Democratic Mayor or Republican Mayor?

The county mayor's race is nonpartisan -- on the surface

Have you heard about John Kerry's secret connections to Fidel Castro? How about the hidden financial links between Teresa Heinz Kerry and the Cuban government? No? Derek Newton rolls his eyes, and with a laugh plunges his hand into the six-inch-deep sea of paperwork that covers his entire desk. As political war rooms go, Newton -- campaign manager for county mayoral aspirant Jimmy Morales -- certainly has the chaos part down. "The top layer is the most important," he quips, still fishing through the papers until -- voilà!-- he pulls out the latest issue of the Little Havana periodiquito Spotlight Internacional, which details all manner of communist perfidy emanating from the Democratic Party.

Ridiculous? Sure. But in a town where even the most bizarre rumor of a Castro association quickly jumps like a virus from the coffeeshop counter to the Spanish-language talk-radio airwaves, this summer's county mayoral hopefuls are taking every accusation seriously. Cuban-exile voters remain Miami's electoral kingmakers, and with more than 80 percent of el exilio's votes going to George W. Bush in 2000, staying on the right side of that equation -- literally and figuratively -- is crucial to victory.

Or at least it was crucial. With no less than six viable candidates duking it out in the August 31 mayoral contest -- Carlos Alvarez, José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Maurice Ferré, Jay Love, and Jimmy Morales -- a runoff election is assured. For the first time in recent history, that runoff is being held not two weeks later but rather on November 2, as part of the Bush/Kerry showdown.

Jimmy Morales (left) and his campaign manager, Derek Newton
Jonathan Postal
Jimmy Morales (left) and his campaign manager, Derek Newton

If past presidential battles are any guide, Miami's voter turnout will more than double from the traditional sparse crowd that greets its mayor's races. And Cuban Americans will suddenly find their influence counterbalanced by Anglo and black voters -- whose support gave Miami-Dade to Bill Clinton in 1996 by 107,744 votes, and to Al Gore in 2000 by 39,246 votes.

That Democratic margin may be shrinking, but Newton says he and Morales are still counting on it. "Kerry is going to win Dade," he argues. "He may win by only 30,000 to 40,000 votes, but that's more than enough for me." While the rest of the mayoral field is holding Kerry at arm's length, fearful of offending Cuban-exile sensibilities, Morales hopes to embrace Kerry. Says Newton: "We just become the Democratic candidate -- the Anglo, black, progressive candidate. And everybody else goes wherever they go."

Morales himself has hardly made a secret of this notion. As he told Kulchur when he first launched his county hall bid: "My strategy is focused on holding my own in the Hispanic community," leaving the rest of the field to carve up the Cuban vote among themselves. "I'm going to campaign strongly in the Anglo, black, Haitian, and Jewish communities." It's the same tactic he used to get elected to the county commission in 1996, and re-elected in 2000, despite doubts that a pro-gay rights, reformist candidate who is only -- gulp -- half-Cuban could ever win his district.

Of course, such a strategy only works countywide with a presidential-level turnout. And just who pushed the county commission to delay the mayoral runoff until November 2? Why, none other than Jimmy Morales.

Such a move may have been self-serving, but Morales's fellow commissioners also found it impossible to resist: Not only did it save taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars, it guaranteed greater participation. "It's hard to say you favor fewer voters going to the polls," laughs Newton in appreciation of Morales's shrewdness. "His opponents may call Jimmy a lot of things, but being stupid isn't one of them."

Newton may have relationships with several key Kerry campaign staffers (he was Kerry's Cedar Rapids-area field director in the Iowa caucus, where a surprise victory rescued the senator's presidential run), but one of Morales's chief opponents appears determined to neutralize those connections. Newton says José Cancela's allies have persuaded Kerry not to wade into the mayoral race, despite his scheduled Miami visits aimed at peeling Cuban votes away from Bush.

Close ties to Kerry abound in the Cancela camp. One of Cancela's most notable endorsers, Rep. Kendrick Meek, is Kerry's Florida campaign chairman, introducing him at local rallies and speaking on behalf of the presidential nominee at last week's Democratic convention in Boston. Cancela's pollster, Sergio Bendixen, is co-founder of the New Democrat Network, a national advocacy group spending millions on Kerry television ads targeted at Hispanic voters in battleground states, including Florida. And Cancela's own campaign manager, Fernand Amandi, is the son of Fernando Amandi, a retired Cuban-American and Republican banking executive who's drawn widespread attention by crossing party lines to become vice chairman of Kerry's national finance committee, raising more than $100,000 so far.

So might Fernand Amandi be enlisting his father to help conjure up a joint Kerry-Cancela appearance? Don't hold your breath. "I don't comment on anything my dad is doing," Fernand icily informs Kulchur. "He focuses on his personal political activities, and I do mine." As for Kerry, "he shouldn't have an impact one way or another, given that José Cancela's candidacy is about bringing people together."

To Bendixen, just back from the Boston convention, Cancela's fence-sitting is aimed at looking past November 2, to his eventual administration. "Unfortunately this presidential race is not only going to be ideologically divisive, it's going to be ethnically divisive," Bendixen tells Kulchur in a phone conversation. "For somebody running for office for the first time, to come in as either the Democratic mayor or the Republican mayor, José feels it would be a very strong liability." Besides, he adds, "he's got a lot of friends who are for Bush. As your paper pointed out, he once even contributed to Bush. He's got friends on both sides." (Last year Cancela gave $2000 contributions to both Bush and the Democratic National Committee.)

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