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Dressed impeccably in a dark green pinstripe power suit, Diaz takes a drag from a Salem, and follows it with a nice swig from a tumbler filled with his signature drink: Pinch on the rocks. Standing by the door entering the vessel's cabin, he is commenting on how the public's perception of Miami has changed since he took office eighteen months ago. "The image of the city improved day and night," Diaz expounds as the Island Lady sloshes under the Brickell Avenue bridge and bumps into Biscayne Bay. "We are no longer the brunt of national jokes."
Indeed it wasn't too long ago that Miami fueled many a monologue for Jay Leno and David Letterman. After all, this is the city where dead people vote, citizens hurl bananas at city hall, cops shoot unarmed suspects, and politicians spit venom at each other on Spanish-language radio. This is the city that breathed life into the political careers of Joe Carollo and Xavier Suarez, the city's two most recent leading men, who hugely fueled the ridicule. The former is the stiff-coifed-upper-lip-twitching-egomaniacal demagogue who regularly butted heads with his fellow commissioners, former city Manager Donald Warshaw, and anyone else who got in his way. The latter is Miami's other "Mayor Loco" who, upon serving three months in office, was unceremoniously dumped in 1998 after a court ruling determined he had been propelled into his job mostly due to rampant voter fraud. Poetically, Suarez's demise put Carollo back in office. Meanwhile Miami became America's poorest city, a place where roughly half the residents don't own a home or have never completed high school.
Tired of ineffective leadership, Miami voters took a chance and gave Diaz the keys to the city on November 13, 2001, when he defeated former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré in a runoff. Along the way, Diaz has built a political machine rivaled only by county Mayor Alex Penelas and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. And halfway into his term, Diaz has convinced people he's done good in the city.
"Manny is a vision of stability in a town long noted for its instability," opines Coconut Grove activist, local attorney, and Carollo confidante Tucker Gibbs. "That in itself makes the guy extraordinary. He's the right mayor at the right time."
"You guys in the media are used to having Carollo, Suarez, and all these other yahoos that have come and gone," chants city Commissioner Johnny Winton, Diaz's biggest ally among the serious pols. "But Manny is not the type of guy to insert his foot in his mouth. He's going to be the best mayor Miami ever had." Of course that theory assumes Diaz won't jump into next year's race for county mayor -- a competition political pundits say he would win hands down.
Back on the Island Lady, just as a thunderstorm rolls in, Diaz dances around the subject of his political future. "It's all I hear from people," he complains. "It wasn't in my plans to run for mayor of Miami, yet here I am. What the future holds, I have no idea. But right now I'm happy where I am."
And why shouldn't he be? Diaz has benefited from Miami's recent good fortune. For one thing, the city's bond rating on May 9 was elevated to A3 by New York-based Moody's Investors Service for the first time since Miami was on the verge of bankruptcy in 1996. The rating means the city can borrow money at lower interest rates. The city estimates there are four billion dollars' worth of development projects on the drawing board or already under construction from Edgewater (Blue, a 36-story condo on NE 36th Street) to East Little Havana (Altos de Miami, 133 high-rise units on Flagler) to the Miami River (the 21-story Neo Lofts on South River Drive). Going into its next budget cycle, the city boasts between $120 million and $140 million in reserves.
Furthermore, Diaz has a relatively harmonious relationship with the city commission because he spends a considerable amount of time meeting and listening to its members, including his most vocal critic, Commissioner Angel Gonzalez. Carollo, on the other hand, couldn't buy his way into a private meeting with commissioners Tomas Regalado, Art "Houdini" Teele, and Johnny Winton.
As a result Diaz has had no problems pushing his initiatives through, from his reorganization plan to overhaul city government using a private-business model; to his transportation master plan for downtown Miami; to his pick for city manager, the ever-controversial and combative civic leader Joe Arriola. His choice for police chief, John Timoney, a big Irishman from New York City, was expected to cause strife in the PD among entrenched Hispanics loyal to former Chief Raul Martinez and his backers (like Angel Gonzalez, who wanted another Cuban), and powerful black officers; that failed to materialize. Timoney was that adroit in handling new appointments and promotions.