Will He Stay or Will He Go?

Manny Diaz succeeds so well in the city that he may get drafted for the county mayor's race

 1. Dusk on May 13. Mayor Manny Diaz is aboard the Island Lady, an executive yacht that sails from the Miami River behind the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. Hizzoner is playing host to several dozen high-ranking officials from the international consulates, like Finland's then-Consul General William Spohrer; Germany's Consul General Volker Anding; Peru's Gustavo Gutierrez Pizarro; and Ecuador's Leonardo Tamariz. The occasion is yet another opportunity for Diaz to promote the ballyhooed renaissance taking place in his Magic City.

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.

Bill Cooke
Mayor Manny Diaz has avoided serious scrutiny during his first eighteen months in office
Steve Satterwhite
Mayor Manny Diaz has avoided serious scrutiny during his first eighteen months in office
Otto Boudet-Murias helps real estate developers cut through red tape
Steve Satterwhite
Otto Boudet-Murias helps real estate developers cut through red tape
Joe Arriola, Mayor Diaz's controversial hatchet man, er, city manager
Steve Satterwhite
Joe Arriola, Mayor Diaz's controversial hatchet man, er, city manager
Francois Illas, Diaz's chief of staff; he keeps it cool with the commission
Steve Satterwhite
Francois Illas, Diaz's chief of staff; he keeps it cool with the commission
Diaz says he didn't tell Arriola to hire Linda Haskins as the city's chief financial officer
Steve Satterwhite
Diaz says he didn't tell Arriola to hire Linda Haskins as the city's chief financial officer
Childhood pal Carlos McDonald runs the city's communications department
Bill Cooke
Childhood pal Carlos McDonald runs the city's communications department
Kelly Penton, Diaz's press secretary, works to keep the mayor's image pristine
Steve Satterwhite
Kelly Penton, Diaz's press secretary, works to keep the mayor's image pristine
Diaz, with Commissioner Joe Sanchez and City Manager Joe Arriola, addresses the media in his office
Bill Cooke
Diaz, with Commissioner Joe Sanchez and City Manager Joe Arriola, addresses the media in his office
Commissioner Johnny  Winton wants to know if you'll vote for his pal Manny Diaz for county mayor
Bill Cooke
Commissioner Johnny Winton wants to know if you'll vote for his pal Manny Diaz for county mayor
Arriola, here with Larry Spring, the city's strategic planning and budget chief, shares a strange symbiotic relationship with the mayor
Steve Satterwhite
Arriola, here with Larry Spring, the city's strategic planning and budget chief, shares a strange symbiotic relationship with the mayor

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.

Most important, and rather magically, Diaz has avoided serious scrutiny during his first eighteen months in office. No one pressed him about "overstepping" his powers as an executive mayor by taking a direct role in the hiring of city employees such as Timoney and Linda Haskins, the city's chief financial officer (by law the province of the city manager). No one questioned his bringing in private consultants who'd worked on and donated to his mayoral campaign. No one complained about the huge amount of airtime dedicated to Diaz's appearances on Miami TV, the city's public access channel (while local government proceedings' airtime coverage was cut).

No, as long as Diaz isn't showing up at constituents' homes in the middle of the night, as Suarez used to do; or hurling a tea canister at his wife's head, as Carollo infamously did, Miamians seem to figure they're ahead of the game. So Manny is king of the city.

2. In 2001 Diaz told New Times his motivation for running was intertwined with his father's death in 1999. "I felt a void in my life," he said then. "I looked around the city, to the place where my parents had invested their dreams. It felt different, like someone had over the years taken something from it. People have forgotten what I knew growing up here. Neighborhoods are the heart of a city. There's a woman who couldn't get out of her apartment for three days because of flooding; elderly people who don't have furniture or air conditioning; people won't leave their homes at night for fear of being a crime victim. The streets are torn up, garbage isn't picked up on time."

Now, of course, Diaz is in charge and addressing those issues. "People have been very supportive because I stuck to what I said I was going to do," he says today, sounding as if he hadn't yet stopped campaigning. "I've kept my promises."

