By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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."
Just outside the door to Lacasa's office is perhaps the most revealing portrait on the wood-paneled walls. Striking a dignified pose with his hand in his pocket and an insouciant look on his face, is a framed mock- oil-painting poster of Cosmo Kramer from the sitcom Seinfeld.
Lacasa likes the picture because it reveals he has a sense of humor, a character trait he displays with some awkwardness, when he does at all. (After his budget-staff director interrupts him about an amendment of several million dollars, he quips, "We spend money here like two hookers with a Victoria's Secret catalogue and a credit card!")
But the Kramer poster is even more revealing for the similarities between the chairman and the fictional character. Both men possess a plethora of random knowledge they delight in exhibiting. Kramer, like Lacasa, appears to benefit from his connections. In the case of the latter, Lacasa has turned his access into business contracts and will likely parlay his chairmanship into big-time campaign donations. A corporate lawyer by trade, Lacasa at one time or another has been involved in a marina company (Southern Cross Marinas), an Internet company (Primestream Corporation), and an airport baggage-cart company (E-Z Tote). He classifies himself as "an entrepreneur." This was Kramer's apparent occupation as well.
This past February 1 the county commission walked into an ambush at Fairchild Tropical Garden. Ostensibly a summit to bring the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and the county commission closer together, for some commissioners it seemed to have the opposite effect.
Lacasa used the forum to unveil his proposal to restructure county government. But rather than entertain criticisms of the proposal, he already had secretly secured the tacit support of Mayor Alex Penelas and his legislative colleagues for the plan, which would turn the local governing system into something closer to the state's structure by eliminating the county manager position and making the commission more like a legislature and the mayor a governor.
Commissioners soon found they were expected not to provide input but to fall in line. "We don't tell the state how to conduct their business," Commissioner Dennis Moss complained in vain.
As it became increasingly apparent that the county commissioners faced a united front, Commissioner Natacha Seijas snapped that unlike the legislators, commissioners didn't have a preprepared script. But while presented almost by fiat, Lacasa's plan has merit.
In the months to come, for those who trooped up to Tallahassee, Lacasa would explain it using his favorite game of strategy: chess. Most came away impressed. In South Florida, where long-term planning often seems anathema, Lacasa is one of the few politicians to articulate the problems facing the county, present a vision for change, and then aggressively pursue it. His long-term vision, which he honed by studying county government across the nation, is refreshing.
Sitting before his big desk, he would line up a bishop, a castle, and a knight to represent the mayor, the commission, and the manager of the current system. Then he would demonstrate. First he explained the problems with the present system, established in 1957. Even those like Sen. Kendrick Meek, who did not approve of Lacasa holding the empowerment zone hostage, acknowledge he has a valid point on public policy. Lacasa believes that with a county budget in the billions, the size of a small state, the commission should be larger, and commissioners compensated with more than a $6000 salary. Lacasa wants to see commissioners focus more on regional issues and less on municipal services such as police, parks, and the building department. The root of the county problem, he believes, is the role of the manager, a position he paints as an autocratic, unaccountable king bureaucrat.
"How powerful?" Lacasa asks rhetorically. "Last year, for example, the commission was responsible for less than $30 million worth of amendments to a $4.5-billion-dollar budget. So essentially the manager's budget is [passed] with a big rubber stamp. One past manager even admitted to me, I won't name him, that he would simply throw each commissioner a million dollars' worth of bones, so the commissioners would spend them in their district -- and that's the extent of the questioning of this proposed budget.
"What I'm saying is, let's eliminate the manager and put the mayor there and the commission above the mayor." Lacasa then removed the knight and put the castle above the bishop.
"The mayor would nominate the department heads, and the commission would confirm them much like the Senate confirms cabinet posts in Washington. The commission could remove an agency head with an extraordinary vote, say two-thirds.
"The mayor would make a budget request, and the commission, acting like a legislature, would consider it along with analysis by their professional staff. The budget would be passed subject to line-item veto by the mayor. Once passed the mayor would implement it at the department level. Between budget cycles the commission, now full-time and properly paid, would oversee the expenditures and operations of the executive branch. In exchange for the commission's new powers, they would have to accept a limit of two terms of four years each."
Since Miami-Dade's home-rule charter forbids the legislature from interfering with the county's government, in order to enact his changes Lacasa first had to pass a bill that would ask all the voters of Florida to amend the state constitution and allow the legislature to put charter amendments on the ballot in Miami-Dade County. To his great satisfaction, he succeeded this session, and a statewide vote will occur in 2002. Now Lacasa is working on the language of the ballot questions he hopes to put to county residents if state voters approve the changes.
