By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
Between the partisan and nonpartisan contests, more than 300 individuals will be vying for your favor in races that cover the electoral spectrum, from the U.S. Senate to the Palmetto Bay Village Council.
Republicans will select a November opponent to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Democrats from the 18th Congressional District will send someone into battle against Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. School board members, community council members, state legislators, judges -- there will be plenty of important decisions to make. But none will be more important than filling the six county commission seats on the ballot, for it is the commission that wields the real power in these parts.
Picking a new Miami-Dade County mayor? Well, we have exactly five things to say about that.
1. The Mayor's Power Has Been Stripped Away and Handed to the County Commission
Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas has virtually disappeared from the daily grind of civic life. For months he's been campaigning for the U.S. Senate (fruitlessly, it now appears). He is so frequently absent from the county government center that to see him pacing the halls would cause a stir. He has also been practically absent from the news.
Sure, he's available to attend a photo op for the MTV Video Music Awards, or to participate in a "Salute to Florida's Heroes" celebration. But when it comes to local controversies like dubious electronic voting machines, or the pending billion-dollar bond issue, or creation of an independent airport authority, Penelas has been content to issue a press release and cough up a sound bite now and then.
But guess what? No one has noticed. The machinery of county government has chugged along without him. Commission business, such as it is, has carried on uninterrupted. The county manager's office has somehow survived without counsel and guidance from hizzoner. In other words, in Miami-Dade County the office of the mayor is, to put it charitably, irrelevant.
What a difference a few years make.
Back in October 1992 county voters approved the creation of an "executive mayor." (More accurately, a small fraction of registered voters created the position; election turnout was a miserable thirteen percent.) The presumption was that the position would encourage more accountable, efficient, and strong leadership. Penelas, who proposed the change as a county commissioner, inaugurated the post following a countywide election in 1996. In the heady days leading up to that first executive mayor's race, the Miami Herald, which editorialized against the ballot measure, hyperbolically claimed that the winner might very well be the "most powerful local politician Florida has ever seen -- and perhaps one of the most powerful local politicians in the United States."
Our full-time executive mayor was given a respectable salary and quite a bit of power -- not as much as a so-called strong mayor, in which the jobs of mayor and manager are combined, but still an order of magnitude greater than the impotent mayors of the past. The executive mayor could hire and fire the county manager, though he couldn't be directly involved in operational decisions. He could appoint the chairman of the county commission. He could reward friends on the commission by appointing them to chair important committees, and he could likewise punish adversaries. All this and more he could manipulate in order to win seven votes out of thirteen when it came time to award juicy multimillion-dollar contracts or to pass legislation he favored. He could also veto legislation he didn't like. (The commission, however, could override a veto with a two-thirds vote.)
But such is Penelas's legacy that the office he helped create has been stripped of nearly all those powers a mere eight years later. In 2001 a charter-review task force re-examined the mayor's authority and recommended reining him in. "It should be clear after five years that the position of executive mayor, as crafted, does not work well," wrote task force member Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in a statement published in the Herald. "To allow the mayor to determine the organizational structure of the commission is akin to allowing the governor to designate the presiding officers and committee structure of the Legislature. It runs against the concept of checks and balances that is fundamental to our American system of government."
Diaz de la Portilla, a former commissioner who had run for mayor in 2000 and lost to Penelas (he's running for the post again this year), went on to assert that the executive-mayor system had led to "chaos and embarrassment."
Even discounting Diaz de la Portilla's obvious bias, Penelas was a lousy ambassador for the expanded powers of the mayor. He attempted a couple of power grabs that backfired. He immediately pushed for a 60 percent salary increase to $179,220. He championed a proposal to replace the executive mayor with a strong mayor, a move that might have allowed him to run for the more powerful office despite being term-limited under the current designation. He also spent a good part of his tenure battling accusations that he was owned by powerful lobbyists at Miami International Airport and special interests hoping to commercially develop Homestead Air Force Base. Those accusations were problems "of his own doing," according to attorney Dan Paul, who drafted Dade County's original 1957 charter and consulted with the charter-review committee. "He's shown a lack of integrity, and it has made him less effective -- no question."
