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A giddy chaos swirls through downtown Tallahassee as the legislative session approaches its midpoint, April Fool's Day. Gusts of energy and appetite move people through the cool marble rotunda of the old capitol. At lunchtime in the plaza outside, a stiff breeze blows tiny bits of leaves into a giant paella simmering over gas burners. "We all kept stirring it in, figuring it wouldn't do much harm," admits Bob Levy, a lobbyist and coordinator of Miami-Dade Days, an annual party now in its sixteenth year. A savvy fellow, Levy knows that none of the 4000 or so small-town officials, bureaucrats, union organizers, PTA moms, state legislators, or even Billy the Marlin are here for the food. Rather no one wants to miss out on what the Guinness Book of World Records should classify as the world's largest edible photo-op.
Nearly everyone who can lay hands on a big spoon is packed behind the serving line, dropping globs of rice with its treasures of chicken and seafood onto plastic plates, grinning for the cameras, then moving off to schmooze. The paella line is one of the few public spaces in Tallahassee where political affiliation matters less than the ability to bend an elbow. Thus the otherwise unusual sight of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, going scoop for scoop next to Jeb Bush, the Republican governor who will support his party's leading candidate in that race. Bush, however, loses a few style points when he looks down at his official Miami-Dade Days tie and, after a brief examination, pronounces it the ugliest he's seen yet. Unfortunately he neglects to wait until its young designer, New World School of the Arts student Gabriela Corea, is out of earshot.
Besides the tasty arroz con arbol, the afternoon's delights include lots of speeches and awards presided over by former restaurateur and convicted tax cheat Monty Trainer, chairman of the event, which this year is partially combined with Broward Days. The awards are fetching glass rectangles etched with the name of a local notable (generally deceased) for whom the given award is christened, and the name of the living person on whom it is bestowed. These plaques additionally feature the artwork of ubiquitous Miami artist Romero Britto, also very handy with a paella spoon. Britto later gets his own honor, the "Nestor Torres Cultural Ambassador Award," presumably because his slick commercial appeal is the perfect metaphor for our fair county.
Miami-Dade County Days comes across as a kind of spring fling for small-town officials. Some folks had flown into Tallahassee the night before, transforming the sedate Southern plantation town into Miami North for a couple of days. It is noticeable as the air in the clubby bars across the street from the capitol fills with cigar smoke and the sounds of Spanish, melding with the cool breezes of a Tallahassee spring. "¡Oye! ¡Que rica!" calls out one contingent that includes Latin Builders Association head William Delgado as two female friends walk by the outdoor tables at Andrew's.
The spring-break sensation increases as darkness falls and stiff drinks served by lithe college students begin to flow. Black, white, Latino, and Haitian folks mix freely, more easily with each other in this alien place than at home. Spanish and English become interchangeable, subject to subject, sometimes even midsentence. What's going on with the Marlins stadium, healthcare, the school district, the courts funding? Did you see who else is here?
Taxi-industry lobbyist Diego Feliciano chats up a zoning board member from the City of Miami, then moves on to catch up with a friend at Clyde's, a watering hole next door. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and manager Joe Arriola arrive with their entourages. Placido "Paul" Debesa, an octogenarian Republican executive-committeeman from Little Havana, slowly drinks Scotch and watches the crowd, frequently popping to his feet to snap a photo of some local personage. He then sits down and resumes a conversation about all the Dade Days he's seen over the years. "The way you look and the way you talk is like Kissinger," a friend tells him. Debesa ignores the comment and stands up for another picture.
This year is different from most in that the large and boisterous fraternity of Miami's legislative delegation seems to have moved beyond political hazing rituals and has closed ranks in a remarkable fashion. At the heart of the twenty-five-member delegation are the eleven Hispanic Republicans in the House, and (sometimes) their three counterparts in the Senate. The delegation also includes six House Democrats (three African Americans, two Haitian Americans, and one Jew), four Senate Democrats (two blacks and two Jews), and one Anglo-Catholic House Republican from Monroe County. With the exception of Miami Beach's Dan Gelber, however, the Democrats are largely out of the circle of influence.
Solidarity is either really good or not so great, depending on the angle from which this new development is observed. Eleven bodies with one head produces a dearth of independent thought. But unity in the Hispanic delegation will be a major ingredient in House majority leader Marco Rubio's bid to become Speaker of the House in 2006. A House speaker from Miami for the first time in 30-odd years would mean extra pork for South Florida. Then again, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask former Opa-locka state Rep. Willie Logan, a Democrat, who was Speaker of the House-designate until his mostly white colleagues pulled a last-minute switch in 1998. Logan retaliated by throwing his support to the gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, thus continuing a tradition of uneasy alliances between blacks and Republicans in Florida that, through redistricting battles, eventually broke the Democrats' century-plus domination of the legislature.