One of those promises was to re-engineer the city's government structure into a private-sector corporate model. The change turned the city manager into the chief administrator, and eliminated three assistant city manager positions. Those jobs were replaced by the chief information officer, the chief financial officer, and the chief of neighborhood services. The better part of Diaz's first year was spent developing this plan. The idea was specificity and responsibility, instead of vague lollygagging and political patronage.

Gail Sittig, the former executive director of the state oversight board that monitored the city's finances from 1996 until 2001, was hired as a consultant to help develop the new organization. Sittig, Diaz, Winton, and former city Manager Carlos Gimenez, a leftover Carollo man, met every weekend for six months at Winton's downtown Miami office to work on the plan. "It was clear from the beginning that the city's old organizational structure created a communications breakdown between department heads and elected officials," Sittig says. "This lack of communication caused divisions with everyone from the mayor's office down to the clerk's office."

Gimenez, now a consultant for the Miami law firm Steel Hector & Davis, concurred with Sittig's assessment. "We had a lot of personality clashes at the assistant city manager level," Gimenez recalls. "I certainly bought into the reorg."

Diaz, however, was not satisfied with just changing the city's organizational plan. In August of last year he forced Gimenez, who had been credited with bringing stability and integrity back to the city, to resign. Diaz says now that despite Gimenez's input on the reorganization, the former city manager was not the right man to implement the changes. "Carlos is a decent human being," Diaz says, "but I don't think there was a willingness on his part to change the status quo."

Gimenez declined to comment on what led to his departure, but according to some former city employees and political insiders who don't want to be identified, Diaz forced Gimenez out simply because he was Carollo's guy. "Manny really didn't have a reason to let Carlos go," says a source. "They were on the same page 97 percent of the time."

Of course one could argue that Diaz wanted someone who would be on the page 100 percent of the time. Last August Diaz and the city commission made it clear it was time for then-Police Chief Raul Martinez to go after New Times reported, among other things, that the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, an organization that evaluates police department standards, had yanked Miami's certification in 2001 for noncompliance. (In the same year, voters approved a Civilian Investigative Panel to monitor city police, and thirteen officers were hit with federal indictments for planting evidence at the scene of several questionable shootings. Two initially pleaded guilty and four others were found guilty at trial, while three were acquitted and mistrials were declared on the remaining four, making a retrial likely.)

Gimenez, however, supported Martinez and would not fire him. Under the charter, Diaz and the commissioners cannot order a city manager to ax the police chief. Eventually Martinez saw the writing on the wall and resigned last November. With Gimenez leaving in January, Martinez could not count on the support of the new city manager, who of course is going to do the king's dirty work. Ironically, Gimenez, in one of his last official acts, hired the high-profile John Timoney, who rose through the ranks to become second in command of the New York Police Department and went on to reform the Philadelphia Police Department as that city's top cop from 1998 to 2001. Naturally Timoney's hiring came with the king's blessing. "The bottom line is that we believe he's the best cop in the country," Diaz proclaimed in a Miami Herald article following Timoney's hire on December 19. (Timoney was given a $173,000 salary and $10,000 in moving expenses.)

Timoney's appointment was a true test for Diaz as black activists, the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and its local president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, the Fraternal Order of Police, and Commissioner Angel Gonzalez attacked the decision to bring in the Irishman. Black activists and the ACLU raked Diaz and Gimenez for not undertaking a broader national search. They also criticized Timoney's track record in Philly, where he butted heads with the city's Police Advisory Commission, a civilian review board that recommended police reforms and investigated allegations of police abuse. The police union and Gonzalez criticized Diaz for not hiring a new police chief from among the ranks of the department. Timoney quashed the rhetoric days after taking the job on January 2 when he promoted two department vets: Hispanic cop Frank Fernandez to deputy chief, Timoney's second in command, and black officer Gerald Darling to assistant chief in charge of criminal investigations. He also promoted officers George Cadavid, Craig McQueen, and Juanita Walker to major to round out his management team.

