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The odor of cigarette smoke hangs in Diaz's Coconut Grove law office. Sunlight pours through bay windows and splashes across bare walls he hasn't had time in four years to decorate. His wood desk is bare except for a pile of papers stacked neatly in one corner. An oversize ashtray sits next to his computer. "I can't seem to quit," he confides, referring to the Salems he's smoked since he was a teenager. "And now probably would not be the best time anyway." Still clocking twelve-hour days at his civil practice -- Diaz & O'Naghten -- Diaz begins work at 6:30 a.m., making phone calls to potential campaign contributors. After pushing his campaign into overdrive in midsummer, he's taken on very few cases, unusual for an attorney accustomed to juggling many.
Colleagues describe him as obsessively organized and claim he maintains a filing system that rivals the Pentagon's. His wife, Robin, adds that he's not an "at home by 6:00" kind of guy. In fact his manic work habits commonly cause him to lose weight and sleep when he's involved with something important. At the height of the Elian saga, he dropped fifteen pounds and pulled all-nighters one after another. Long-time friends know him as a lifetime overachiever. Remember that kid in high school who was president of the senior class and the student council? The one who got the girls, scored the touchdowns, made good grades, and had perfect skin? Well, he's grown up now, and he's running for mayor.
Born in Havana on November 5, 1954, Diaz was reared by his homemaker mother, Elisa, and strict father, Manolo, an orphan educated in Fulgencio Batista's military schools. After moving to Miami in 1961, Diaz attended Belén Jesuit Preparatory School, regarded as a veritable incubator for future leaders. There he became the "MVP of everything," recalls classmate Carlos McDonald, now an aide to Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth (also a Diaz supporter). "Manny was class president, president of the student council, a great athlete," says McDonald. "He was a popular kid. I think we all just assumed he would run for something someday."
Diaz was on track to fulfill Belén's traditionally high expectations by receiving a scholarship to Columbia University. But the eighteen-year-old's academic dreams were dashed when he got his high school sweetheart pregnant. "It was definitely a surprise," he remembers, "but I loved her and I thought it would work. Family has always come first for me. My parents were supportive. We had to deal with what life had handed us." He gave up Columbia and went to Miami-Dade Community College instead. "Not to disparage Miami-Dade," he says, "but I felt like I had worked hard and that I would go Ivy. But you just have to remain who you are and stay committed to family."
He and his new wife Patricia McNamara struggled to raise Manny Jr., now a 27-year-old assistant football coach at North Carolina State University. The young couple lived in a small Miami Beach guest house that McNamara's father, a real estate businessman, loaned them.
While she earned a nursing degree, he took care of the baby, went to school part-time, and worked for the National Enquirer. "I had to get a job, and that's what I could find. I would go to Eckerd and count all the magazines in the rack and make an X on each one," he says, laughing at the memory. "Those were desperate days."
By the time he graduated from MDCC, he and his wife had amicably split. She took Manny Jr. and he took out more school loans, enrolling at Florida International University and graduating with a degree in political science. Immediately he went to University of Miami'sSchool of Law. He helped his parents buy a new house with a bonus he received from his first job as an attorney.
Diaz's motivation in running for mayor is intertwined with his father's death in 1999. Manolo Diaz, beloved in Miami's Cuban community for his exuberant sense of humor and love of baseball, instilled in his son an appreciation for activism. "When I was six my father organized a strike in his electrical union against Castro and was sent to jail for about a year," he recounts. "I remember that I was outside playing one day and there were some announcements over the radio that they had shot prisoners along “the wall.' All of a sudden adults came rushing out into the yard crying. So the kids started crying. Apparently they had announced that “Manny Diaz' had been shot, which we assumed was my father. We lived daily with the fear that my father wasn't coming back, and I began to understand what it meant for politics to become like breathing, for your life to depend on how strong and honorable your government is."
His father's death had a profound effect on him. "I felt a void in my life," he says. "I looked around the city, to the place where my parents had invested their dreams. It felt different, like someone had over the years taken something from it. People have forgotten what I knew growing up here. Neighborhoods are the heart of a city. There's a woman who couldn't get out of her apartment for three days because of flooding, elderly people who don't have furniture or air conditioning; people won't leave their homes at night for fear of being a crime victim. The streets are torn up, garbage isn't picked up on time."