Mixed Message

If it weren't for that pesky First Amendment, José Cancela would be a strong mayoral candidate

José Cancela has stopped eating. He carefully places knife and fork across his barely touched salad and stares at Kulchur with a wounded expression. When he asked for a lunch meeting, this conversation inside the Beach's Van Dyke Café was not what he had in mind.

"I really thought we'd just get to know each other today," he says, sounding more hurt than angry, "but if you want to grill me, that's cool too."

It's hard to square Cancela-the-shrinking-violet with the ambitious man who has Miami's political circles abuzz.There are already a host of formidable candidates who've begun campaigning for Miami-Dade mayor, even this far from the August 31, 2004, election, all hoping to succeed the term-limited Alex Penelas. But it's Cancela's bid -- the 45-year-old's first run for public office -- that has insiders lining up while the rest of the field nervously watches. It's easy to see why.

José Cancela makes his case to WPLG-TV's Michael Putney
Steve Satterwhite
José Cancela makes his case to WPLG-TV's Michael Putney

Before becoming president of Radio Unica's nationwide network of Spanish-language AM stations in 1998, Cancela held prominent television executive positions with both Telemundo and Univision. From the moment he became general manager of Miami's WLTV (Channel 23) at the tender age of 31, he firmly established himself as one of the city's power elite, his opinion curried by pols and fellow businessmen alike. Moreover watching him work a room is truly a thing to behold: Whether chairing the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce or hitting the packed dance floor inside Little Havana's old Café Nostalgia, he moves effortlessly between Spanish and English, putting Anglos, Latinos, and blacks at ease with his ingratiating manner. There's little understatement in calling Cancela the very embodiment of the Cuban-exile experience that transformed our sleepy Southern city into an economic powerhouse and the de facto capital of the Americas.

So José, how does it feel to be the poster child for the American Dream?

"No, no," he demurs good-naturedly, raising his hands in mock protest. But how else to describe Cancela's ascent? When his mother fled Cuba in 1961 with three-year-old José, his two small brothers, and his infant sister, the family arrived in Miami with little more than the proverbial shirts on their backs. Cancela's father, a naval officer, remained behind, imprisoned by Fidel Castro's new government. Flash forward: In 2002 Cancela drew a paycheck of $450,000 from Radio Unica. Not too shabby for someone whose only academic degree is a high school diploma.

It's little wonder, then, that Cancela's campaign backers are quick to favorably compare him with another business figure, Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, who also defeated several established politicians in his first run for public office.

Emulating Diaz's private-sector outlook at county hall is precisely the idea, Cancela notes. "I've rolled up my sleeves and built something from the ground up," he says of Radio Unica. "I believe that's the kind of leadership we need at the county level. I know what it's like to go to bed at night and worry about a payroll ... which is more than I can say for a lot of other people in this race."

Of course, if Cancela is going to run on his track record as a businessman, it's only fair to point out that Radio Unica isn't quite the success story he touts it to be. Some analysts point to overexpansion. Others note that Unica's Spanish talk shows, so popular locally, haven't quite caught fire nationally.

Which brings us back to that pained expression on Cancela's face. As Kulchur begins rattling off Radio Unica's less-than-glowing finances -- nearly $200 million in accumulated losses since its 1996 founding, $158 million in long-term debt-- Cancela's visible discomfort grows.

"After 9/11 it's been a challenging time for everyone in the advertising industry," he counters. "Advertising has been hit very, very hard."

Clear Channel -- another national radio network -- is turning profits hand over fist.

"They've had some challenging quarters."

They're sure making money now, though.

"They've had some challenging quarters," he repeats dryly.

The news that Radio Unica is for sale, as reported in the Herald(and which would certainly give him more time to campaign), hardly lightens Cancela's mood. In fact it's a four-letter word he finds downright obscene. "We are notfor sale," he snaps. "We're recapitalizing the company. We're seeking recapitalization."

Does that mean bringing in more outside investors?

"Correct."

So a part of the company is for sale?

"I'd call it capital infusion."

Isn't this semantics? Why not just admit Radio Unica is in trouble?

Awkward silence. Again Cancela makes a face as if Kulchur has just stabbed him with his salad fork.

What? What did I say?

"I didn't think this was what we'd be talking about," he offers with a sigh. "I just wanted to get to know you better today, and have you get to know me."

Kulchur presses on and quickly discovers that the subject of Radio Unica's stock truly sets Cancela off. Excitement over the company's 1999 initial public offering was so fevered the stock opened at $16 a share and closed its first day at $27. "Nice runup, huh?" crowed Steven Dawson, Radio Unica's chief financial officer, to the Herald.

Dawson isn't quite so smug these days. Wall Street confidence in Radio Unica's future is now so low its stock currently trades at about 80 cents a share. And don't try to find a current quote in your daily newspaper -- the company's stock was delisted from NASDAQ a year ago after it failed to prove it had enough tangible assets on hand to be considered solvent. On top of that embarrassment, Radio Unica is one of 300 companies that in June agreed to a billion-dollar settlement over a 2001 class-action lawsuit, which charged them with intentionally omitting key financial information from their IPO prospectus and the "artificial inflation of the market price" of their stock.

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