Lehtinen for Mayor

Unless Manny Diaz tops him, Dexter is the hottest candidate for the 2004 county race

Mayoral races in Miami are usually great political theater -- drawn-out, divisive campaigns that satisfy our appetite for good old-fashioned blood sport. But, sadly, the contest for the county mayor's job in 2004 has so far attracted a mostly lackadaisical bunch of gladiators: Nice guy comish Jimmy Morales, for example, and pretty boy politico Miguel Diaz de la Portilla are the front-runners. Top county cop Carlos Alvarez and school board reformer Marta Perez have also said they're interested. Any of them might make for the kind of enlightened leadership we always say we want. But -- on the excitement meter -- yawn.

Fortunately a battle-scarred political vet may be about to wade in and mix it up. His name is Dexter Lehtinen. To some, he's known as U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's -- first lady of hard-right anti-Castro exiles -- husband. He's also the high-vibe attorney for the Miccosukee Tribe, which is sinking part of its casino fortune into making sure the federal and state mandate to restore the Everglades doesn't run over it. Other résumé highlights include four years as a U.S. Attorney in Miami, stints in the Eighties as a state representative and state senator, and a tour in Vietnam, where Lehtinen's face was blown open by shrapnel while leading a Special Forces mission into Laos. So he might just be ready for political war.

The trademark scar that forms a triangular droop on one side of his face, his stocky build and fiery intelligence combine to make the 57-year-old a formidable character. Lehtinen wouldn't return phone calls to his office, asking about his mayoral intentions, but plenty of political types around town say he wants the job. Lobbyist Seth Gordon, for example, discloses that he was told Lehtinen was mulling his options by Mario Diaz-Balart, Gordon's former business partner until D-B won a carefully redrawn new U.S. congressional seat last year. Diaz-Balart and his elder brother, U.S. Rep. Lincoln D-B, are long-time allies of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "On its face, Dexter would have some pluses," Gordon muses. "Former U.S. Attorney, [Vietnam] war hero, husband of a prominent Cuban congresswoman. He may be one of those crossover gringos who can do it."

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's husband Dexter, a Vietnam War vet and former U.S. Attorney, would bring some excitement to next year's county mayor race
Steve Satterwhite
Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's husband Dexter, a Vietnam War vet and former U.S. Attorney, would bring some excitement to next year's county mayor race

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Of course, the dream candidate of almost everybody who likes to throw money and influence at horseraces like this is City of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, a rising star who has Alex Penelas-like appeal without all the political baggage. But Diaz, knee-deep in sweeping city reforms these days, keeps saying he's not interested. "I'm very happy where I am right now," he insists. "My inclination is to stay put." Which leaves a big vacuum in star power. Former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla (trounced by Penelas in the last race) appears to be the nominal front-runner at this point, reckons State House majority leader Marco Rubio, but none of the expected candidates has dominated the field. "People are looking at that," he adds. "You know, running for Dade County mayor is like running for governor in most other states. We're so big." Rubio thinks Lehtinen could have a real shot in this context. "He's intelligent; he can appeal to the Cuban side -- yeah, he'd be credible."

Dario Moreno, Florida International University professor and ubiquitous Miami political consultant, feels that the local political cognoscenti haven't made up their minds on whom to back: "The majority of the big money and lobbyists are still on the fence," he says. "They are waiting for a Manny Diaz, or maybe a Dexter Lehtinen or a Katy Sorenson. They are waiting to see how the field shapes up." Maurice Ferre, a former Miami mayor and county commissioner, speculates that the lack of strong candidates and the public financing available, will encourage more than the usual suspects to run. "It will be a free-for-all," he chuckles.

The most significant downside in a Dexter-for-Mayor race could be Lehtinen himself. He's known as a tough, political brawler with a wicked temper. Even admirers use phrases like "passionate, militaristic, straight shooter." Former Associate Attorney General Frank Keating once confessed to the Herald that then-Republican state Senator Lehtinen was appointed in 1988 to the prominent position of U.S. Attorney in Miami because he was "the brightest, toughest, meanest scrapper we could find.'' That assessment bore out until Lehtinen resigned in 1992, leaving behind an office torn by internal division; some attorneys found his dictatorial style unbearable. (His resignation followed years of warring with Justice Department officials, as well as an investigation into his handling of a corruption inquiry on Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro's office.)

One of the first things he did after becoming U.S. Attorney was to call a staff meeting and hand each prosecutor a sheet of paper with the motto, "No Guts. No Glory." He informed them that the office was about to get a lot more aggressive in the drug war, and underlined the point by toting around a plastic AK-47. He next generated controversy by attempting to take over the lead role in the high-profile trial of Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega, even though he hadn't prosecuted a case in a decade.

Lehtinen made a lifelong enemy of Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez when his office revived a corruption probe that ended with Martinez's conviction for extorting bribes from developers. The conviction was later overturned on appeal, but Martinez believes Lehtinen's office came after him to keep him from running for the congressional seat eventually won by Lehtinen's wife. So if Lehtinen does run for mayor, expect ugly things behind the scenes from both politically connected camps. Especially if the main matchup turns out to be Lehtinen vs. Diaz de la Portilla, scion of another heavy political family. That could prompt cronies of Alex Penelas to throw their support to Lehtinen, and Martinez's to Diaz de la Portilla, since the mutual hatred between Penelas and Martinez is infamous. It would be ugly, vicious, and wildly entertaining.

Probably Lehtinen's most enduring imprint on South Florida courts is the landmark Everglades cleanup suit he launched -- and that he continues to try to enforce through his legal representation of the Miccosukees. He's currently enmeshed in a tribal challenge to prevent the state of Florida from undercutting the Everglades restoration plan by delaying the cleanup of polluted water flowing into the Glades.

The key to a successful campaign will be whether Lehtinen can patch together enough votes from the fractured, often-warring constituencies that make up the county. Can this law-and-order Republican with the Cuban-American populist wife and a Native American clientele do it? It all depends, says Moreno. If Lehtinen were the only Anglo in a field of Hispanics, he'd stand out. And if Ileana were willing to pull out all the radio and TV station stops and other traditional campaign moves with her husband, her great clout might very well rub off on him. "What would hurt him is if he cannot translate his wife's popularity into support," Moreno cautions. "And if Katy Sorenson jumped in."

Also the Lehtinens are rusty when it comes to the kind of operation it takes to win a tough race in Miami. Ileana's last serious opponent was in her first congressional race in 1989. And Dexter hasn't kissed any babies since 1986. Meanwhile the other candidates have been in perpetual campaign mode for years. Still if there's one thing Lehtinen has, it's moxie. "I think he's a sharp, capable guy," says former city mayor Maurice Ferre. "I don't think he's through with public service."

A former prosecutor in Lehtinen's office recalls a quotation the old Army Ranger tacked up for the edification of his civilian troops: "On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting died." "That's [Dexter]," he sums up.

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