Midterm Exam

Q: Why would an intelligent man voluntarily leap into a toxic snakepit? A: Because his name is Merrett Stierheim and he just can't help himself.

Sounds like a good way to handle that problem, but it doesn't get to the underlying causes.

Black economic disparity? That has always been the Achilles heel. It still is. I practically say it in every one of my speeches. That's the other thing that's frustrating: black economic disparity and the ethnic polarization. The clannishness. I'm not suggesting we get rid of the culture, but it shouldn't be we, they. It should be us, Miamians. Miamians for Miami. It's like a dream. For many people it's reality. But for too many it's not. The whole thing about voting, for example. "Just vote for anybody as long as they're like us." We need the [legendary Miami-Dade Congressman] Dante Fascells and the universally popular and really solid elected officials who don't play the ethnic card. We've got some, but we could use a lot more.

It seems as if on the big issues -- ethnic polarization, poverty, transportation, education -- there hasn't been enough sustained leadership from enough areas of the community to achieve much forward movement. Why is that?

Steve Satterwhite
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser
Courtesy Merrett Stierheim
Stierheim, in his first turn as county manager, hamming it up at a Metrozoo fundraiser

Well, that's a very profound and deep subject that we could write a book about. I think public life has been deglamorized by the media, by dirty politics, by arrogant citizens, by a pervasive attitude that public service is a second-class activity. "Why do I want to expose myself to that kind of crap? Life is too short. I'm more materialistic than perhaps I should be, but I love it." This is the attitude. "Why do I want the grief of going to a commission meeting or board meeting that's going to last until midnight and have to listen to people rant and rave? Why do I have to associate with sleaze politicians?" Ever since Watergate, I think, there's been a decline in the general attitude toward government and public service. We had a blip with 9/11 of nationalism and pride. I don't know how long that'll be sustained. I think the media bears a lot of responsibility. Where I've been asked to go in and clean up situations, those situations should never have been allowed to occur in the first place. I think the media failed along the way in its watchdog responsibilities. I don't want to sound like an ingrate because, by and large, the media has always been kind to me, or at least supportive -- I'd like to say for good reason. My reputation, for example, at the Herald is the Hulk attack, the Incredible Hulk attack. I don't know who the hell came up with that but it's pretty good, because sometimes when I read the paper, I think maybe I was at a different meeting than the reporter. It just drives me nuts because here you give somebody the power of the pen, and that's an awesome responsibility, and you ought to take that very seriously.

Miami seems to be politically immature, with a large immigrant population that almost innately distrusts government.

I think that's true. There's also no grassroots. It's so rare to find somebody who was born here or whose parents were born here. We're all migrants, all transplanted people. I've been here 43 years. I came in 1959, I'm ashamed to say, to a segregated community, and this was before the first Cuban migration. So I've seen the old Miami through four decades of change. And we're still young. We're just a little over a hundred years old. My God, you look at big cities around the world and we're a baby. We don't have that long democratic tradition with our population. They don't understand the council/manager form of government. They identify with the alcalde, el jefe. Like this whole business of changing the charter, going to a strong mayor.

What do you think about that, Carlos Lacasa's big idea, which Alex Penelas also favors to some degree?

I was a lifelong city and county manager, where there is a dichotomy between the professional management and the policy-making board -- traditionally a weak mayor. That was my career. Still is in a way, even as superintendent. I'm here as a manager. I chaired a charter-review committee, and as chairman I voted for an executive mayor, retaining a manager, similar to what they have at the county now. The reason I did that is because of our diversity.

What do you mean?

Single-member districts are the worst things that have happened to local government in America -- period, end of report. I was opposed to them. I wrote letters to the Herald, which was absolutely convinced this was the panacea, out of naiveté. And now, if you notice, there was a little blurb in an editorial about single-member districts not being what everybody hoped. Why? Because you don't elect statesmen. That goes back to one of your earlier questions: Why don't we have more political leadership? Well, if we were electing leaders countywide, you'd have a better shot at getting people who were more statesmanlike, who had to be concerned about the farmers in South Dade and the Redland, about the cliff dwellers in Northeast Dade, and the Beach. You couldn't ignore Liberty City and Overtown and Carol City. You couldn't ignore Little Havana and the poorer areas of Hispanics. Nor could you ignore the more affluent areas. As a manager who's had to deal with single-member commissioners and school board members, I can say it's very parochial. If you're elected within a district, it's only natural you're going to be a bit parochial. And then when you go to carve up the pie, it's not necessarily who has the greatest need, it's "Do I get my share? And do I really give a damn about the people in South Dade or in North Dade or on the Beach or wherever? Because they don't vote for me." Some elected officials transcend that and are magnanimous and do have a concern for the total community.

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