"Everyone knew that I wanted Carlos to hire someone from outside the department," Diaz says. "It was no secret. The city can do a lot of great things by bringing in people who will change the attitude of the rank and file. For a long time, we've had people who were not being [pointed] in the right direction."

Former employees also say Diaz and Gimenez had problems just talking. "Carlos is a very direct guy," one employee says. "Manny's not. You tell Carlos to go cut the lawn and he does it. But Manny is the type of guy who will say: "'Boy, that grass sure is high, isn't it?'"

In January, with Gimenez's last day coming up, Diaz picked a guy who has no problem seeing eye to eye with him, Joe Arriola. The bombastic millionaire who made his fortune when he sold his family printing business, Avanti/Case-Hoyt, for $42 million two years ago seems to share a strange symbiosis with the mayor.

"I had interviewed a number of candidates," Diaz explains. "But the difference was that Joe had been here for six months already. If I had picked someone new, they would have needed to go through a learning curve. I wasn't going to wait. Joe was the guy who could jump on this train and keep it chugging in the right direction."

Arriola, a man not known for his subtlety and with an inveterate distrust of bureaucracy and unions, is famous for butting heads with Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim and Public Health Trust reformer Michael Kosnitzky, publicly calling the former a "horrible leader" and the latter a "cancer." Despite Arriola's penchant for abusive tactics, Diaz enlisted the millionaire as a dollar-a-year consultant to help with the reorganization last summer. Diaz and Arriola had only met once before during a mayoral runoff meet-the-candidates forum in 2001 for Mesa Redonda, a group of highly influential Hispanic businessmen, which, in addition to Arriola, includes Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibargüen and prominent businessman Carlos Saladrigas. Ironically, at the time Arriola supported Ferré. Some political insiders think Mesa Redonda, which is pro-business, is now setting the agenda for the city with Arriola calling the shots. Diaz says only: "We've formed a common bond; we share the same vision for the city."

3. Miami postman Mariano Cruz, who serves on the civil service board and the homeland defense bond committee as Angel Gonzalez's appointee, is watching the city's cable access channel in the living room of his Allapattah home. Suddenly Manny Diaz appears on the screen. Cruz claps his hands together and lets out a sigh. "I don't know how this guy gets away with it," he vents, "but he does."

Cruz, a long-time supporter of ex-Mayor Xavier Suarez, can't understand why no one has realized that Diaz may be violating the city charter by taking an active role in the city's day-to-day operations. The mayor and the commission are supposed to be the policymakers, he insists, but aren't allowed to micromanage the administration, according to the charter. The mayor can hire and fire the city manager, but he cannot tell the manager who he can hire and fire. The mayor is also not supposed to get involved in contract negotiations or department decisions, something Diaz does on a regular basis. "What Manny Diaz is doing may be good for the city," Cruz says, "but if Arriola is just doing what Diaz tells him to, then that is against the law."

Furthermore, Cruz rambles, when Suarez was doing his 111-day stint between 1997 and 1998, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle didn't hesitate to step in when it appeared he was trying to usurp the city manager's authority and fire then-Police Chief Donald Warshaw. Her office filed a violation-of-city-charter charge against him, which Suarez settled by agreeing to stop his interference. The Miami Herald, which broke the story on the voter fraud, eviscerated Suarez's actions on a daily basis, Cruz continues. "Is Manny Diaz being held to a different standard?"

In reality, Diaz may not be in violation of the charter, but is treading the line rather closely. For example Arriola picked Linda Haskins, the mayor's former financial advisor, to be the city's chief financial officer. Haskins also worked closely with Diaz, Gimenez, Sittig, and Winton on the city's reorganization. Prior to her job with the mayor's office, she was the city's budget director. Diaz said he didn't need to tell Arriola that Haskins was the right person for the job. "Joe and Linda were already working with me," Diaz counters. "So it's not like I had to introduce them."