Voters agreed with the task force and in 2002 stripped the mayor of his power to appoint the chairman of the county commission. He also lost his authority to appoint the chairs of commission committees, which have emerged as formidable components in the legislative process. His veto powers remain intact, as does his ability to hire and fire the county manager. The commission, however, can still override both, but it is now the commission chair, not the mayor, who has the leverage to build the coalitions needed for an override.
Oh yeah, the mayor still gets to deliver a "state of the county" speech and submit a budget, which the commission, of course, can simply ignore.
Net effect? The post has been gutted. Gone are the essential tools needed to control and cajole county commissioners. In fact, if the mayor wants to make an appearance at a commission meeting, even if it's just to read a proclamation honoring some do-gooder, he must seek permission from the chair to pretty-please include him on the agenda.
Cross-county Penelas rival Raul Martinez, Hialeah's strong mayor, has noted with some satisfaction the neutering of the county mayor. "The commission decided to have a coup d'état, and now the mayor is simply a high-paid cheerleader for the county," Martinez scoffs. "Alex Penelas has been left powerless because he has to look for a county manager who will remain very close to the mayor and still get seven votes on the commission."
The erosion of all this power has left Martinez with no interest in the job, even if it were offered to him: "I looked at it and thought it would be challenging if I could say to public works, öHey, traffic lights aren't working on such-and-such street.' But you can't do that. Or if you could say to the police chief: öHey, crime is up. Why don't you increase patrols?' But you can't do that either. You can't tell the port director how to spend his money and you can't go to Jackson Memorial Hospital and say, öYou guys are wasting money.' Alex pushed for the strong mayor, and when he realized he couldn't sell it, he allowed the commission to take away his powers because he didn't care."
Penelas leaves in his wake a largely ceremonial post whose office eats up about $3.7 million in taxpayer money each year -- all for a position now so diminished in stature that you barely notice whether he's there or not. -Tristram Korten
2. The County Is Disappearing, and Its Mayor Along With It
Miami-Dade County is not one community, it is several dozens of communities. It is broken up by geography, race and ethnicity, economic inequity, and not least, an absence of the long-range planning and unifying vision you'd expect from civic leaders -- at least from competent civic leaders.
But you might argue that the newly revitalized City of Miami and the recent appointments of topnotch professionals from out of town to head some of the area's most important institutions bespeaks an evolving political maturity. You might argue that, anyway. For the time being, Miami-Dade remains a disunited, leaderless sprawl mismanaged by a five-billion-dollar-per-year governmental behemoth that can best be described as an organizational dinosaur.
And there is a meteor coming. Make that a meteor shower -- coming in the form of municipal incorporations and annexations that will lead to the extinction of county government as we know it. When the dust has settled after the full force of impact, there may still be a Miami-Dade County, but it won't be recognizable. Instead of 34 cities and vast swaths of unincorporated territory, it will be as many as 50 cities and zero unincorporated territory.
There may still be a governmental body as well, but it will have emerged as a dramatically compressed agency relegated to coordinating regional functions such as emergency management, public health, transportation, and sewage disposal. Needless to say, the mayor of such a county will have a new job description: chief hand-shaker, proclamation-writer, and ribbon-cutter.
If done right, this could be a good thing. "That's what people really want out of our two-tier government -- taking the county out of municipal government," says Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson. "More emphasis on the regional -- the ports, the water supply, development along the urban boundary."
Attorney Gene Stearns, the guru of the local incorporation movement, is less polite. "Dade County government suffers from significant design flaws," he says. "If you were to go back to Government 101 and design a way that it could never possibly function correctly, we've done it."
