A Plunge into the Mainstream

Jimmy Morales carefully navigates his way to the mayor's office

Hitting the campaign trail is an awful lot like marketing a pop star. Cult audiences, no matter how dedicated, are fine if all you're after is cult hero status. But if you're looking to rule the pop charts -- or run for higher office -- then crossing over to the mainstream is essential.

It's a tricky move, though -- for a rapper as much as for a county commissioner. Broaden your appeal too much and you risk losing the core supporters who guarantee your career base and long-term prospects. Just ask hip-hop's thug turned sensitive balladeer Ja Rule. But bending in the other direction also carries dangers -- witness the shaky U.S. Senate run of would-be gangsta Alex Penelas, who in the wake of Elian traded in his cuddly image as People magazine's "sexiest politician in America" for an unconvincing turn as a fire-breathing Cuban exile.

You don't need to explain this to 41-year-old county commissioner Jimmy Morales, who's determined to jump from his central Miami district to take the reins of South Florida's largest municipal government, its $5.5 billion budget, and its 2.3 million residents, succeeding Penelas as Miami-Dade mayor in next year's election.

Once he makes it past the primary, County Commissioner Jimmy Morales sees clear sailing to the mayor's office
Steve Satterwhite
Once he makes it past the primary, County Commissioner Jimmy Morales sees clear sailing to the mayor's office

"I'm trying to reach out beyond folks who are half Cuban, half Puerto Rican, and married to nice Jewish girls," he quips to his appreciative fundraiser audience in the Miami Beach waterfront home of Joe and Jeanne Farcus. And while his knowing self-description might draw laughs from this crowd, mostly local members of the American Jewish Committee, it also sums up Morales's biggest challenge. Despite twelve full months of politicking ahead, the county mayoral race is already crowded with several Cuban-American heavyweights -- Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, school board member Marta Perez, and the imminent arrival of Radio Unica president José Cancela -- all of whom will be fighting for the heartstrings of el exilio, the perceived kingmaker of Miami politics.

Yet, as one of Morales's fellow commissioners sees it, in a city where ethnicity rules the ballot box, "Jimmy will never be Cuban enough for Cuban voters, and he'll always be too Cuban for Anglos." Successfully defying that conventional wisdom, creating a new politics that transcends tribal allegiances, will say as much about Miami's future as it does Morales's.

"My strategy is focused on holding my own in the Hispanic community," Morales explains, settling into a couch in the Farcuses' living room with Kulchur. Let his host of opponents worry about carving up the Cuban electoral pie among themselves. "I'm going to campaign strongly in the Anglo, black, Haitian, and Jewish communities," whose votes he feels will ensure him a place in the all-but-certain runoff election. It is, he emphasizes, the same tactic that allowed him to prevail as an "unknown card" in his first county commission race in 1996.

Returning to his hometown after earning Harvard undergraduate and law degrees, followed by a tony Wall Street position, he was able to handily defeat Armando Lacasa, Cuban-exile padre of former state representative Carlos, in the primary and then Cuban businesswoman Mavel Cruz in the general election. By 2000 Morales's popularity among his constituents as a bona fide reformer -- spearheading ethics bills and rooting out corruption -- left him so entrenched that his re-election drew only token opposition.

As for his two most formidable opponents in the 2004 mayoral race, José Cancela and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Morales waves off any concerns. "José is going to raise a lot of money from downtown chamber types," he says with a dismissive shrug, referring to Cancela's 1999-2000 stint as president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. "But that's it. No one out in the community knows who he is. In their eyes, he doesn't have any history of public involvement."

Meanwhile Cancela's presumed platform -- running the county with the same professional business skills he uses to helm Radio Unica's nationwide network of Spanish-language AM stations -- is looking increasingly suspect. Radio Unica has lost nearly $13 million in just the last six months, and risks defaulting on an outstanding loan. Indeed investor confidence is so low that the company's stock -- which traded at $16 a share upon its initial public offering in 1999 -- had fallen to 80 cents as of Monday. Last September Nasdaq delisted the company. On top of that embarrassment, Cancela has agreed to settle a 2001 class-action lawsuit that charged Radio Unica's executives with intentionally omitting key financial information from its 1999 IPO prospectus. There may be a business model worth citing here, but invoking Enron or WorldCom is hardly going to reassure Miami's voters.

As for Diaz de la Portilla, Morales notes that he has yet to demonstrate any appeal beyond the conservative Latinos who backed his 2000 run for county mayor against Penelas. Diaz de la Portilla's 1998 vote against the county's gay-rights ordinance, as well as his continued ties to Christian Coalition activists, still send shudders through most progressives, his recent overtures to them notwithstanding.

About the only way to get even the slightest rise out of Morales is to repeat the other insult commonly hurled at him: He's not tough enough for this town. Elections here are down-and-dirty affairs, this thinking goes, and the Ivy League Morales just isn't willing to muss his hair -- or rip out the other guy's.

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