By Michael E. Miller
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Last week, at the University of Miami's Gusman Auditorium, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas gave his final State of the County address. In this optimistic political libretto he hit all the high notes, mentioning the county's fiscal health and burgeoning cultural scene, evidenced by the Latin Grammy Awards here last year. "But all the culture in the world doesn't mean anything if our residents are afraid to walk down the street," the mayor intoned. "That's why I'm pleased to report to you that criminal activity in Miami-Dade County is at its lowest level in 25 years."
The man he wanted to thank for that was 51-year-old Carlos Alvarez, director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, who leaves office at the end of March to make a run for Penelas's job. "Director Alvarez is retiring next month, and I want to thank him publicly for making this one of the safest communities in America. Please stand so we can wish you good luck and Godspeed."
Necks craned around the room. Alvarez was in the waaay back of the auditorium. Apparently he'd arrived late.
It was a nice little metaphor for his nascent mayoral campaign. Alvarez, a 28-year career cop and political neophyte, is tardy to the game and arguably at the rear of the pack. Six months after publicly declaring he was running for mayor, and nineteen months after first floating the idea in the press, Alvarez's campaign is perceived by many to be stalled at the gate. He has yet to define himself as his competitors have: County Commissioner Jimmy Morales is the one who hustles to every little community event with his shirtsleeves rolled up; businessman José Cancela is the one surprising everybody by raising the big bucks; lawyer Miguel Diaz de la Portilla is attempting to come across as the elder statesman. Alvarez is still just the police director -- if he's known at all.
That's because he has conscientiously kept his job separate from his campaign. "If he were a different kind of person, he would've used his office to enhance his candidacy," says political consultant Bob Levy, a supporter of Diaz de la Portilla. "But to his credit, he's not that kind of guy."
Many now view the Alvarez campaign as a tremendous opportunity slipping away. He was our Wesley Clark (complete with uniform), the one viable candidate who could legitimately claim he was going to close the doors on lobbyists at county hall. They were afraid of him not just because he's a cop, but also because he's an unknown. He's not beholden to or allied with the big rainmakers, the ones who enjoy an open-door policy with the current administration.
In fact when Alvarez feuded recently with U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez, claiming that Jimenez was backing off a big corruption case at the airport involving powerful lobbyists, his critics claimed he was politically motivated -- he wanted some notches on his pistol grip in time for his mayoral run. (Being guilty of wanting to brag about corruption arrests may not be such a bad thing politically.)
At this stage, though, his chances are looking slimmer than Britney Spears after an ephedra overdose. For one thing, he has yet to emerge from his police persona. His handlers, campaign manager Bob Harrison and image consultants the Victory Group in Tampa, have failed to shape him into someone vital and alive, a man passionate to take over as mayor -- a candidate. "I saw him at the mayor's State of the County address and he was as wooden and stiff then as when he started this thing," says one long-time political observer, a veteran of many campaigns who is not involved in the current race. "When the director first let it be known he wanted to run, a lot of people got excited. He's the guy who can easily say, 'No one controls me.' But he's got to go from one-dimensional to three-dimensional. Right now he's dropped the ball. He doesn't even have the ball in his hands."
Alvarez acknowledges the point. "People don't want to elect a police chief, they want to elect a mayor," he says. "It's true, people have their image of me from press conferences where I'm announcing an arrest, and I seem very stern. And that's accurate. That's who I was." So he's been meeting with community groups, teachers, bankers, and homeowner associations to let them see the man behind the badge.
That, however, is about the only weakness he'll concede. Alvarez calls my analysis of his campaign a load of crap. He's holding fundraisers and making appearances every night. Even though he was behind the others in the January filings at the elections department, with a reported $212,000 (by contrast Cancela reported $833,000, de la Portilla $426,000, and Morales $324,000), he says his coffers will soon swell. In April he'll qualify for matching public-campaign funds, bringing him to a total of nearly $600,000. The only other candidate who qualifies for matching funds is Morales. "I will have more than Miguel, and I'll be about even with Jimmy," he says. He'll also be retired and able to ratchet up the campaign appearances.
I'd heard some potentially disturbing things about the Alvarez campaign -- that his initial fundraising strategy was to tap the 3000 cops in his department, which caused some to complain they felt pressured to contribute. I checked. About $45,000, almost a quarter of his contributions through January, was donated by people identifying themselves as law-enforcement officers and their spouses. One department source, who didn't want to be identified, says it's understood that if you're a ranking officer who relies on promotions for career advancement, you'd better attend a fundraiser.
"I heard that at the very, very beginning of my campaign," Alvarez responds candidly. "I made sure to tell my command staff that this was not MDPD-related, and everything I do is conducted outside the office. I made it known that I did not want supporters inside the department to do anything to make subordinates feel pressured."
I additionally wanted to check what role Camilo Padreda was playing in his fundraising. Padreda was a powerful Republican money machine in the Eighties. He's also a convicted felon who defrauded the federal government and has admitted in court to bribing public officials to vote for everything from county zoning changes to a Miami city manager candidate. "He's a man I've known for 25 years," Alvarez says with a sigh. "He offered to help. He is one of a thousand people who is helping me. I didn't hire him, he's not my fundraiser, and he's not my campaign manager. And yes, he's had his ups and downs over the years."
Fair enough. After all, one thing is clear: Alvarez needs all the help he can get. Otherwise he really will be our Wesley Clark.