Stearns contends that county government doesn't work well (thus spurring the birth of new cities) because it myopically focuses on the politics of municipal services rather than on the big picture. Each commissioner gets to be the king or queen of a district, with the result that the bureaucracy as a whole is constantly being yanked here and there in a way that serves some of the people some of the time and all of the people none of the time. "They are a terrible municipal government," Stearns grumbles. "It's not that the importance of regional government is diminishing. If anything, [full incorporation] may take them back to where they should have always been."
More than a few county residents would seem to agree -- interest in forming new, small cities has never been stronger. Neither has this sentiment: Big government equals bad government.
That view may be innate among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who've moved here from Latin American countries cursed by corrupt, authoritarian rulers. But soon enough local distrust is earned by the actual performance of Miami-Dade's own politicians and bureaucrats.
The impulse toward more intimate forms of self-governance is also propelled by romantic notions of being able to reach out and shake your public officials by the shoulders -- something that is virtually impossible in an organization as large as Miami-Dade County. "They can speak to the city manager here," Gibson notes. "They can navigate the government much easier. When I go to church or the grocery store, I'm always stopped wherever I am."
The rich people got out first: Key Biscayne in June 1991, Aventura in November 1995, Pinecrest in March 1996, and Sunny Isles Beach in June 1997. (The predominantly black, lower- and middle-class town of Destiny failed to materialize around Pro Player Stadium in 1996, but its successor, Miami Gardens, became a city in 2003.)
The residents of these wealthy towns produced more tax revenue than they received in services, and so the county budget has suffered as they've left and taken most of their money with them. Oddly, though, there was no proportional reduction in the size of the county bureaucracy.
In 1998 the county belatedly decreed a temporary moratorium on incorporations. When that was lifted by the courts in 2000, the county socked new cities with so-called mitigation fees and other obligations, such as contracting to use the county police force for the first three years of their existence. Yet in just the past four years, four new cities have been born: Miami Lakes in 2000, Palmetto Bay in 2002, and Doral and Miami Gardens in 2003. Other secession-minded areas such as East Kendall, the Redland, and the Falls have thus far failed to incorporate, but no fewer than nine communities are now working on plans to attempt incorporation. Meanwhile a number of cities, including Miami, North Miami, Doral, and Miami Springs, are seriously considering annexation of surrounding unincorporated areas.
The power of the old Dade County began to erode, at least symbolically, when voters changed its name for marketing reasons. In 1997 Dade County became Miami-Dade County, weirdly at exactly the same time the City of Miami was reeling from bankruptcy and facing an activist effort to abolish it altogether. "There is a magic to the name Miami," county Mayor Alex Penelas told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel after the name change passed. "Quite frankly, no one knows what Dade County is."
Seven years later, Penelas's words have proved prophetic. His political fortunes have fizzled while those of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz have skyrocketed. Penelas himself is largely to blame, having squandered the considerable power and influence he'd gained. His political machinations produced little in the long term but left a record of weakness and lost opportunity. When the Marlins played the Yankees in the World Series, it was Diaz rather than Penelas who sat with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. More recently, well-placed sources say Penelas had to tap Diaz to privately lobby county commissioners regarding the latest cobbled-together scheme to build a stadium for the Marlins.
Today the office of county mayor seems an awfully pathetic thing for the politically ambitious pack of candidates slavering to fill it. Tomorrow, however, it will be even more pathetic. The City of Miami will be booming and garnering publicity worldwide. Miami-Dade, on the other hand, will continue withering away, leaving its mayor with lots of time to stare out his windows on the 29th floor of the county government building, from which he can see all the way to Miami City Hall on Dinner Key. -Rebecca Wakefield
3. There Are No Issues That Distinguish One Candidate from Another
Every political race is based on issues, right? Why else would people run for elective office? What could possibly motivate them to kiss slobbering babies and grovel for campaign money like shameless panhandlers? To take a stand on the issues! Without important, substantive civic issues, what would distinguish one candidate from another?
When it comes to the county Mayor's Race 2004, it turns out that's a very good question.
