The Carlos Lacasa File

Meet the most powerful politician you know nothing about

It's the last week of the legislative session, and state Rep. Carlos Lacasa's elation is all that keeps his fatigue at bay. He leans back in his plush leather office chair and pops a chocolate into his mouth. The 37-year-old Miami Republican lawyer is about to finish his first year as appropriations chairman in the Florida House of Representatives in Tallahassee. The position brings with it broad powers, and Lacasa has worked successfully to make the most of them.

His dress shoes are off, and his stockinged feet rest on a massive hardwood desk that serves as the focal point of a three-room suite. Over the years scores of his predecessors have divvied up the public's tax dollars here, and now that the desk belongs to him, Lacasa has personalized it to suit his tastes: A fishbowl sits on top with a small sign that reads, "The gene pool could use a little chlorine." It's the sort of Lacasa joke that helps fuel criticism -- both in the legislature and at home -- that he is arrogant and elitist, "an ivory tower politician," as state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla charges.

The senator and his two brothers -- Renier, a state representative and Miguel, a former county commissioner -- are Lacasa's worst enemies in a political rivalry that has become legendary in Miami-Dade County for dirty campaigning and even physical brawling. While admitting to genuine policy differences, Lacasa claims to be "surprised" by the ferocity of the Diaz de la Portillas' hatred of him. "It's business," he insists. "It's not personal."

First and foremost Lacasa sees himself as a pragmatic businessman who happens to serve as an elected official. But his efforts to enact an ambitious agenda, his battles against the Diaz de la Portillas, and his relationship with lobbyists reveal a consummate politician adept at playing the system to get what he wants.

As Lacasa talks, his babyish face belies the warrior image he would like to project. (Behind him on a stand is an imitation samurai sword, and in the anteroom is a painting of Napoleon.) But like much about Lacasa, first impressions are misleading: His jaw has a stubborn set; his intense eyes peer out beneath a cap of tight, curly hair -- he looks like a bas relief of Ulysses.

There are facets of Lacasa that don't add up. For starters he is really only half a politician: in love with policy work but a lousy campaigner who lacks the people's touch. He almost lost his last election in District 117, which he had represented for six years, to Alex Diaz de la Portilla's girlfriend, Ana Alliegro, an unknown who campaigned harder than he did, and with substantially less money. (In the end he won with several hundred votes.)

Although his Republican ideological bent is evident in his zeal for issues like vouchers, privatization, and pretty much anything Gov. Jeb Bush wants, a strong independent streak sometimes leads him to take unlikely stands. In 1997 the Sierra Club named him legislator of the year for his environmental advocacy. During that year's session, Lacasa took the lead on strengthening Brownfield's legislation to clean up pollution sites. Since then he has come out against the Northwest Miami-Dade Lake Belt plan, which will cannibalize 89 square miles of degraded and pristine wetlands covering one of the county's last clean-drinking-water sources. He also says he opposes risky deep-storage reservoirs masquerading as environmental restoration.

"He has some good solid principles when it comes to protecting our resources," explains Susie Caplowe, a lobbyist for the club's Florida chapter. "I wish we had more like him; I think we'd be better off."

The previous week Lacasa had spent more time in his office than at the house he rents in Tallahassee, resting on his leather couch during breaks from around-the-clock work on the budget with subcommittee chairs and staff. Together they will bring it in on time.

In addition to Lacasa having plenty to say in crafting Florida's approximately $54 billion state budget, every piece of legislation in which public money is spent must pass through his committee and across his monster desk before it moves to a full vote. Understandably many of his fellow legislators covet his support and fear his displeasure. And he is not above using his power ruthlessly to stall or even kill a bill, particularly if its prime sponsor is a Diaz de la Portilla.

Lacasa has harnessed this authority in the service of a plan to radically change the way Miami-Dade County government is structured. If he is successful, it will likely touch the lives of every resident of South Florida. When Lacasa encountered resistance from the county commission over his plans, he withheld funding for the three-year-old empowerment-zone program, which is designed to help provide housing, small-business loans, and job training to poor, particularly black, areas from Florida City to Liberty City. The zone includes parts of the South Miami-Dade district of frequent Lacasa critic Commissioner Dennis Moss as well as parts of the North Miami-Dade district of state Sen. Kendrick Meek. The county asked for ten million dollars for the zone to make up for shortfalls last year. Lacasa allowed one million, but in the end Jeb vetoed that too.

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