Diaz adds that being an effective mayor has little to do with what's written on paper, everything to do with character. "You can have a strong-mayor form of government and be a weak mayor," Diaz theorizes. "But I have a fairly strong character. And I'm not afraid to use my bully pulpit to make my agenda clear and [state] what my vision is."

"Manny is certainly a better handler of the media than I ever was," offers Suarez. "But Manny now has a strong manager in Arriola who is implementing his agenda. And that is how the executive-mayor form of government is supposed to work."

Suarez actually complimented the synergy between the mayor's office and the city administration these days. "I was at a commission meeting recently," Suarez says. "I was amazed at how well both interact. I saw a great environment at city hall, an atmosphere of stability." Coming from Suarez, that's a mouthful.

Some of Diaz's supporters do note that on the surface one could view him as the guy calling the shots, not the city manager. "When the mayor and the manager are sitting side by side, going through the process of choosing the best candidate for a city position, that is when you get pretty close to stepping over the line," says Winton. "But Manny is not a guy to overstep his bounds."

Of course Diaz doesn't need to cross the line to spell out what he wants done. For example, shortly after taking office, the mayor introduced a friend and campaign supporter to Gimenez. That friend is Stuart Myers, a retired insurance sales executive who has known Diaz for the past six years and who contributed to his mayoral campaign. The mayor wanted Myers to help Gimenez clean up the city's risk management department, which for years has been a golden piñata for legal claims against the city. "Manny called me up one day about a year ago and told me the city was having some problems," Myers relates during a phone interview from his West Palm Beach home. "He asked me to take a look."

And just like that, Myers was put on the city's payroll, although it's hardly the kind of dough that would raise eyebrows. Myers earns a ten-dollar-a-year salary, in addition to his annual health benefits package worth three thousand dollars. Nevertheless Myers was instrumental in bringing in two other insurance consultants who gave to Diaz's mayoral campaign. One of those experts is Elliott Fixler, a New York lawyer and former assistant U.S. Attorney who earned $60,000 in consulting fees plus $7371 in living expenses from the City of Miami over the course of five months. Gimenez hired Fixler last October based on Myers's advice. "Fixler took over the department when I had no one," Gimenez says defensively. "We tried to hire a new director but all the people fell through." (The city has since hired Diane Ericson as its risk management director.)

Myers, Fixler, and the third player, John Petillo, a New York-based accountant who was recently appointed to the city's police and fire pension board at Diaz's request, were instrumental in putting out new bids to hire an insurance broker for the city; the contract ended up going to a company whose executives contributed generously to Diaz's campaign.

For years AON Risk Services of Florida had a lock on the contract because the city curiously did not put out new bids for insurance broker services to see if it could get a better deal. Last year the firm was up for contract renewal when the insurance experts discovered the city's premiums would skyrocket if the deal went through -- from $2 million to $3.7 million next year. Myers says instead of renewing the contract, which would have paid AON a significant commission, they convinced city officials to put out new bids. Three firms responded. The winner would be picked by the standard means: lowest fee. AON bid the highest, coming in at $312,000. The second company, Arthur Gallagher & Co., bid $247,500. The winning outfit, Tampa-based Brown & Brown Inc., said that it could do the job for $106,000. Coincidentally, Brown & Brown executives had donated about $6500 for Diaz's mayoral run.

On its face, this would appear to be classic Miami: friends and campaign supporters of the mayor getting the inside track on lucrative public contracts. But Myers insists the city's deal with Brown & Brown will save it $622,250 a year. "When most municipalities are facing increasing insurance costs, we were able to get a decrease," he says. Brown & Brown vice president Gerard Fiacco, the company's point man with the city, declined comment. Fiacco and his wife Heidi each personally donated $500 to Diaz's campaign.

Diaz acknowledges introducing Myers to Gimenez, but says he didn't tell the former city manager to hire him, Fixler, or Petillo. He defends the decision to award the contract to Brown & Brown. "There was a competitive process," says a visibly irked Diaz. "Their bid was the lowest and represents more than a half-million-dollar savings to the city. So, I guess, shoot me."

