By Terrence McCoy
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By Chuck Strouse
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Meek, the son of U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, notes that federal dollars for the zone will soon disappear, and along with it development hopes for large swaths of the inner city. "The empowerment zone is like the big enchilada. We need that," says Meek from his senate office. "It's like air to us."
For Lacasa it was all tactical. "It was important to some of my fiercest opponents," he says.
A member of his entourage enters through an anteroom door, one of three that leads to his office. It is here where important guests get their first impressions of the representative. In the frantic final days of the session, the anteroom filled up with friends, former aides, and lobbyists taking advantage of a large television that offers live broadcasts of the action in the House and Senate chambers. The familial atmosphere Lacasa set for his office this session pleasantly startled veteran lobbyist Bob Levy, who stopped by one day to talk with the chairman and found himself enlisted in helping to hang pictures on the walls.
Resting on a cabinet are boxes of expensive chocolates, courtesy of South Florida überlobbyist Ron Book. The treats magically replenish themselves from day to day, marvels a public-interest flack sitting on a loveseat. Book is in a class by himself; his effectiveness and long list of clients give him unequaled power. Such is his reach that he regularly shills for both municipalities and the companies that want their money. It's not hard to guess who pays him more.
Lacasa's reform instincts do not extend to the lobbyists who swarm the capitol's rotunda. Like many in Tallahassee, he believes they are necessary to grease the system as it currently exists. He also insists he is independent enough not to determine his support on a given issue based solely upon the recommendation of someone flacking for one side or another.
Still the pervasive influence of lobbyists in Tallahassee is stunning. Lacasa has forged strong relationships with some of them, such as friend Rick Rodriguez Piña, who has roomed with him in Tallahassee during past sessions. Piña's clients include the Florida Marlins, Sprint, and the Miami Children's Hospital. This year even Lacasa realized as appropriations chair he could ill afford so close an embrace. So instead Piña, living en familias, had to settle for sharing an opulent house on a lake with one of Lacasa's mentors, Hialeah Sen. Rudy Garcia.
At the end of the session though, Rep. Lacasa, Sen. Garcia, and Orange County state Sen. Lee Constantine held their third annual Sine Die Party, the Latin phrase signifying the end of the legislature's term. The invitation, which was distributed throughout the Senate and the House office buildings, listed as sponsors 22 lobbyists, including Piña, who contributed between $50 and $100, according to Lacasa. A random sample of their clients shows companies involved in telecommunications, construction, health care, Big Sugar, and alcohol, as well as the Florida Marlins and Burger King Corp.
"The parties aren't that expensive, just a couple of bottles of liquor, and some hors d'oeuvres," explains Lacasa. "Tallahassee is a cloistered environment, and the people you work with become your friends."
On the other side of the Lacasa suite's small anteroom, above a well-stocked bar, hangs the picture of Napoleon. The diminutive conqueror is shown leading a cavalry charge -- maybe against the Russians at Austerlitz? Napoleon appeals to Lacasa's fascination for strategy and all things military. On his legislative Web page, he lists chess as one of his hobbies, along with fishing, and capitalism (another example of Lacasa humor, perhaps). He prides himself on his ability to think several steps ahead. And like some of Napoleon's ill-advised expeditions, Lacasa's eagerness to fight his enemies, the Diaz de la Portillas, has at times distracted him from public policy.
Lobbyist Bob Levy recalls being debriefed at length by Lacasa about his service in Vietnam. "Carlos is a student of war," Levy says. "That is what the empowerment zone was about. When they didn't accept the threat, he exploded the atomic bomb."
Near the painting of Napoleon's charge is a portrait of José Martí, Cuba's great revolutionary: warrior, intellectual, gifted poet, and ultimate martyr. The picture is a Cuban symbol that would just as likely be found in a cigar store on Calle Ocho as on a wall in Tallahassee. Although born in the United States, Lacasa embraces his Cuban identity and hopes to spend the last quarter of his working life helping to "rebuild" the island. Lacasa can't afford to forget his Cuban heritage, as his oddly shaped district encompasses part of Flagami, West Miami, Coral Gables, South Miami, and the western fringe of Little Havana.
Beyond the political necessity, Lacasa represents a trend among Miami-Dade's representatives, where nine out of twenty members are Cuban Republicans. Several occupy positions of leadership. Most are ambitious and aggressive young men under age 40. Many of them, like Lacasa, are the sons of powerful fathers who were politicians themselves, or are schooled in working the system. The new generation, by embracing its Cubanía and maintaining unity, is having an impact in Tallahassee that goes beyond its numbers. Lacasa is a leader in this group, which he has dubbed "the wolf pack."