Ego Without End

Driven by shameless vanity and enabled by an obliging press, Maurice Ferré, unfortunately, is at it again

"This is it. I am done." -- Maurice Ferré, announcing the end of his political career after decisively losing the Miami-Dade County mayoral race in September 1996

"I'm finished. I'm no longer a candidate for anything." -- Ferré, after losing the City of Miami mayoral race in November 2001

"Hey, I'm going to be 69 in a couple weeks. If it doesn't work, it's not the end of the world for me." -- Ferré, announcing his entry into the Miami-Dade County mayoral race, June 2004

"Mr. Mayor!" cries one well-wisher, spying Maurice Ferré sitting with Kulchur in a booth at the Palm restaurant in Coral Gables. The greeter's wife is a bit less tactful: "Boy, are you a glutton for punishment!" she teases playfully.

Which is certainly the most honest way to describe Ferré's just-announced candidacy for Miami-Dade County mayor, the August 31 election that now finds him battling well-financed front-runners José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and Jimmy Morales to succeed Alex Penelas, the term-limited U.S. Senate hopeful. But having spent the better part of the past two decades desperately trying to return to the center-stage role he occupied as Miami's mayor from 1973 to 1985, Ferré isn't going to stop now.

"I still have it in me," he insists to Kulchur over an evening drink. "There's something that I want to contribute. I think I can add to bringing this community together." Of course, that's the same chipper message Ferré served up on the campaign trail against Manny Diaz in 2001 and Alex Penelas in 1996 -- to little effect. Moreover, for the generations that have come of age since Hizzoner was first ousted from city hall, Ferré's distant administrative tenure recalls a Miami that teetered on the edge of absolute anarchy: cocaine cowboys, race riots, and the nation's highest murder rate.It wasn't exactly Camelot.

Ferré, however, remains undaunted. "I'm coming in very late," he concedes. "I'm seen as a real outside shot. I'm not going to raise a lot of money, and I don't want to raise a lot of money. I don't want to do what I've always done, what all politicians do: Go to the lobbyists and special interests." Instead he'll rely on the county's public-financing system as he hits the hustings. "Most of the people I respect say to me it can't be done. Well, my answer is, if it can't be done, why did the Marlins win [the 2003 World Series]? A $30 million versus a $180 million team and the Marlins won? How about the horse that just beat Smarty Jones?"

Clearly energized, Ferré begins chopping the air with a series of frantic hand motions, excitedly reenacting Birdstone's come-from-behind win over Smarty Jones in the Belmont Stakes race. Just don't ask Ferré to detail his campaign platform -- it's still being formulated. And don't inquire as to what he offers that his opponents don't. "That's your job," he snaps, refusing to so much as even name any of the other contenders for county mayor. "I'm not running against them!"

Well, technically you are.

"No, I'm technically not running against them!" Ferré bristles, failing to see the humor in his semantics. "It's a vacant seat. They don't own the seat!"

The key to Ferré's victory, as he sees it -- beyond besting those phantom opponents -- is communicating his gift for "uniting a divided city" and soothing still-raw ethnic tensions in a post-Elian Miami.

There's no small irony in listening to Ferré elaborate on these platitudes, given that he previously blamed his 2001 defeat on an apocryphal association with Janet Reno and -- as a Puerto Rican running against the Cuba-born Manny Diaz -- his congenital lack of cubanidad. In a postelection interview with the New York Times he bitterly complained about "the right-wing fanaticism in the Cuban-American community. It is the lock-step blind fanatical rejection of anything not within the purview of what they think is right. There is no middle ground in the minds of many of these people."

Fanatical or not, it's an attitude Ferré has catered to with gusto. During his mayoral reign, Miami's Cuban-exile community was wracked by internecine violence with bombs and bullets for those deemed cozy with Fidel Castro -- or at least insufficiently anti-Communist. The actual perpetrators of these acts may have been only a radical minority, but the climate of fear and intimidation they produced held sway over the entire city for years to come.

As late as 1994 a Human Rights Watch report noted the eerie similarities between the mob assemblies and "acts of repudiation" Fidel Castro uses to frighten Cuba's dissidents into silence, and those same tactics employed across the Florida Straits in Little Havana. "Only a narrow range of speech is acceptable," the report observed of Miami, "and views that go beyond these boundaries may be dangerous to the speaker. Government officials and civic leaders have taken no steps to correct this state of affairs."

In fact, as mayor Ferré did something far worse than reach for a violin while Miami literally burned around him. Again and again he interceded to help men seen as terrorists by the FBI. As long as they were considered "freedom fighters" and righteous anti-Castristas by many Cuban exiles, Ferré was happy to stump for their benefit -- and for the votes such a public stance garnered.

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