He argues that all he wants is a chance to sell his plan to the voters. "If [the commissioners] are so sure that I am wrong, put it on the ballot [themselves]," he urges. "Embarrass the upstart from Tallahassee, but they won't do it. I think they are afraid of the electorate."
In addition to Moss, Commissioner Katy Sorenson is a fierce critic of the plan. Sorenson fears it would politicize the system to remove the role of an apolitical, professional manager. "If one commissioner is out of favor with the mayor, and the department heads know this, the citizens might not get services," she worries.
The Diaz de la Portillas cast Lacasa's changes as a Trojan horse for Penelas, who must step down in three years owing to term limits. They point to Lacasa's relationship with the mayor and speculate that under a new government, Penelas could skirt his term limits and run again. "I suppose Penelas could argue that it is a whole new position," admits Lacasa. "It's not my intention."
A chorus of fellow legislators at the Fairchild meeting, from Democratic state Sen. Daryl Jones to Republican state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, defended Lacasa's vision, drowning out the commissioners' protests. Without minimizing the desire of his colleagues to stay on the chairman's good side, many genuinely believe the county has outgrown its charter and the commission is incapable of fixing it.
As they went around the room, fellow legislators backed Lacasa's changes as a solution to a variety of problems. Senator Jones pointed out that $6000 per year as a salary for a county commissioner creates a bad environment that could encourage corruption. Several others voiced doubts that the commission would ever have the political will to increase its salary since voters had defeated it on several occasions. Sen. Ron Silver voiced his hope that Lacasa's changes would speed incorporation, which his constituents want.
Still, despite their support, none of them would have been as audacious as Lacasa in fighting for the changes or as confident that his proposals are an inevitability. "I just dove in," Lacasa declares matter-of-factly. "If I get it on the ballot and it doesn't pass, I will still have won, because eventually we are going to get there."
Those unaware of the feud between Lacasa and the Diaz de la Portillas learned about it in the media the day after the November 2000 election. At about 1:30 a.m., as results were still being tallied, Lacasa's father, Armando, went on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710). His son had just squeaked to victory against Ana Alliegro, Alex D's girlfriend. (Alex ran her campaign and more recently the one Alliegro just lost to Lacasa favorite Rebeca Sosa in a special election for Pedro Reboredo's vacated commission seat.)
During the race the Diaz de la Portillas made an issue of Armando Lacasa's brief but controversial tenure as a City of Miami commissioner from 1979 to 1981. Appointed to the seat, Lacasa quadrupled his net worth, according to the Miami Herald,in his first seventeen months in office. In 1981 he lost an election to Demetrio Perez, Jr., after a series of scandals. Now Lacasa returned the favor, attacking Miguel Diaz, the father of state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla and state Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla. (Unlike the elder Lacasa, Diaz had never run for elected office himself.)
Renier Diaz de la Portilla was listening in his car as he drove home from watching the election results with his brothers at a local union hall. He became so incensed he sped to the station to demand equal time to defend his dad.
When the then-29-year-old Renier banged on the glass of Mambí's building, radio host Marta Flores panicked. According to a Herald account, Flores exclaimed on the air: "Hail Mary, Mother of God, the Diaz de la Portillas are out there! They want to beat up Armando Lacasa!"
Carlos Lacasa and his brother, already tuned to their father on the soundtrack of political Cuban Miami, quickly rushed to Mambí themselves to confront Renier Diaz de la Portilla. A hysterical Flores shouted, "Somebody call the police!"
The resulting phone barrage temporarily crashed the 911 system.
Both combatants claim the other threw the first punch, but it was Lacasa who ended up on his back with a bloody nose. He says Renier charged him. While each side claims the other was drunk, only Lacasa waited around for police to arrive.
A feud that had simmered for years dramatically burst open, finding its natural level of discourse in the process. According to several in the Miami-Dade delegation in Tallahassee, the intense hatred both sides share is more about personality than anything of substance. For the Diaz de la Portillas, who relish their role as an "underdog opposition," Armando and Carlos Lacasa are caricatures, corrupt mandarins who are the embodiment of all that is bad about Miami-Dade politics. They point to the father and son's business ventures, particularly those that involve public assets such as an airport baggage concession and management contracts for city-owned marinas on Virginia and Dinner keys.
"[Carlos Lacasa] has a pattern of using public resources for private gain," insists Alex Diaz de la Portilla. "He doesn't understand that we are custodians of the government, we don't own it."
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.