Determined to unearth an answer, we dug into the five leading candidates' Websites; we studied their TV, radio, and print ads; we listened to them make speeches; we even interviewed them. Some big issues actually did emerge. Traffic. Growth and development. Healthcare. Miami International Airport. Corruption.
And soon it became clear what we were looking for: The forthright mayoral candidate who had the courage of his convictions, who didn't think we had enough traffic congestion, who hoped to see tract homes and strip malls stretch from here to Fort Myers, who honestly didn't give a hoot about the 500,000 local folks with no health insurance, who fervently believed MIA is working just fine, and who had a game plan for increasing public corruption.
We kept it simple and to the point: On what significant and specific issue do you differ from your opponents?
Carlos Alvarez: I tell people all the time there isn't another candidate running for mayor that has the experience that I do.
But on what issue do you differ?
Issues? I don't know. My main issue is that the procurement process in Dade County needs to be changed. The Dade County Commission is a legislative body and it should set policy for Dade County. I do not believe that they should be involved in the approving of contracts, and they should not be involved in the awarding of contracts.
Miguel Diaz de la Portilla: I think I have a track record of effectiveness on tough issues that is second to none. I think that distinguishes me from everybody else in this race.
But on what issue do you differ?
I have an innovative approach to dealing with the problems and inefficiencies at the airport. What it is, is basically getting the airport and making it an independent department, independent of the downtown bureaucracy, reporting directly to the mayor and to the commission with a group of private-sector advisers.
But which of your opponents doesn't favor a more independent, better-managed airport?
I'm unique in proposing a unique solution.
Truth be told, Diaz de la Portilla's unique solution for mismanagement and malfeasance at MIA is about the same as everyone else's. His "committee of industry experts and county commissioners" is Jimmy Morales's "board of directors," also known as an "airport authority." José Cancela and Carlos Alvarez are also in favor of that. Maurice Ferré opposes a conventional authority, but like his opponents he wants professional bureaucrats, not politicians, to control the awarding of MIA's lucrative contracts.
Jimmy Morales: On what significant specific issue do I differ from the other candidates? Ummm. Hmmph! A lot of the stuff, we all say the same thing. We all want economic development, we're all against poverty, we all want to fix public schools. I'm thinking back to all our debates we've had, where we've had some real significant differences. Well, I mean, it depends. There's different. I mean. For example. If you're talking about Commissioner de la Portilla and myself, huge difference on the issue of the human-rights ordinance, for example. He's opposed to it. I've championed it. My opposition to a publicly funded baseball stadium. I think Mr. Cancela and Mr. Alvarez, and I'm not sure about Mr. Ferré, have supported it in the debates. I've twice voted against it on the county commission. So that's an important issue.
(Human rights? An important issue for sure, but not in this election. Two years ago voters defeated an effort to repeal the human-rights ordinance. As for a baseball stadium, the county commission, not the mayor, decides how to spend taxpayer money, and the commission already approved a deal in which the county would kick in $120 million in hotel taxes toward a Marlins ballpark.)
José Cancela: The number-one issue is the fact that I've committed in writing my entire platform, or a good portion of my platform, specifically as it relates to the three barriers for true economic development in Miami-Dade County. Barrier number one being the lack of trust in county government, and I've proposed a specific plan on how to bring the pendulum back to center as it relates to trust. A specific action plan as it relates to the mayoral involvement in our public school system in making it better. And a specific game plan as it relates to starting to alleviate our traffic crisis now, not fifteen years from now.
But which of your opponents wants less trust, more traffic, and lower pay for teachers?
I don't know. None of them have put out a position paper. Ask them. I put out a specific game plan. The question is how am I different from my opponents? And the answer is: I've committed my plan in writing.
Isn't there one issue that sets you apart?
I don't want to run on one issue. I'm running on economic development. And we all know that in Dade County we're overtaxed. And we cannot afford to continue to pay taxes and to raise taxes on people and user fees. So the only way we're going to be able to maintain our quality of life and to enhance our quality of life is to be able to keep jobs here, meaningful jobs here, and be able to bring jobs here. And these are three barriers to true economic development.