4. When Diaz delivered his state of the city address earlier this year, he called on Arriola to analyze compensation, benefits, and pension programs to reduce personnel costs. "The fact is, no business, public or private, can guarantee its long-term financial health when its personnel costs exceed 80 percent of its revenues," Diaz proclaimed during his speech.

Yet Diaz has shown he's not so frugal when it comes to his own personnel costs. This year the mayor's office budget totals $1,032,940, up $204,005 from last year. When Diaz took office in 2001, the mayor's budget stood at $653,935. About three-fourths of Diaz's costs, $772, 645 to be exact, is for salaries and fringe benefits. On the administration side, Arriola is receiving a $177,385 salary, which he is donating to the local chapter of the United Way. Gimenez, by contrast, had a salary package of $163,209. The three former assistant city managers under Gimenez each earned an annual $141,653, compared with the $160,000 annual salary for chief operating officer Victor Monzon-Aguirre (who has since been terminated by Arriola following his arrest on charges that he committed forgery and grand theft on business unrelated to the city); the $155,000 salary for chief financial officer Haskins; and the $150,000 salary for chief information officer Peter Korinis.

Diaz defends his personnel costs and those of the new city administration. "Being efficient is not a function of how much you spend," he asserts. "It's about spending money well by bringing in the right people. You attract the best people by paying them good salaries."

For instance, Diaz points out, his decision to hire Otto Boudet-Murias as his economic development advisor has paid dividends. The mayor hired Boudet-Murias, a building contractor, this past March to act as a liaison between developers and the city's building, economic development, and planning and zoning departments. For this, Boudet-Murias earns $90,000 a year from the city. "Developers are thrilled that the mayor's office in Miami," Diaz says, "unlike other cities, goes out of its way to meet with them, welcome them, and help them get through bureaucratic red tape."

Daniel Pfeffer, president of Midtown Equities, a New York development outfit, says he wouldn't be doing business in Miami if it weren't for Diaz. Pfeffer's company is developing the old Florida East Coast Industries railroad yard between NE Second and North Miami avenues and NW 36th and 29th streets, into a mixed-use project zone featuring a big retail outlet like Target and single-family residences. "He made a lot of promises to get the project moving," Pfeffer says during a phone interview. "He and Otto have come through every single time. You really have true businesspeople running city government now."

Of course there are always exceptions. Carlos McDonald, the city's communications director and a childhood friend of Diaz, earns a $105,000 salary from Miami, as well as a car allowance. In addition the city covered $12,552 in moving expenses for McDonald when he relocated from Tallahassee; he previously worked for former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Diaz supporter. Technically, Gimenez hired McDonald, but everyone knows McDonald is Diaz's boy. And since McDonald took over, the city's communications department has come under fire. Citizens and commissioners have complained that it doesn't interact well with the public. "The city's cable access channel is now more devoted to airing social gatherings and documentaries than to actually informing the public," complains Commissioner Tomas Regalado, who earns his living as news director of two Spanish-language radio stations in Miami. The department has stopped airing meetings of the code enforcement board and the waterfront advisory board, as well as planning and zoning hearings. "McDonald has been censoring parts of the city commission meetings they don't want the public to see," Regalado charges. "The people need to be informed on these issues."

If that is the case, Diaz says, then McDonald needs to correct the situation. "Yes, it needs to be addressed," he says.

In his defense, McDonald insists all board meetings went back on-air this month. "Code enforcement is back on," he says. "Planning and zoning is back on. The problem is that we had a number of bugs to work out in our new system." As part of the $1.6 million restoration of city hall, McDonald's department spent $300,000 on a new broadcasting system. He adds that his department has gone out of its way to air city board meetings held outside city hall. "We've transmitted meetings of the Community Redevelopment Agency," he says. "The city never did that before. We're doing all of this with a staff of nine people."