According to Garcia, Rojas has hated him since the latter arrived in the legislature in 1988. Then in 1996 Rojas and then-Rep. Alex Diaz de la Portilla crossed party lines and bucked the Republican leadership to try to make Rojas House Speaker. The move angered many Cuban Republicans in the Miami-Dade delegation, including Lacasa, who had his own aspirations to be Speaker.
According to Alex Diaz de la Portilla, the dispute became personal during his Senate campaign, when Lacasa not only helped his opponent Carlos Valdez but polled to see how he would do running against him in the future. "Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla is completely convinced I went on radio for Valdez and called him a delinquent, or some such word," explains Lacasa, who denies the charge. "If they can produce the tape, I'll apologize."
Both Lacasa and all three Diaz de la Portillas are still in their thirties, with promising political careers ahead. Given the potential for years of political warfare to come, if it continues, the origins of the dispute will likely become ever less relevant.
In one year Carlos Lacasa will be termed out of the House of Representatives. Last December he filed to run in 2002 for the state Senate seat currently occupied by Alex Diaz de la Portilla. For the political cognoscenti, it is one of the most anticipated campaigns on the horizon.
"That is going to be really bad," says one Cuban-American legislator who has worked with both sides. "Carlos is going to raise a lot of money. Even if you think he is going to lose, he will bloody [Diaz de la Portilla] up."
With more than a year to go, Lacasa is slowly amassing a war chest that is now at $28,500. It won't hurt his fundraising that he is chairman of appropriations. Some of the first donors onboard include lobbyists Ron Book and Bob Levy, as well as business concerns such as insurance companies and real estate interests. The incumbent Diaz de la Portilla has only declared raising $15,100 so far.
Lacasa will need all the money he can get. He admits he's a lackluster campaigner. Lacasa's advisors struggle with their candidate's reluctance to reduce policy issues he is passionate about into sound bites. Unfortunately for him, Lacasa lives in District 34, which is dominated by elderly Cuban voters who often are more concerned with personality than policy. Although his ideas might sell better in a more educated, Americanized district, Lacasa refuses to move from his High Pines home, a small neighborhood between South Miami and Coral Gables.
Some of the issues likely to be dissected during the campaign have already surfaced. The Diaz de la Portillas will surely attack him for his opposition to the airport authority. Lacasa will have plenty of fodder against Alex Diaz de la Portilla, who is awaiting a determination by an administrative law judge on whether he committed more than 300 campaign violations in 1999 when he ran for the Senate. If all the charges are upheld, Diaz de la Portilla could face a maximum fine of $843,999 by the Florida Elections Commission.
This summer the legislature's Senate redistricting committee will travel around the state for public hearings. Lacasa is a member of the committee that will draw the new shape of every Senate district. To the charge that he chose the committee to tailor a Senate seat most beneficial to himself, Lacasa pleads guilty. "Of course anyone who tells you different is a freaking liar," he says. Then he smiles. "I told you I'm not very political."
Despite widespread speculation that Lacasa is restructuring county government to provide a future office for himself, perhaps as mayor, he insists the state Senate is the extent of his own political ambition. He wants to concentrate on making enough money to raise a family with his wife, Mary Matos. The pair met when she was a seventeen-year-old high school senior and he was a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer visiting the school to preside over a mock trial. He's quick to point out that she turned eighteen two months after their first meeting. The couple dated for four years and then wed in 1997.
In the end many of the charges the Diaz de la Portillas level at Lacasa, such as the accusation that he is power hungry, fall shy of the mark. Although his past political gamesmanship does give some credence to this perspective, its one-dimensional portrait of Lacasa misses an intelligent man who is evolving politically and has important ideas to offer.
A good example of Lacasa's political development can be seen in his attitude toward a controversial letter he signed in 1995, along with fourteen other lawmakers, attacking the Walt Disney Company for extending health benefits to the live-in partners of homosexual employees. Today Lacasa calls the letter "the most significant political mistake of my life." He admits he signed it as part of a strategy to court fundamentalist legislators to gain a leadership position in Tallahassee. "If I ever had to backpedal on anything, it would be the letter," he says.
He hasn't publicly repudiated it in the past, he says, in part because his position has "evolved" but also on the advice of campaign staff. They fear that any support of gay rights will hurt him in his elderly Cuban district. Still he professes to feel a great weight lifted from his shoulders in being able to speak out against the intolerance the letter represents. Perhaps it is a sign that Lacasa is maturing, learning that the ends don't always justify the means, and that principles should come before political strategy.
Of course it could be that he's just trying to broaden his base and position himself for higher office.
Or maybe it's both.