Your opponents are not emphasizing those things?
I don't think they are. At least not in writing.
Maurice Ferré: I really don't know. I can tell you that I haven't gone through the process of distinguishing one from the other. You know, my attitude in this whole race is that I'm not running against anybody. And I think they're all good. Some of them are better than others but we have good candidates. And whoever gets elected mayor this time around, we're going to have a good mayor. There's more than one good candidate. A lot of them have some wonderful positions.
Wonderful positions, perhaps, but indistinguishable when it comes to significant and specific issues. "The serious candidates are all pretty much saying the same thing, is what I've found," says David Kennedy, a former Miami mayor and long-time Ferré adviser. "That's typical. I mean, the leading candidates know what the press and the people want to hear, so if they're smart and have good direction they all say about the same thing, because they know what you all want and they know what the public wants."
Benjamin Bishin, a political science professor at the University of Miami, is an astute observer of local politics. Here's what he says: "I think it's actually hard to develop an agenda for these races. You want to do it before the race starts, otherwise you risk being labeled a flip-flopper, or someone who doesn't believe in anything. At the same time, you don't really know what anyone thinks before the race starts, so you have to go off what you know about the community. That's why you see things like ethics and transportation and development. I mean, those are all sort of obvious issues here."
Kennedy, the political veteran, can tell you about issues. Obvious or obscure, they will not punch your ticket to county hall's 29th floor. "It's popularity, name recognition, campaign organization, and how much money you've got," he says. "Because it's a money game." - Kirk Nielsen
What will you do about global warming?
As a mayor of Dade County? Not much.
We're going to eliminate hairspray from all the supermarkets in Dade County.
Diaz de la Portilla:
Let me get back to you on that.
Support the Democratic Party and Al Gore's original policies, which have now been adopted in the Democratic Party platform.
At the county I've been supportive of and we've moved forward on hybrid vehicles to reduce emissions.
4. They're All Financed by the Same Elite and Hire the Same Political Operatives
Running for mayor of Miami-Dade County is an expensive endeavor. According to Dario Moreno, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center, a county mayoral candidate must raise at least one million dollars to mount a successful campaign. "How do you reach an electorate with 950,000 registered voters?" Moreno asks rhetorically. "With large sums of money." Five viable candidates are now competing for the office, so it may come as no surprise to learn that this mayoral election is expected to be the most expensive in history. José Cancela alone has raised more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions -- and that's just for the August 31 primary.
Where does all this money come from? It does not come from corporations, which are prohibited by county law from making political contributions. And it does not come from vast numbers of people giving very small amounts. The political ambitions of Carlos Alvarez, José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Maurice Ferré, and Jimmy Morales are being financed by the usual suspects: attorneys, business executives, developers, bankers, and a smattering of other white-collar professionals.
Mayoral candidates' campaign finance reports from 2003 to April 2004 show that at least 1000 attorneys are among the 8000-plus individuals who had donated $250, the maximum allowed under law for the primary. (They can contribute another $250 after the field has been narrowed to two candidates for the November 2 runoff.) More than 270 accountants and more than 380 real estate executives also donated the $250 maximum to one or more candidates. At least 800 architects, bankers, developers, engineers, and general contractors also have contributed. Spouses of these professionals account for roughly another 1000 campaign contributions. "In a race this wide-open," Moreno says, "the candidates are hitting the same people over and over again. There is only a small pool of people who give money."
If there is any difference between the five candidates' fundraising efforts, Moreno observes, it is that one may draw more heavily from a specific business sector than another. Jimmy Morales is an example. Moreno believes Morales is in a better position than his rivals to collect money from the legal community. Why? Because he's a partner in the high-profile law firm of Stearns Weaver. "Cancela and Diaz de la Portilla," Moreno adds, "probably receive more money from the real estate industry than the other candidates based on their relationships with some of the community's biggest developers."
