New Face, Old Connections

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

His brooding has coalesced into something that resembles a political platform, albeit a pretty straightforward one: neighborhood improvement. Generally blaming Miami's past leaders for "building skyscrapers but ignoring people," Diaz wants closer scrutiny of how the city spends millions it receives from the federal government for rehabilitating distressed neighborhoods. He plans to provide financial incentives for tightly focused projects on targeted streets. Civic and business leaders, he says, have pledged their assistance in hosting workshops for start-up entrepreneurs.

Many of the candidate's ideas about rebuilding Miami's poorer areas come from U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, who has endorsed Diaz in a mailing sent to 9000 black and Haitian voters. Considering Meek's impressive pull in those communities, her endorsement is a major coup. "Manny is one of the most honest, passionate, accepting people I know. There was no question I would support him," says Meek, noting that her friendship with Diaz stretches back more than twenty years, when he helped her campaign for the Florida House of Representatives.

"He sat down with me and listened to what I thought should be done in black neighborhoods," she goes on. "That's one his best attributes: He listens to people, then thinks, then acts. I've seen him be fair with all people. He's passionate, concerned about economic development. He promised me he would focus on the inner city."

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

Promises are fine, says Bishop Victor Curry, but black Miamians are skeptical. The influential pastor of New Birth Baptist Church, Curry also is the popular host of a radio talk show on the church's station (WMBM-AM 1490) and former president of the NAACP's Miami-Dade chapter. He issues a warning about promises: "We've heard too many of those. This year it's all about your record. We don't have problems with Manny because of Elian. Elian has nothing to do with our future. Do the things in Mr. Diaz's past suggest that he would support the citizen review panel [to oversee the city's police department]? Would he be sensitive to the poorer areas of the city that have gone for decades without attention?" In a mailing directed at black and Haitian voters, Diaz has pledged his support for the review panel, which will come before voters November 6. The letter, though, does not spell out his reservations. "I'm definitely for it," he explains, "but I'm concerned about the timing -- like if it's going to interfere or hamper police investigations. I don't know if I agree that police shouldn't participate [on the panel]."

Just a year after graduating from law school, 25-year-old Diaz, known in local political circles for his work on Meek's campaign, was asked to lead a newly formed organization called SALAD (Spanish American League Against Discrimination). Initially reluctant, he feared the post would disrupt his law career and cast a constant political spotlight on him. "When I was still in school, I got to know local politicians, and the one thing that stuck out was their personal and business lives were a mess," he recalls. "I didn't want to go through that. Then Mariel happened."

In April 1980 Fidel Castro opened the Cuban port of Mariel and allowed nearly 125,000 Cubans, many of them criminals or mental patients, to immigrate to the United States. According to the State Department, approximately 90,000 settled in South Florida. Nearly all were protected from deportation by the special status afforded Cuban immigrants by federal law.

Similar protections, however, were not extended to Haitian immigrants, several thousand of whom were deported between 1980 and 1984 under orders of the Reagan administration. Diaz opposed what he perceived to be a double standard, and as leader of SALAD (he had overcome his reservations), he coordinated with attorneys around the nation to help Haitian refugees obtain legal advice, encouraged people to pressure public officials, and led a lobbying effort to introduce legislation that would make immigration laws more evenhanded.

Although that was more than two decades ago, Diaz stresses his Mariel position in campaign ads and has reminded key Haitian, Cuban, and black leaders of it. "Manny showed me a newspaper article from that era," says state Rep. Phillip Brutus, the first Haitian to be elected to Florida's legislature. "Mariel meant to me that he had enough guts to say what he felt, when he didn't have anything to gain; he wasn't running for office. I just couldn't [endorse] anyone else."

In 1981 Diaz marched SALAD into another high-profile battle, this time against Citizens of Dade United, a predominantly Anglo group that successfully introduced a referendum (passed by 60 percent of voters) prohibiting the county from conducting business in any language other than English. In the press Diaz blasted it as "ridiculous, petty, and senseless." The county, exploiting the ordinance's broad language, continued to provide emergency, medical, tourism, and other services in Spanish. "It was a disgusting display of bigotry," Diaz remembers. "The beginning of the Eighties was really tense in Miami. You think there's some distrust now between different groups? Back then it was unreal."

Gaining confidence, Diaz was becoming an effective rhetorical machine gun, strafing any group that appeared exclusionary. In 1983 he unloaded on Miami Beach Mayor Norman Ciment for suggesting that the city erect roadblocks to keep foreign immigrants from moving to the Beach. Diaz told the Miami Herald that Ciment's suggestion was "the most appalling and irresponsible statement ... from a public official in a long time." A month later Diaz grilled the Burger King corporation for a memo it sent to its Miami restaurants forbidding work-related discussions in Spanish. If the policy wasn't changed, Diaz announced, Hispanics would have it their way -- at McDonald's. The chain quickly retracted the ban.

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