5. Early on May 7, Manny Diaz, sweating profusely in gym shorts and a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "One City, One Future," methodically slaps another coat of salmon-colored paint on the exterior of Robin Miller's new Overtown house. Diaz, Arriola, and their staffs have taken the morning off from city hall business for a little community-building with Habitat for Humanity (the nonprofit organization founded in 1976 to help poor families build their own homes).

Diaz doesn't say much, instead focusing intently on the task at hand. Within five minutes, he's painted an entire wall. He stops to take a deep breath as he wipes the perspiration from his pronounced widow's peak. Then he deliberately dips his brush into his paint bucket and smears chief of staff Francois Illas's right arm. The mayor chortles heavily, then takes a few whacks at Arriola: "Hey Joe, does your wife know you're out here doing manual labor?" he cracks. "I bet this is the first time your fine French-manicured hands ever touched a paintbrush!" But Arriola is no chief of staff. Wordlessly he slops his brush on the mayor's dome.

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."

Moreno, who also works for Campaign Data as a part-time consultant, believes the people who want Diaz to run, namely lobbyists like Chris Korge, Rodney Barreto, and Brian May -- who have ties to current county Mayor Penelas -- are not thrilled with the current slate of mayoral candidates: county Commissioner Jimmy Morales; school board member Marta Perez; former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. (Another name that's gaining steam is Dexter Lehtinen, the former U.S. Attorney and husband of U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.) But for the record, Korge et al. have not come out as publicly supporting anyone.

"In his own quiet and deliberate way, Manny has moved the city forward," Moreno says. "He's made the city important again. Part of the reason is that he's a normal businessman, and not Carollo or Suarez."

Diaz has already shown that he can raise gobs of campaign money. In 2001 he generated a little over one million dollars. Just about everyone with political juice supported him, donating thousands of dollars personally and through their corporate entities. For instance, real estate developer R. Donahue Peebles gave $6000. Architect and Grand Prix Americas goddaddy Willy Bermello kicked in $4500. Anthony Mijares, a residential builder, donated $5000, and commercial developer Alan Potamkin popped for $3000. "No one has the appeal that Manny has right now," Moreno says. Hill adds that the poll shows Diaz would be the front-runner among all three Miami ethnic groups. "I've never seen that before," he says.

Still Diaz and his inner circle, including Winton and Lorenzo, insist Diaz is more likely to stay put than run. The allure of the county mayor's race lies in becoming the leader of a local government with a $5.5 billion budget serving more than two million people. Moreover, the county mayor has power over vital economic engines such as Miami International Airport and the Port of Miami. The downside is the cauldron of Miami-Dade politics. Despite the real and perceived reforms that have taken place at county hall, M-D government remains a Southern poster child for public-corruption scandals and government waste and mismanagement. Then there's the fact that the current county commission stripped away much of the county mayor's power during the last general election. The mayor can no longer appoint the commission chair or appoint commissioners to serve on committees. As a result, the mayor can't set the commission agenda as Penelas did prior to the 2002 elections. And Diaz would have to deal with the personalities of thirteen commissioners, as opposed to the mere five in the city. So there is no guarantee that Diaz, even if he won, could duplicate the harmony he's established in Miami. Yet he does have an ace in commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler, a long-time friend and confidante.

Winton says he and Diaz have debated his entering the county mayor's race. "I don't believe he's going to run," Winton says. "But he doesn't put a silence to all the rumblings."

Lorenzo says he's certainly not pushing Diaz. "I don't think I can objectively tell Manny to stay or go," he says. "Both jobs have their pros and cons. I think he has a lot going for him in the city. He's getting the job done. The county is a whole different ball game." Still, Lorenzo grinningly admits, he's been holding out on doing campaign work for other candidates. "I haven't made a commitment yet."

Diaz's failure to declare so far only stokes the rumor mill. But he truly doesn't seem to know which way to jump, to get to what political friends and less-than-friends alike project as his ultimate goals: governor, or maybe even U.S. senator. "I don't want to be called a liar, so I am not going to say never," Diaz says. "But my inclination is to stay where I am."

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