez

"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."

Then he announced he was going to run again.

"People are very understanding and forgiving," Carollo said, referring to the gullible Cuban-American grandmothers who returned former Commissioner Humberto Hernandez to office despite a federal indictment. "They know a mayor who has done so much and sacrificed so much cannot be judged on one incident."

Carollo declared he deserved re-election on his record. He then announced that his top priority was building a new stadium for the Florida Marlins, which he promptly went out and failed to do.

Diego's restaurant in Coral Gables. A party for Isabel Fleitas, a bikini model better known as Sissi. Fleitas gained her small amount of fame as one of the babes prancing about the set of Sábado Gigante, pointing at tubes of Colgate toothpaste or boxes of Cap'n Crunch cereal. So accomplished is her pointing that her page has become the most popular link on the Univision Website. Last June she saw a chance to stoke her rising fame by releasing a calendar festooned with her image. The Coral Gables party introduced the calendar to Sissi's eager public.

In the audience sat Miami's mayor, straying from his city limits. Few present at the party knew at the time that Carollo was on the prowl. In hindsight, though, it was obvious. He brought his heaviest artillery: his stiff lips, his awkward gait, and -- this is key -- a key to the city. With a typically forced smile, he handed the key to Fleitas, tossing in a framed proclamation declaring June 13, 2000, to be "Sissi's Day" in the city he governs.

Sissi's reign lasted longer than one day. Just this past April, Carollo, free from jail and almost free from the shackles of marriage, brought Sissi as his date when he cohosted a black-tie dinner at Vizcaya for the visiting king and queen of Spain. Sissi stunned the buttoned-up crowd by arriving in a showy, low-cut white gown, Carollo's arm around her shoulder as he led her from the car. The rumors of an affair blossomed so vibrantly that Sissi felt compelled to go on Spanish-language television and deny a relationship. She did so while submerged in a hot tub. Carollo, who was invited to appear on air with Sissi, did not join her in the tub, though show hosts Raul de Molina and Lili Estefan did.

Perhaps because he'd already found another TV personality to squire.

Carollo followed up the king's dinner by attending the Billboard Latin Music Awards show with Diana Franco, former host of the Telemundo network's Edición Especial.

The constant company of beautiful women is only one facet of the mayor's burgeoning (and more than a little unsettling) masculinity. Joe "Kid Terracotta" Carollo has been seen recently hitting the heavy bags at a Hialeah boxing gym. His assimilation into the fight crowd has taken him as far as Las Vegas, where he accompanied Miami resident and world champion Joel Casamayor, a refugee from Castro's Cuba, for one of the boxer's recent title defenses.

Such manliness is almost shocking. "He just doesn't look like a sexual being," says one city hall observer, who asked not to be named. "If it weren't for the kids you'd think he reproduced by splitting in half or something. He's cold. I've always wondered if he's an android designed by aliens who haven't quite been able to convincingly replicate a human being, but they're beta-testing this version on us."

This insider is not the only one to have questioned Joe's capacity for sexual reproduction. His wife did it herself. As the weekly New Times reportedlast year, Joe and Mari Carollo filed a lawsuit in 1994 in which Mari claimed a tumble her husband suffered on an aluminum ladder cost her Joe's "services, society, and consortium," meaning sexual relations. The case, brought against the ladder's manufacturer and retailer, was settled in 1997 before it went to trial. All involved decline comment.

Now Carollo appears to have risen above that problem for good, apparently with the helping hands of physical therapists half his age.

"At least he's chasing good-looking women," comments a veteran Miami political wag who requested anonymity because he lives in the city. "I wouldn't want a mayor who wasn't getting laid regularly. The man has his finger on the millage rate, for chrissakes. He's not chasing chunky interns. At least he's a world-class adulterer, as befits a world-class city. Miami needs nine sports stadiums, and a racetrack, and a telenovela queen screwing the mayor. He's our ambassador of love. He's the adulterer of the Americas."

May 12. The chic nightclub Jimmy'Z at the Forge on Miami Beach. A birthday party for hit-and-miss political kingmaker Herman Echevarria. The entertainment: sultry Mexican actress Lucía Méndez serenading the Hialeah mastermind of many a losing campaign with her throaty rendition of "Happy Birthday to You."

In the audience Joe Carollo beamed with pride. Méndez was his date. Guests at the party observed the mayor and the Latin diva canoodling in a booth. Published reports listed handholding, caresses, and a kiss on the neck.

As he did with Sissi, Carollo denied he has a new girl. But Méndez has undermined his spin several times in interviews on Spanish-language television, saying that she and the mayor are good friends and that he's such a nice man and handsome, too.

Which is, of course, utterly unbelievable.

Meanwhile the Carollo divorce proceeds as if it were the Titanic racing to the ocean floor after striking an iceberg. Mari has asked for shared parental responsibility for the two girls, with the court naming her "primary residential parent." She wants child support, equitable distribution of assets and liabilities, and sole ownership of the valuable home in Coconut Grove. She also seeks alimony for the time she's devoted to raising the kids. Unconfirmed reports indicate she's added a clause demanding that Joe "keep those bimbos the fuck away from my kids."

November 2, 1985, seems like a lifetime ago. On that day, in New Jersey, Mari and Joe were married. Only five days had passed since Joe's divorce from his first wife became final. Now, nearly sixteen years later, with his second marriage irrevocably broken and with the domestic-violence charge headed to court, Carollo has dug into his campaign. His plan for re-election is obvious. Thalia, Shakira, if you're reading this, you too can have your own day in the City of Miami. And the mayor has your key to the city. He has it right here.

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