According to his campaign reports, Morales indeed has done exceptionally well raising cash from lawyers. Celebrity criminal defense attorneys and partners Roy Black and Howard Srebnick each gave him $250. Six attorneys from the Ferrell Schultz firm, Roy Black's neighbors on the 34th floor of their downtown high-rise, kicked in a combined $1875.
Cancela enjoys the support of developer Sergio Pino, CEO of Century Homebuilders, who has acknowledged raising thousands of dollars for his friend. Diaz de la Portilla is favored by commercial developer Armando Codina and principals at residential giant Lennar Corporation. Another common characteristic of the elite group of people financing this season's mayoral campaigns is their propensity to hedge their bets. At least 270 people, including a number of very prominent businessmen and women, are supporting more than one candidate. (That figure has increased since April.) During the 1996 county mayoral election, Moreno recalls, the business community galvanized behind Alex Penelas, who was being challenged by Arthur Teele and former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferré, who only recently entered this year's race. "They had a stronger consensus that Alex was the candidate," Moreno says. "But in this race there is no clear frontrunner, so people are hedging."
For example, Total Bank chairwoman Adrienne Arsht, architect Hilario Candela, bankers Adolfo Henriques and Jay I. Kislak, Perry Ellis CEO George Feldenkreis, former Ryder chairman M. Anthony Burns, and business executive Rosa Sugranes, among others, contributed $250 to both Cancela and Morales. Another well-known local architect and developer, Willy Bermello, contributed $250 each to Alvarez and Morales. Cancela, Morales, and Diaz de la Portilla received individual $250 contributions from attorneys Cesar Alvarez, CEO of Greenberg Traurig, and Simon Ferro, former ambassador to Panama (also of Greenberg Traurig).
For some contributors, writing checks to more than one candidate is a family affair. Hotel developers Judith and Woody Weiser contributed to Cancela and Morales, as did developer Craig Robins, his brother Scott, and their father Gerald. "At this juncture," says Craig, "it makes sense for people in the business community to support more than one guy. How do you know who is going to make the runoff?"
When it comes to making it into that runoff election, individual $250 contributions simply aren't enough, which is where political action committees (PACs) come in. Individual donations "are not the only monies going to these campaigns," says FIU's Moreno. "There are PACs out there, other forms of getting things done -- businesses paying for polls. In a lot of ways, [individual contributions] are only two-thirds of the money going into campaigns." Prominent Miami attorney/lobbyist Hank Adorno is one of those who apparently felt his generosity was constrained by the $250 limit for individuals. So he formed three PACs, one each at his offices in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. Those entities have contributed to Alvarez, Diaz de la Portilla, Morales, and Cancela. (Cancela reportedly returned the money.)
Turning to the same small but active clique of political donors isn't the only financial similarity among the top five candidates. They also tend to employ the even smaller clique of political operatives who perennially hover around Miami-Dade elections. Venture into any of the candidates' war rooms and you'll likely find one of these well-known political strategists and consultants, who make their livings during election season. Diaz de la Portilla's camp, for instance, includes the public-relations firm Wragg & Casas, county hall lobbyists Alfred Balsera, Armando Gutierrez, and Sylvester Lukis, as well as his influential brother, state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla.
Cancela's brain trust includes marketing executive and Penelas adviser Herman Echevarria as well as politically connected publicist Seth Gordon. Cancela also hired former congresswoman Carrie Meek as a $10,000 consultant to help win support in the black community.
Morales has enlisted a campaign corps featuring Rev. Richard Dunn and Tallahassee-based Democratic Party political consultant Derek Newton. Dunn, a former Miami city commissioner, was paid $23,000 to shore up support among black voters. Newton previously worked as John Kerry's field director in Iowa. To date Morales has paid Newton's company, the November Group, at least $52,000 in consulting fees.
In his first run for political office, former county police director Alvarez turned to Tampa-based Republican Party strategist Adam Goodman, who was a conspicuous player in the 2000 presidential recount. Alvarez later dropped Goodman's company, the Victory Group, and hired as his campaign manager Bob Harrison, a local political veteran with strong Republican ties. - Francisco Alvarado
What's the best reason people should vote for you?
