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.

"There may be some truth to that," Ferré grudgingly admits. "It wasn't all my fault, but I don't want to get into a rehashing of the past.... I accept my responsibility for whatever pain I may have caused at the time."

Kulchur, however, is just getting started. Reaching into his briefcase, he pulls out an internal 1978 memo from then-Miami Police Chief Adam Klimkowski, who had called for a grand jury investigation into Ferré's interference with a police investigation of suspected Cuban-exile bombers Gustavo Castillo and Gaspar Jimenez. (Both men were later indicted in the car-bombing of WQBA radio commentator Emilio Milian, though prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.) Complaining that he'd been pressured by Ferré to have his department's detectives stop questioning relatives of Castillo and Jimenez, Klimkowski wrote, "It is particularly disheartening when [Ferré] chooses to publicly support known terrorists."

"Nineteen seventy-eight?" Ferré exclaims incredulously. "I've been up for sixteen hours and you're asking me about something that happened 26 years ago?"

Just going chronologically. There's plenty more.

Kulchur begins working his way through the rogue's gallery of Cuban-exile commandos Ferré championed while keeping one eye on his mayoral re-election efforts, even as they were accused by the FBI of variously issuing death threats to nosy reporters, exploding bombs at offending businesses, and gunning down their critics: Alpha 66's Andres Nazario-Sargen, Omega 7's Eduardo Arocena, Rolando Otero, and most strikingly, Orlando Bosch, who served four years in prison for firing a bazooka at a Polish freighter in the Port of Miami. After his parole, Bosch was subpoenaed for questioning in the 1974 assassination of a Cuban-exile leader, and promptly fled the country. He was eventually jailed in Venezuela, where American officials believe he masterminded a string of attacks, most notably the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, including -- in a bold strike for freedom -- Cuba's national fencing team.

Bosch's imprisonment made him a cause célèbre for el exilio, and Ferré enthusiastically joined the Miami City Commission in declaring "Orlando Bosch Day" (March 25 for those feeling festive), as well as participating in a 1983 delegation to Venezuela on Bosch's behalf.

A tense back-and-forth follows, in which Ferré stresses he was merely acting to ensure Bosch received a fair trial. An exasperated Kulchur considers simply laying his head down on the table. Finally Ferré relents: "I understand a lot of people felt that I went too far in trying to help the Cuban cause, and that I was pandering to the Cuban community. And perhaps I was." Now, though, "I intend to be as fair and as good a mayor as I can be, and will not pander to that or any other community."

It's a nice sentiment, but his time out of office seems to have done little to alter Ferré's crass strategizing. During his 2001 mayoral quest, he quietly attended gay community events and gladly accepted their campaign donations, schmoozing his way through a SAVE Dade dinner and telling that group's members he was the preeminent choice for safeguarding gay rights. Yet unlike Manny Diaz and seven other of his opponents, Ferré refused to fill out SAVE Dade's written questionnaire, knowing full well this would disqualify him from the group's formal endorsement.

In Ferré's electoral calculations, gay votes are good, gay fundraising dollars are even better, but a gay endorsement? With conservative Cubans remaining mayoral kingmakers, best to play it safe and keep gays -- at least in public -- at arm's length. "He's old-school, and maybe he thought he'd lose votes," SAVE Dade chairwoman Heddy Peña told Kulchur at the time. Reminded of his little trick, Ferré immediately begins dissembling.

"No, I think I handed that questionnaire back," he stammers.

No, you didn't. Losing patience, Kulchur refreshes Ferré's memory with his earlier explanation: "I was trying to be pragmatic," he had said to Kulchur in a 2002 article. "In the dirty campaigning of Miami, my [questionnaire] answers would have been used somewhere. It doesn't matter what Manny Diaz says about gay adoption -- he's Cuban." However, as a Puerto Rican fighting for Cuban votes? "Me? My answer becomes important."

So are you sorry for shamelessly playing politics with gay voters?

"That was a mistake on my part," Ferré says somewhat sheepishly, gazing dourly at the glass of Scotch before him. "Another mistake, which I hope to avoid."


What elevates all this from the pathetic to the truly disgraceful is Ferré's Nixon-like political rehabilitation among Miami's chattering classes. It was during 1985's mayoral race that the Miami Herald's editorial board declared, "It is time for a change, a profound change that can only come by ousting Maurice Ferré. The sad fact is that Maurice Ferré has become not one man but two. One is a charming, persuasive, urbane, occasionally visionary believer in and evangelist for Miami's potential. For all that this Maurice Ferré has achieved as mayor, grant him due credit. The other Maurice Ferré is venal, vindictive, obsessed with remaining in office at all costs. It is this persona, alas, that seeks a seventh term."

Yet by 1996, somehow Ferré the opportunist hack had been magically transformed into Ferré the elder statesman. For that fall's election the Herald editorialized: "In our view, Dade's new executive mayor should be the person who best embodies the qualities of maturity, experience, proven accomplishment, vision, and the ability to bridge the divides, at times considerable, that separate Dade's myriad constituencies. Our recommendation is for Maurice Ferré."

But it's hardly fair to single out the Herald for this bizarre turn. Here atNew Times, senior figures -- both past and present -- have repeatedly bestowed favorite-son status upon Ferré, rationalizing away his past, excusing his missteps, oh-so-subtly suggesting him as an expert source on civic policy to this paper's new-to-Miami staffers, and most offensively, carrying water for his incessant bids for public office. Enough already.

Yes, Ferré can be "charming" and "urbane." Obviously quite a few pundits have been swayed by his ability to drop names and pepper his discussions of cultural affairs with oblique references to academics such as Samuel Huntington and Arthur Schlesinger. And with Xavier Suarez and "Crazy" Joe Carollo as his immediate city hall successors, a mayor who neither belligerently shows up at his constituents' doorsteps at 3:00 a.m., nor is arrested for winging a tea canister at his wife starts to look very appealing.

But it's now 2004. The bar for elected office needs to be set higher than a clean bill of mental health. And those claiming the mantle of progressivism need to display a lot more than just good manners.

Back at the Palm, as Kulchur's own skepticism becomes increasingly clear to Ferré, he turns earnest: "I've got an unfinished agenda. There are still things I want to accomplish." No doubt. Yet Ferré's record speaks for itself. And from this vantage point, Ferré's "agenda" seems to consist of little more than pure hubris, a desire to see his face enshrined alongside the other famous pols lovingly caricatured and immortalized on the Palm restaurant's walls. It's an ego trip Miami's press corps should have stopped indulging long ago.

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