Submarine Politics

Alex Penelas learned his lesson in 1999; this year's transit-tax campaign is all below the surface

The half-penny campaign, Penelas explained, is modeled after the campaign that convinced voters in 1996 to approve a $200 million bond issue to repair old parks and build new ones throughout the county: The Safe Neighborhood Parks bond referendum was an eighteen-month grassroots effort that relied on local chambers, homeowner associations, and environmental organizations like the Zoological Society of South Florida and the Tropical Audubon Society, as well as dozens of other community groups. Brenda Marshall, a chief architect of the parks campaign, said they were successful despite very little money for TV and radio advertising. "We relied on a lot of free publicity," Marshall said.

However, she said, a key component in selling the bond referendum was establishing the citizens' trust that oversees the funding for the Safe Neighborhood Parks program. The half-penny plan calls for a similar trust to oversee transit-tax funds to make sure the money is spent correctly. Still some people are wondering if Penelas is miscalculating again by his insistence on not raising money for a mass-media campaign to educate voters. Earlier this year, Penelas put the kibosh on a million-dollar marketing contract for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency out of fear that voters would get the wrong impression.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson disagreed with the mayor's decision and is now concerned that the transit-tax campaign is attracting little media attention. "We need to get the message out that this is a community priority," she said. "That is hard to do in a general election without any publicity."

If the half-penny tax is approved, the county could collect as much as $150 million next year
Steve Satterwhite
If the half-penny tax is approved, the county could collect as much as $150 million next year

Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen said 80 to 90 percent of voters who turn out get their information from mass media and not from grassroots efforts. "It is an ineffective way to reach voters," Bendixen said. "I imagine it will be a very difficult sell considering the history of sales tax increases in Miami-Dade and the credibility problems of county government."

For his part, Penelas dismisses the need for a mass-media campaign as being a counterproductive exercise in futility. "I know a media campaign would be good for you people in the media," Penelas sarcastically told New Times. "But we don't have the money. And what happens when I do raise the money? You all start criticizing: 'Here goes Penelas again, raising money for the people that are more likely to benefit if these things happen.'"

Kendall-based attorney Richard N. Friedman, a mass transit foe for the past 22 years, wasn't sure what to make of the half-penny campaign. "It's highly unusual for the county," Friedman offered. "It is a below-the-radar, submarine approach, which means we have to work harder to get the message out to vote against the tax. Luckily this is a general election, which would generally favor those who are opposed, such as myself. But it all boils down to one substantive issue: Do people in Miami-Dade County want to pay a seven percent sales tax after November 5?"

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