By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Diaz roars, then swears that he's going to paint "I'm staying put!" across his chest to stop people from bugging him about the county mayor thing. Despite a looming battle with the city's unions over pension benefits, and recurring questions about his meddling with the city's day-to-day operations, the biggest distraction for Diaz in the coming year will be the county race.
As he lights a cigarette and takes a puff, Diaz turns serious again, rattling on about the agenda and vision he's laid out for the city. There's a lot of unfinished business to attend to: In addition to reforming the city politically, he's trying to secure the headquarters of the FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) in Miami, a proposed trade zone among 34 nations. The agreement has been under negotiation since 1998 as a way to eliminate tariffs and create common trade and investment rules among the Western Hemisphere countries. If the FTAA headquarters is located in Miami, it would lend legitimacy to the city's long-standing claim that it is the Gateway of the Americas. Only recently, Diaz convinced the city commission to approve a traffic plan for downtown Miami that calls for building a tunnel to ease Brickell Avenue traffic and lowering the I-395 overpass that cuts through Overtown to grade level to create a grand boulevard that would help revitalize the area. This summer Diaz plans to develop a long-awaited master plan for the entire city. "[So] I would hate to leave the city midstream," he volunteers.
But there is still plenty of time to convince the mayor to make the jump to county. One scenario has Diaz waiting until December, the month after the upcoming city elections, to announce his candidacy. The qualifying date for the county mayor's race is July 13, 2004. Dario Moreno, however, a political science professor at Florida International University and part-time campaign consultant who worked on the Diaz campaign, says Diaz would probably have to declare his intentions by September. "It takes more than a year to raise the kind of money [about two million dollars] to organize a campaign for that race," Moreno suggests. "There are people waiting on the fence to see if Manny will run. But I don't think contributors and campaign consultants are going to wait past the fall."
A former city administrator who doesn't want to be named is convinced Diaz is going to go for it based on a poll taken last year that showed him as the front-runner -- should he choose to jump. This source points out that the poll was conducted by Campaign Data, the political consulting firm that garnered a lot of work from Diaz's mayoral campaign in 2001. "Why would they do that poll if it wasn't a trial balloon?" the source asks sarcastically. "Besides, if he doesn't run, he misses his window of opportunity for the next eight years." (Whoever wins in 2004 would have the inside track as the incumbent in 2008.)
And, as mentioned, it doesn't appear that Diaz has ever left the campaign trail since he was elected eighteen months ago. Everywhere you look in the City of Miami, there's the mayor: hizzoner donning a football jersey and tossing the pigskin with players from the Miami Fury at Curtis Park, on the Miami River at NW 24th Avenue; Diaz holding court with black ministers during monthly pastoral roundtables, orchestrated so he can hear the concerns and views of Miami's faith-based blacks; Diaz crowning the oldest man and woman in the city.... And should you miss any of these, you can always catch the mayor on the city's cable access channel, which (unlike city board and commission meetings) has no problem televising most of his public appearances. Lastly there's the Mannymobile, a campaign-style bus with Diaz's cherubic mug plastered on its sides, ratcheting around town like a crazed beetle ...
Although Kevin Hill, political science professor at FIU and part-time consultant for Campaign Data, affirms that the Manny-will-win poll was commissioned by BellSouth and not by anyone in Diaz's camp, BellSouth flack Marta Casas-Celaya coyly dismisses the notion that her employer wants Diaz to run. "From time to time we conduct random polls just to get a lay of the land," she explains deftly.
But BellSouth isn't the only one scanning the lay of the land. Winton, who is running for re-election this November, has commissioned a poll that asks whether voters would go for Diaz if he ran. The man in charge of the poll? Diaz's campaign manager and long-time friend Alberto Lorenzo, whom political insiders say may be the main guy pushing Diaz to go for it. "Manny is Lorenzo's prize pony," sums up another shy political consultant. But Winton insists he inserted the question as a way to gauge Miami voters' feelings about county government.
"Obviously, if pollees think Diaz would do a good job at county," Winton rationalizes, "it speaks volumes about Miamians' attitudes about the responsiveness of county government. We pay a tremendous amount of money for services that we often question."
If he were to run, Diaz would be the clear favorite, not only among voters, but among the big-money players hot to bankroll sure-fire candidates. "He's determined not to run," adds Seth Gordon, a Miami publicist and an old Diaz buddy, "but people keep showing him polls [where] he's in the lead."