By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
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Rep. Lacasa argues he is a legitimate businessman who brings value to his deals beyond just connections. After the legislative session ended, Lacasa took an afternoon to demonstrate this with a tour of two Miami marinas. "I am a marina guy who got into the legislature, not a legislator who got into the marina business," he says.
The tour began at the Virginia Key Marina, briefly operated by a company Armando Lacasa owned, until the City of Miami decided to manage it. Carlos Lacasa, who works alongside his father, yearns to return to the marina with a long-term contract. He sees it as part of a nationwide management company that he would help build and then turn public. The representative is an avid fisherman, and his family owns a 31-foot Tiera fishing cruiser. There is a spring in his step, and his pleasure is evident as he walks about, pointing out problems and improvements he would make. A decrepit restaurant would be moved closer to the water. Wooden docks would be replaced with a sturdier synthetic material. A shabby convenience store would be dramatically upgraded.
"If you don't get developers with vision and know-how, it all falls apart," he says earnestly.
The next stop on the tour is the South Beach Marina, operated by a company in which Lacasa has a financial stake. The difference between it and the Virginia Key Marina is remarkable. The one in Miami Beach is geared toward yachts, a successful operation that caters to an upscale crowd. A gourmet supermarket features a coffee bar, caviar, and an excellent wine selection. A boat-parts store carries everything a mariner could possibly want. Visitors lounge at a tiki bar with an outside pool and slurp oysters at Monty's raw bar. A uniformed staff provides telephone and television cable hookups for the pleasure crafts.
"Can you imagine how much money the city would have gained in rent and revenue sharing if they had a destination like this on Key Biscayne?" asks Lacasa.
Yet Lacasa and his father have not confined their business dealings to marinas. Their efforts to win a baggage-cart contract seemed to trade almost exclusively on access rather than expertise. The resulting twelve-year struggle helped make Miami International Airport the last in the nation to get baggage carts. Although they failed to win the contract outright, after much legal wrangling the Lacasas negotiated a settlement from the ultimate victor, Smarte Carte. "Procurement in Dade County is a political process," he says bluntly. "We were playing within the rules out there at the time."
The Lacasas' attempts to get an airport contract became an issue when the chairman tried to block a bill to create an independent authority to clean up Miami's woeful international airport. It was just the type of legislation one would think reform-minded Lacasa would support. But he says he is opposed to "outside authorities," particularly this one, which happens to be sponsored by Renier Diaz de la Portilla and allows for seats selected by the governor.
For Diaz de la Portilla, just getting the airport authority heard by his colleagues in the legislature proved nearly impossible because of Lacasa's reach. The chairman delayed the bill in his committee for weeks until his pugilistic adversary convinced the House Speaker to let it be heard, since it carried no fiscal impact. "He went after all my projects in the budget," claims Diaz de la Portilla, who brought home no money exclusive to his district. "I think it was being vindictive."
Lacasa objected to the airport authority on the House floor because it would include members appointed by the governor from outside the county. He decried the bill as piecemeal reform rather than his comprehensive plan, and with a lack of modesty that must gall critics, made it clear to the other representatives that the mantle of Miami-Dade reformer belongs to him.
"No one has worked harder on [the issue of reform] than I have over the last year," he declared, "and quite frankly, very few people have as much knowledge about the overall vision for a new Miami-Dade government that I have achieved in the last year."
The authority passed 77-34, as an amendment to a transportation bill. Its passage did not deter Lacasa. In the hallways after the vote, he lobbied Mayor Alex Penelas to have the county sue to stop the measure. (Penelas eventually introduced his own version of an authority.) After the session Lacasa returned to Tallahassee and petitioned Gov. Jeb Bush to veto the transportation bill. Objecting to various amendments attached to the bill, Bush did so this past June. Voters would not get the chance to vote on the airport authority this November. More important, it seems, Lacasa would deny the Diaz de la Portillas a victory.
The origins of the Lacasa-Diaz de la Portilla feud, which began years before the rumble at Radio Mambí, fades further with every new outrage. "I don't remember how [the feud] started," Ana Alliegro admits. "Lacasa started it, I remember that."
Alliegro can be forgiven for being hazy. It probably began with politicians who predate but are allies of Lacasa and the Diaz de la Portillas, namely state Sen. Rudy Garcia and former Rep. Luis Rojas. Lacasa says that Garcia, in addition to being a mentor, is the only person in the Miami-Dade delegation he sees socially. Rojas, besides being an advisor to the Diaz de la Portillas, is a law partner with former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.