New Face, Old Connections

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

Diaz then took aim at an old-line Miami institution, the Orange Bowl Committee, for rejecting membership applications from a black, a woman, and two Hispanics. Next he aligned SALAD with the Dade Hispanic Officers Association, which had filed a complaint against the Miami Police Department for not hiring or promoting enough Hispanics.

In 1984 Diaz stood before a gathering of the county's elected officials and political activists and turned what was expected to be an inconsequential luncheon speech into a full-throttle assault on Cuban-American Republican campaign strategies that pandered to Hispanic voters. In the same diatribe, he ripped Anglo Democrats for not encouraging Hispanic Democrats to run for office. Although he resigned from SALAD in 1985 to concentrate on his law career, Diaz couldn't bring himself to completely leave the political arena. In fact he immediately began helping Bob Butterworth raise money and garner voters for his first run for attorney general in 1986. "Manny was a force," remembers Butterworth. "He helped me from the beginning. He's not just a guy coming out of nowhere. He knows politics and would, considering the competition in that race, make a great mayor for Miami." (The attorney general has contributed $1500 to Diaz on behalf of himself, his wife, and her business.)

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

Asking people for money may not be something Diaz relishes, but he has been exceedingly successful at it. As of September 30, the latest date for filing campaign reports, he'd received $530,785. Attorneys and insurance industry insiders have been the biggest givers. "I just picked up the phone and called a few friends," he shrugs. Among those friends is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, for whom Diaz raised money when Nelson was elected state insurance commissioner in 1994 and 1998. In turn Nelson appointed Diaz to the Florida Joint Underwriting Association, the state insurance pool, where he established contacts that have paid off in his bid for mayor.

Nelson introduced Diaz to a range of Tallahassee movers and shakers, people who today are bringing him both campaign contributions and criticism. "I don't know how you can say you're new when all you've got around you supporting you are these people who've played the political game for a long time," says mayoral opponent José Garcia-Pedrosa. "These people will eventually want a payback."

Long-time Miami political consultant Ric Katz says that kind of carping is unfair. "If you're mostly unknown, you have to raise substantial money to buy media," he notes. "You take a certain amount of hits for it, but that's insider politics that the public rarely grasps."

As of last week Diaz had not contributed one dollar of his own money to the campaign. He hasn't needed to. Not that he doesn't have the means. He estimates his net worth at between two and three million dollars, most of which was amassed while working as chief counsel at Terremark, Inc., a Coconut Grove development company. During the mid-Eighties Terremark, headed by entrepreneur Manny Medina, was flying high. Flush with success and eager to extend his reach, Medina in 1986 purchased Monty's Bayshore Restaurant in Coconut Grove from its namesake owner, Monty Trainer. (Diaz represented Medina in the deal.) Monty's, which sits on city-owned waterfront land, was a historic watering hole for Miami's power elite. Thanks to Trainer, it also was steeped in controversy. Many people thought Trainer's lease agreement with the city was a sweetheart deal, a perception that seemed to be confirmed by city auditors, who accused him of bilking taxpayers out of nearly $200,000. (Trainer eventually went to federal prison after being convicted of tax evasion.)

When Medina's real estate empire began to crumble in early 1991, he subleased the restaurant and adjoining shops to Manny Diaz and political insider Stephen Kneapler. Today Diaz owns fifteen percent of the operation, which now includes a Monty's restaurant in Miami Beach. He says his annual income from the Monty's businesses and his law practice totals $500,000. Despite the potential for conflicts of interest should he become mayor, Diaz says he does not intend to sell his interest in Monty's in the Grove.

But the appearance of a conflict could present dangers, a possibility already anticipated by campaign manager Al Lorenzo. "I call them UFO's -- unidentified flyers," Lorenzo says. "The other guys will put them out linking Manny to Monty, Manny to anything to make him look bad. But they are completely stupid if they think that Manny's part-ownership of one of the most profitable, popular restaurants in town is going to look bad."

Ric Katz agrees. "Guilt by association usually backfires," he warns. "I don't know whether the other candidates are going to exploit that. My guess is that someone probably will."

Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, while America was still hard-wired to 24-hour news coverage, Lorenzo sat at Versailles restaurant. Prior to the assaults, he explained as he doodled on a paper placemat, the plan had been to purchase lots of media, including billboards, in the closing weeks. But media is expensive, and contributions dropped off dramatically after September 11. Predictions of raising a million dollars by the end of October vanished; the campaign will probably be lucky to reach $700,000. (As of September 30, Maurice Ferré had raised $343,000, Willy Gort $231,000, and Joe Carollo $226,000. The other candidates -- Xavier Suarez, José Garcia-Pedrosa, Emiliano Antunez, Danny Couch, and Miguel Alfonso -- trailed far behind.) "Let's say I go full-court press and buy all the television airtime I can," he said, sketching a basketball court on the placemat. "Then we start dropping bombs, and the news dominates."

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