New Face, Old Connections

Miami mayoral candidate Manny Diaz may look like an outsider, but his political history places him squarely on the inside

Look at Manny Diaz's smile. Isn't it sweet? And those clean-shaven, baby-soft cheeks. Now observe the eyes. They are the color of sorghum, compactly framed by delicate webs on each side and lightly shadowed crescents below. His widow's peak hairline accentuates a black mane so pomade smooth it glistens like wet paint. On campaign literature and posters the gray has been airbrushed out, leaving an image of beguiling innocence, youthful freshness.

And that is precisely the Manny Diaz he wants you to know -- at least for now. From Overtown to Brickell Avenue, the 46-year-old Miami mayoral candidate's winning cosmetics are plastered across 150 bus benches, countless campaign signs, and more than 45,000 brochures (which also feature a photograph of his aesthetically pleasing family).

Other advertisements are in nonstop rotation on Spanish-language radio and television. Birthday cards emblazoned with his slogan, "The Choice for Change," arrive at the homes of elderly voters. His adorable six-year-old daughter can be found with him at senior lunches, handing out chocolate-chip cookies bearing wrappers that remind: "Manny for Mayor." My, isn't he young and energetic, the seniors say.

On the road again: Diaz and a campaign volunteer map street strategy (top); the candidate puts to the test his reputation for listening (middle); a warm welcome from the ladies
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
On the road again: Diaz and a campaign volunteer map street strategy (top); the candidate puts to the test his reputation for listening (middle); a warm welcome from the ladies

But it's not just the elderly who have embraced him -- or at least his image. Seventy college and high school students have been spending their Saturdays as volunteer campaign workers. Not only can they relate to him personally (he plays the drums and listens to Led Zeppelin, after all), but they see him as a refreshing change from his scandal-scathed, politically recycled opponents.

Diaz is supremely confident he'll make it out of the November 6 primary election and into a runoff one week later. But he hasn't let his confidence lead to complacency. Since kicking off his campaign this past June, he's been on a marathon walking tour of the city. So far he's visited more than 4000 homes, an effort that requires four hours each day, six days each week.

On this particular afternoon his blue dress shirt is soaked with perspiration. Walking briskly down the sidewalk on SW 24th Street near 27th Avenue, he swats at a mosquito as he passes a thermometer hooked to a chainlink fence. It reads 99.6 degrees.

"Ya think it's hot?" he teases as he hops up concrete steps to knock on another door. Diaz doesn't talk much, but when he does it's often an attempt at wry humor, and while that's an appealing asset, it won't be enough to overcome his biggest handicap: Too many people don't know who he is -- this despite his having amassed a stunning half-million-dollar campaign war chest. (Al Lorenzo, Diaz's campaign manager and the Oz behind the successful campaigns of underdogs such as Miami-Dade school board member Marta Perez, Miami City Commissioner Johnny Winton, and a bevy of state legislators, says underestimating Diaz is like underestimating the Karate Kid. "He's washing the car, catching flies with chopsticks to get ready," Lorenzo says as he raises his arms and knee in imitation of the famous Karate Kid stand. "He's just waiting, you know. And then, whammo! It's going to be all over with.")

The candidate leans forward to ring the doorbell. Gladys Saez appears. Her eyes open wide and she covers her mouth with both hands, as though she's just won a sweepstakes. "¡Yo se quien tu eres! [I know who you are!]" she exclaims. "Tu eres el que cuidó al niño. [You're the one who took care of the little boy.]" Saez has recognized Diaz not from his bus-bench ads or direct-mail brochures but because he was one of Elian Gonzalez's most visible lawyers. Saez has a celebrity standing on her doorstep.

She ushers him into her kitchen and brews him Cuban coffee. They chat for fifteen minutes about her family and the weather but don't discuss the election. She doesn't ask about issues. Disappearing into another room, she returns with a cordless phone. "Guess who's in my kitchen?" she brags to a friend. The candidate's eyebrows jump as he sips a glass of water. Another vote?

People don't tend to dive behind their couches when Manny Diaz raps at their door. Even in Miami's predominantly black neighborhoods, where Diaz's efforts on behalf of Elian were decidedly unpopular, he is greeted politely if not enthusiastically. And though he repeats often that his campaign has nothing to do with the Cuban boy, he isn't foolish enough to fight his double-edged celebrity, even if that means tolerating the occasional resident who mistakes him for José Garcia-Pedrosa, another Elian attorney-turned-mayoral candidate.

"He's not unknown in political circles, but voters don't really know him," says pollster Sergio Bendixen, whose June survey ranked Diaz dead last in every category, including name recognition. "Manny is in a great position, though. He has no negatives, which is more than Carollo and Suarez can say, and he can mold public opinion of himself."

But there remains another obstacle for Diaz, and it's a big one. "Manny's gotten off to a slow start with his platform," explains Bendixen. "I've heard him say he wants to be the mayor in a very general way that's almost sloganlike. For a new candidate, having a clear reason for running apart from just being new is crucial. We need to hear what he stands for, who he is, what kind of vision he has for the city. Who is Manny Diaz?"

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