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Two recent incidents illustrate the new cohesion among Miami's Hispanic delegation. Both were highly orchestrated responses to delegation members being pressured by lobbyists. First came Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress, stalking the capitol's hallways in search of legislative support for a bill that would keep state and local law enforcement out of tribal lands. Cypress had in tow Frank Artiles, who ran against Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata in 2002. (Zapata is the first Colombian-American elected to the Florida legislature.) Artiles may run against him again this year, and if he does he doubtless will have the Miccosukee's casino fortune behind him. Zapata had used an obscure parliamentary rule to derail the bill in last year's session and Cypress's message couldn't have been more apparent: Fuck with us, we take you out.
As a reporter from New Times sits in Zapata's office after the paella fest, he gets a call from Marco Rubio, fresh from a chat with Cypress. "Man, he's arrogant," Zapata says to Rubio, referring to Cypress. To the reporter in front of him, he points out the irony of a tribe that wants to be both a sovereign nation and a player in state elections. "They're gunning for me," he acknowledges. A few days later the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald publish stories filled with quotes from Rubio and other Cuban legislators decrying the Cypress maneuver and backing Zapata.
That same day the Herald runs another article detailing events on the House floor that had occurred before the paella was served on March 31. This time the "who's your daddy?" treatment came from Miami-based BellSouth lobbyist Tito Gomez and was directed at freshman Rep. Julio Robaina, a long-time service technician for the company. The House was in the midst of considering legislation designed to undo a massive $350 million telephone rate increase it had pushed through last year following a particularly unseemly lobbying blitz. Gomez called Robaina while he was on the floor. It was a long talk that caused a visibly shaken Robaina to miss the original vote and then change his own vote three times after the fact. Robaina's Miami-Dade colleagues rallied around him, with much rhetorical wrist-slapping of Gomez.
The message from the delegation in both these incidents? Shoot at one of us, we all shoot back. "We have a 'You come after one of us, you come after all of us' mentality," says Rep. Gus Barreiro. This is a big change from a few years ago, when it was more likely for Miami legislators to fire at each other than a common enemy. The new harmony is a refreshing change from the days when the rivalries between Miami politicians frequently degenerated into all-out assaults, largely taking the form of bills killed in committees or members refusing to attend the same events, but occasionally erupting in more spectacular fashion.
In 1998, for example, Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat and Carlos Valdes scuffled on the House floor during a debate over tuition vouchers. As video cameras rolled, the two men grappled awkwardly, red-faced, until security guards and fellow legislators pulled them apart. In 2000 the warfare between Carlos Lacasa and Diaz de la Portilla brothers Alex and Renier resulted in a well-publicized fistfight between Carlos and Renier outside the Radio Mambí studios. Lacasa's star fell when he lost a brutal 2002 campaign to oust bad-boy Alex from his Senate seat. Luis Rojas once clashed with fellow Miamian Mario Diaz-Balart after a debate on redistricting. According to a Herald account, Diaz-Balart called Rojas's mother a name and Rojas grabbed and nearly punched him. They later made up.
This sort of thing, combined with seasonal flareups of anti-Castro pontificating, resulted in Miami-Dade's Republican delegation being viewed by other Florida lawmakers as a marginal player at best. "I remember a legislator from the north came up to me once and said, 'The good thing about Dade County is it's so close to the United States of America,'" recalls Miguel de Grandy, a legislator in the early Nineties. "It was an us-versus-them mentality. It was like, 'Oh, we have to deal with the Cubans because they're in the party.' That's changed now."
"There is a huge difference," observes a former Miami legislative aide now in local government. "It's generational. There's a difference philosophically in their manner of conducting business and how seriously they are taken. Souto, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart -- I don't think they were [taken seriously]."
Adds veteran lobbyist Bob Levy: "This is not a generation of lawmakers whose only issue is Fidel Castro. The generation before still had one foot in Havana." Levy believes the change in the delegation is also reflected in the legislature as a whole. "Florida has changed," he says. "It's more urban. The people they serve with [in Tallahassee] are younger or relatively new to the state. They don't have the ingrained resentment of South Florida."
Even old-time Floridians are learning to appreciate the new breed. Juan Carlos Zapata remembers attending a dinner for incoming freshmen after the 2002 elections. During the course of the evening, another freshman, former Citrus County Sheriff Charlie Dean, stood up and, addressing the five newcomers from Miami, delivered a typically off-color ode to changing times. Zapata recalls Dean saying, "'You know, if I had seen you five Latinos driving through my county years ago, I would have pulled you over and strip-searched you on the spot.' Then he sat down. We looked at each other like, 'Is he kidding?'" Dean, a cattle rancher in his midsixties, is now affectionately referred to by several Miami legislators as the delegation's "Cracker translator and honorary Cuban."