The Gridlock Candidate

The county mayor’s race is bumper-to-bumper with hopefuls, but a former traffic reporter thinks he has a shot.

If you’ve ever found yourself stuck in I-95’s snarl, gazing with envy as a television news helicopter whipped past overhead, take comfort in Dave Slater’s anger. Before he retired in 1996 as a traffic reporter for both WPLG-TV (Channel 10) and WIOD-AM (610), Slater spent nearly twenty years flying above Miami’s highway tie-ups. And while you were helplessly looking up at his chopper, he was just as frustrated in looking down.

“I’ve watched the delays go from a half-hour to all day long,” he groans to Kulchur. And while he may now run a wholesale electronics business, much of Slater’s free time is given to studying Miami’s transportation plans and poring over every line of the thick budgets accompanying them. Slater’s bitter conclusion? The true culprit behind these traffic snarls isn’t simply urban sprawl, he argues. It’s a county government saddled with gross mismanagement, riddled by corruption, and sorely in need of a new mayor willing to do some house-cleaning. Three guesses who Slater believes is just the man for the job.

Indeed Slater has his $2201 filing fee ready, and come August 31, expect to see his name on the county mayoral ballot alongside such better-known contenders as José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, and Jimmy Morales.

Mayoral candidate Dave Slater has a unique perspective on the causes of traffic congestion.
Mayoral candidate Dave Slater has a unique perspective on the causes of traffic congestion.

“I’m going to educate the people to the real issues in this town!” he thunders, running down carefully buried, wasteful budget items the way other folks cite baseball statistics. Fortunately for Kulchur, no matter how wonkish the topic, Slater still hollers about it as if he actually were at a ball game: No one has ever been this pumped up about Tri-Rail.

“They’re going to hear about the Expressway Authority!” he roars. “They’re going to hear about the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust!”

Go, Dave, go!

“They’re going to hear about the Airport Authority!”

Miami International Airport holds a particularly prominent spot on Slater’s hit list. He points to county Commissioner Dennis Moss, chairman of the commission’s transportation committee, as an example of all that’s wrong with the system.

Moss has been the loudest opponent of the recent effort to once and for all remove the airport from the commission’s control and place it under an independent authority. Despite years of press exposés over the scores of high-paying airport jobs doled out to commissioners’ family members and close pals, as well as numerous scandals over sweetheart airport deals for lobbyists and their clients willing to pony up funds for commissioners’ campaign war chests, Moss declared himself unmoved. To the contrary, he was personally offended — make that outraged — that anyone would even suggest a hint of impropriety in a commissioner’s ability to evaluate and award airport contracts.

Yet at the same time Moss has been righteously huffing and puffing over any perceived conflict of interest, Moss’s wife, Margaret Hawkins-Moss, is a senior procurement contract officer at the airport. “This is a joke,” Slater chides, “and this is the kind of nonsense that goes on every day at the airport.”

Hawkins-Moss’s employment history, as provided by the county’s Employee Relations Department, does seem a bit odd. In 1993 Hawkins, then single, was working as a staffer for Dennis Moss in his first term as a county commissioner. Three years later she jumped to the airport to become a contract compliance specialist, inspecting and monitoring the very construction contracts her former boss — and husband-to-be — was charged with awarding.

As reported in early 1997 by then-New Times writer Jim DeFede, she took advantage of the county’s internal job pipeline that allows employees to transfer from one department to another while keeping their salary. In Hawkins’s case, it proved to be a windfall: Her starting salary at the airport was nearly double that of her fellow contract compliance specialists. Today, several promotions later, the happily married Hawkins-Moss earns just under $66,000 and is intimately involved with the questionable multimillion-dollar contracts that have so many people up in arms.

Touting her own extensive responsibilities, Hawkins-Moss herself wrote in an internal evaluation that “in July 2001 the Board of County Commissioners approved a contract that I prepared and processed.” It was a project, she added, “valued at $658 million, with this contract being one of the single largest contracts awarded for the Aviation Department.”

Only a cynic with a heart much more hardened than Kulchur’s would think Hawkins’s proximity to a legion of checkbook-wielding airport lobbyists had anything to do with her abrupt career shift — or her nuptials to the county commission’s transportation chair. Still she and her husband must have some interesting dinnertime answers to the question: “How was your day at work, honey?”

Speaking to Kulchur, Hawkins-Moss denied any conflict of interest arising from the overlap between her job’s duties and those of her spouse — even citing the results of an Inspector General’s investigation as proof. Hawkins-Moss’s actual personnel file contains no such thumbs-up from the county’s Office of the Inspector General. In January 2003, however, the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, responding to a request from Commissioner Moss, did issue an advisory opinion addressing the subject of conflicts.

In this opinion, the ethics commission — long seen as toothless compared to the Inspector General — merely found that the county’s ethics ordinance “does not prohibit [Moss] from voting on contracts managed by his wife. [Moss] will not be personally affected in a unique way by [his] votes on these contracts.” The ethics commission may not see a problem here, but anyone with an ounce of common sense would. Yes, Moss may not be reaping direct profits from the airport contracts his wife manages. But the perception remains that generous contributions to the commissioner’s re-election campaigns are a good way to ensure that his wife smiles favorably upon your contract bid.

Don’t expect Dennis Moss to admit to anything suspect, either. He opened a recent discussion on the merits of an independent airport authority by griping to the Herald: “If the BCC [board of county commissioners] is as corrupt as we’re made out to be, by now someone would have been indicted, someone would have gone to jail.”

Excuse me? Earth to Dennis Moss: Since he took his seat on the dais, no less than five of Moss’s fellow commissioners have been indicted and left office on charges ranging from bribery to money laundering. Just why, exactly, does Moss think Joe Gersten (1993), Bruce Kaplan (1998), James Burke (1998), Pedro Reboredo (2001), and Miriam Alonso (2002) all suddenly disappeared from their commission chairs adjoining his? Could they be trapped inside a broom closet at county hall? (Moss did not respond to calls for comment.)

Clearly Slater has an issue to run with here, and if he were mayor, it would be a hoot to watch him debate Moss over the merits of a given airport contract. (“Is that what your wife told you to say?”) But Slater’s campaign has yet to gain much traction — or even move.

Dave, José Cancela has raised $1.1 million. You’re awfully upbeat for a candidate who’s only raised $100 so far.

“I have pledges for a lot more.”

C’mon Dave, let’s be realistic here. When you ran for Miami-Dade mayor in 2000, you received only 4095 votes. What’s different about this year?

Slater remains unflappable. “We’ve got so many people running out there, it’s not going to take much to get into a runoff,” he chuckles assuredly. In that respect at least, Slater is correct. Recent countywide polls put the undecided vote at anywhere from 16 to 30 percent of the total, with six candidates considered viable. And even the most optimistic numbers show the race’s current front-runners — Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in his own campaign’s poll, Jimmy Morales in another well-financed candidate’s poll — pulling down a meager eighteen and twenty percent respectively. The campaign manager for one leading hopeful agrees: “This is a wide-open race. It’s frightening.”

With so many candidates fighting over the same slice of the ballot, it’s doubtful any one figure will receive 50 percent of the votes, and so a runoff election is almost assured. But for the first time in recent Miami history, this mayoral runoff will be held on November 4, as part of the Bush-Kerry presidential battle. Anglos and blacks, who traditionally vote in low numbers for mayoral contests on off-season dates such as August 31, ceding the electoral-kingmaker role to Cuban exiles, will instead be out in force. Slater is counting on it: “You never know in this crazy town. I could just get elected.”

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