Welcome to Fabulous Tallahassee

Where your humble state legislators work hard by day and play hard by night

Juan-Carlos Planas, elected from the Westchester area in 2002, says he and his peers are less parochial than their predecessors. "The torch has been passed," the 34-year-old former prosecutor asserts. "We joke among ourselves that we're Cubans: the Next Generation."

But exile politics continues to play a role in Tallahassee. This past August the eleven Hispanic House members from Miami wrote a letter to President George W. Bush warning him to get tougher on Castro or risk losing Cuban-American support. This move was the brainchild of Rep. David Rivera, a long-time Republican Party operative who, according to a colleague, thinks "the Bush administration only understands threats." In combination with a poll of Cuban voter attitudes toward President Bush commissioned by BellSouth, plus a threat by Miami reps not to carry water for Bush's re-election campaign, it seems to have succeeded in hardening the White House's official line on Cuba.

But the danger of playing to the hometown crowd on one issue is that it becomes more difficult to appeal to a statewide audience, or to bring home the money. And the flow of state money to Miami is perennially threatened by lawmakers from north and central Florida, who want to divert it from South Florida schools and social programs and channel it to their own communities. "The good ol' boys still have something to teach them about politics," observes one Tallahassee-based education consultant. "If they lose on issues like the school district cost differential or Article Five funding, what does that say? If they were really influential, this DCD challenge wouldn't be happening."

Balladeer and Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez 
looking slightly traumatized by Rep. Ralph Arza's 
dance moves
Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Days
Balladeer and Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez looking slightly traumatized by Rep. Ralph Arza's dance moves

The stone crab claws are missing! Gatecrashers are threatening to descend on the Mambo Kings party! Disgruntled calls, at least 30 of them, fly from various legislators' offices to Miami-Dade Days coordinators. Usually a business organization sends up a box of claws from Monty's with the ties and scarves and other goodies sent to each legislator before the fest. They are so popular that individuals must sign for receipt of the shipment. But this year there were no claws. "All right, but I'd better not see other legislators with stone crabs," grouses one lawmaker. Down the hall, someone from one of the offices reprints a bunch of invitations to the popular Mambo Kings party and passes them out. The party, held in Kleman Plaza, is only authorized for about 2500 people; any more than that and it could be shut down. Preventive measures are taken by party organizers to closely inspect invitations at the entrance.

Elsewhere in downtown Tallahassee, anti-Katherine Fernandez Rundle signs mysteriously appear inside the windows of newspaper boxes. This just happens to coincide with the arrival from Miami of John Rivera, head of the Police Benevolent Association and a fierce critic of the Miami-Dade State Attorney.

County Commissioner Javier Souto, not entirely satisfied by the paella, slips off to a downtown Cuban restaurant called Gordo's for maduros and a few sips from a large plastic cup reading, "Gordo's Cuban Cuisine. Put a Cuban in your mouth."

And a bored gaggle of elected officials from Sweetwater begins tossing ripe tomatoes at one another in the hallway outside Zapata's office.

Meanwhile a quiet campaign to have Rep. David Rivera elected mayor of a town in Cuba gets under way in the offices of J.C. Planas, also world headquarters of Planas-Palooza, an unofficial Dade Days afternoon happy hour between the paella fest and Mambo Kings party. Periodically leaving the office are women holding martini glasses filled with neon-colored drinks, and young men hiding beer bottles under their coats. A karaoke machine kicks out tunes.

On the office door a poster reads, "Vote David Rivera for el Alcalde de Cienfuegos. A paid advertisement by Joe Garcia and CANF." The picture, however, shows Rowan Atkinson, the loopy British actor who plays Mr. Bean on the eponymous BBC television series, whom Rivera is said to resemble. The inside joke rests both on Rivera's comment to the Miami Herald that he wants "to be mayor of Cienfuegos in a free Cuba," and Garcia's role as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, which Rivera worked for when it was a much more hard-line organization run by Jorge Mas Canosa. "I'm waiting for Rivera to get me back," Planas later says gleefully of his friend. "I hope it's funny."

Tallahassee has a long and well-deserved reputation as a city where the two oldest professions come together, and the great facilitator of both is the "Third House," a term not inaccurately applied by many to the robust lobbying corps, which outnumbers legislators by about twenty-to-one. This corps reported spending almost eight million dollars on wining and dining of various kinds in 2003 alone. Think about it. That's what they reported. In ousting career politicians, term limits have given Republicans what they say they want: government run more like a business. Or more precisely, government run by business.

Apparently there's just something about screwing the public that makes people horny. "There are two kinds of people who come to Tallahassee," offers one cynical lobbyist after a couple of bottles of sake at a sushi joint. "And both of them have the same mental age -- college kids and legislators. They both come here to drink and get laid, and neither one of them knows much of what happens in between."

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