Miguel and the Money Man

Norman Braman joins the Diaz de la Portilla mayoral campaign -- despite that unpleasant gay-rights thing

Their hours may be different, but Miami's leading political figures are looking an awful lot like nightclub owners these days. In the looming August race to succeed Alex Penelas as Miami-Dade mayor, no less than in the competitive world of clubland, lining up a steady stream of VIP appearances is crucial.

So while it wasn't exactly a photo-op alongside J.Lo, José Cancela's public endorsement from former Rep. Carrie Meek still made waves, giving the mayoral hopeful some newfound luster and dramatizing his bona fides to the black community. Jockeying for attention, fellow contender and current county Commissioner Jimmy Morales touted his own backing by a slew of Haitian Americans, including state Rep. Phillip Brutus and prominent activist Marleine Bastien. And not to be outdone, former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla announced his own campaign's new finance co-chairman: auto magnate Norman Braman.

In a town whose history doesn't exactly inspire a lot of fiduciary confidence, it's safe to say Braman is a reassuring choice for money management. After buying the Philadelphia Eagles football team in 1985 for approximately $65 million, he sold it less than a decade later for $185 million. Even drug cartels don't often see those kind of returns. And his Braman Motorcars dealerships currently gross more than a billion per year.

But Braman wasn't enlisted by Diaz de la Portilla simply for advice on balancing his campaign's books. As he is one of Miami's preeminent philanthropists, Braman's imprimatur carries with it an entrée to the living rooms -- and the checkbooks -- of this area's power elite.

Given the heated nature of this election, even seven months out, those introductions are crucial if Diaz de la Portilla is going to avoid a repeat of his underfunded and somewhat embarrassing 2000 county mayoral run: Unable to afford the same degree of media saturation as then-incumbent Penelas (who wielded a $1.5 million war chest), he never made inroads beyond his electoral base of conservative Latinos.

This time out he's raised an impressive $424,267 according to last week's campaign finance reports -- impressive, that is, until you consider Cancela's current campaign sum of $833,000. Meanwhile Morales has amassed $324,060, and he's set to receive another $300,000 in matching public funds thanks to his earlier decision to cap his own fundraising at $300,000 -- a cap now waived under county law since Cancela has passed the $600,000 mark.

And in the midst of what's sure to be an unprecedented advertising blitz comes a further wild card: Restaurant owner Jay Love is also on the ballot, having raised $41,470 -- far more than the shoestring amount he used in 2000 to nearly knock Diaz de la Portilla out of the runner-up slot. Once again Love is the only notable non-Latino in the race; in a city where ethnicity often trumps policy, expect him to -- just as in 2000 -- peel off a significant number of alienated Anglo and black votes simply by opening his mouth.

Of course, crassly lumping in Braman with the bagmen swirling around all these pols isn't quite fair. When it comes to supporting a good cause, Braman has long distinguished himself as a true mensch: launching a breast cancer center at the University of Miami, founding Miami Beach's Holocaust Museum, co-hosting Art Basel.

Unlike many of his peers on the charity circuit, however, Braman has never shied away from mixing it up politically. His avid support for Gov. Jeb Bush's re-election raised hackles within liberal circles, while his 1999 bankrolling of a movement that squashed Penelas's proposed transportation tax earned him a new lifetime enemy. During the fall of 2002 Braman also took on a role as one of the leaders of the No To Discrimination Committee, which helped successfully campaign to uphold the county's gay-rights ordinance during a ballot referendum.

As usual, Braman didn't equivocate when it came to explaining his beliefs. "Failure to defeat this referendum," he declared of the anti-gay measure at the time, "not only will demean us all, but will seriously impede the economic growth of our community.... Who wants to live and work, invest, shop, negotiate, and make deals in a community that votes for bigotry and lack of mutual respect?"

Who? Why, none other than the very candidate for whom Braman is now stumping. As county commissioner, Diaz de la Portilla voted twice against enacting the gay-rights ordinance, even receiving an award of appreciation for his efforts from Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson -- the same Christian Coalition that later spearheaded the effort to repeal the ordinance and derided the No To Discrimination Committee as "homosexualists" intent on perverting their children.

A year on, and with the gay vote a key factor in the mayoral race, Diaz de la Portilla may be downplaying his past positions. But he hasn't changed them. In an earlier interview with Kulchur to discuss his campaign's strategy, Diaz de la Portilla still felt Miami-Dade's gay-rights amendment was "unnecessary legislation," since he had yet to see any serious evidence "that would show there is discrimination against gays."

So, Mr. Braman, what's with your strange new political bedfellow?

"Nobody's perfect," Braman deadpanned to Kulchur.

I'm going to need a little more analysis than that.

"I think the major area we need to concern ourselves with for this election is the quality of government," he countered. "If you look at Miguel's record on the commission for all those years, you will see he was never a part of that crowd of lobbyists, that crowd of power pushers who've been running this county for years."

Playing devil's advocate, Kulchur suggested a meeting with Jimmy Morales. After all, Morales's record on the dais is just as firm on civic reform as Diaz de la Portilla's -- and Morales is a long-time supporter of the gay community.

"Either of the two would make a superb mayor, but I've known Miguel longer" -- they worked together in opposing Penelas's 1999 transportation-tax measure -- "and he stands a better chance of evicting this crowd of lobbyists."

With your influence behind him, he sure does. But if Morales and Diaz de la Portilla are both equally committed to rooting out corruption at county hall and the airport, why not back the candidate who also supports gay rights?

"Miguel's not interested in upsetting the balance of the community," Braman insisted. "I think he was wrong on the gay issue, but" -- Braman began chuckling -- "I also have some fundamental disagreements with my wife and we've been married for 48 years! I'm not divorcing anyone here."

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