Experience and integrity.
It's time for what I call principled leadership at county hall, true principled leadership.
Diaz de la Portilla:
Effective leadership on tough issues, with real live resistance and opposition.
My experience and the fact that I have a clear vision of what needs to be done in this community
I think it's the issue of truly embracing unity and bringing people together.
5. They're All White Guys
Outside of Miami, people would look at our five leading mayoral candidates and laugh at the notion they're all "white guys." In most other places, Jimmy Morales wouldn't be considered a white guy. Neither would Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, José Cancela, Maurice Ferré, or Carlos Alvarez. Their names alone would identify them to anyone from a place like, say, Fargo, as Hispanic. And Hispanics, to people in Fargo and elsewhere, are minorities. They simply don't qualify as white guys. Even here in Miami, many citizens, including the highly educated, are confused on this subject. But rest assured, our leading candidates are indeed white guys. In that regard they are practically interchangeable. And as explained below, it's also a scientific fact.
To put this in proper perspective, just ask yourself: Where are the Maynard Jacksons? Where are the Coleman Youngs and Tom Bradleys and Andrew Youngs and Harold Washingtons and Kurt Schmokes? For that matter, where are the Dianne Feinsteins and Shirley Franklins and Barbara Boxers and Kay Bailey Hutchisons and Nancy Kassebaums? How about a Carrie Meek or Janet Reno? Our own Katy Sorenson easily could have spiced up this bland and monotonous slate of politicos, but she had the good sense to stay away. The result? White guys. Nothing but white guys.
The situation, however, is even more serious than homogeneous color and gender. Our six mayoral candidates are, in fact, indistinguishable to their very core. Biologists have found that everyone's DNA is nearly identical, whether your skin is black, brown, tan, pink, or white. "When people ask what percentage of genes are shared by all human beings, the answer is usually 99.5 or 99.9 percent," explains Marty Tracey, a professor of biological sciences at Florida International University and a nationally recognized expert in DNA analysis. "There is so much overlap in the underlying DNA that you can't with any degree of certainty look at a person's DNA and say he's black or he's white."
Moreover, biologists have yet to figure out which genes on a strand of human DNA correspond to the superficial features we attribute to race or ethnicity, such as skin color. "If you and I wanted to set up a laboratory to identify racial groups," Tracey says, "then what we would do is look at the skin-color genes and the hair-color genes and the hair-texture genes and the nose-shape genes and the lip-shape genes and the head-shape genes. But we don't know which genes those are."
As recently as the Forties, physical anthropologists identified as many as 40 different races around the world. But now biologists, after studying Homo sapiens from within, aren't even sure if there is such a thing as race. In June 2000 two groups of scientists finished mapping the more than three billion different chemical segments of the human genome. The genome consists of two sets of 23 DNA molecules, or chromosomes, each set inherited from one parent. The genome is estimated to contain about 40,000 genes.
That historic accomplishment set the stage for a worldwide study in 2002, in which biologists scanned human genomes in 52 populations across all the continents and found the DNA sequences to be more than 99 percent similar. The differences reflected the old geographically based racial categories -- Caucasian, African, Asiatic -- but only "to the extent that those categories are part of a geographic continuum," explains Kenneth Kidd, professor of genetics, psychiatry, and molecular biology at Yale University and an author of the 2002 study. "There is, in a sense, a rough correspondence between the popular ideas of race representing different geographic regions, but if you try to look at the concept of race and say, öWhere do you draw the boundaries between one race and another?' there's no place you can do it. It's much more like a continuum, in the sense that the Middle Eastern populations are a bit more similar to the African populations than are northern European populations. And central Asian populations, both those up in Siberia and those down in the subcontinent of India, are intermediate between western Asians and far-eastern Asians."
Which is to say that a Caucasian person is likely to share genes with Asians and Africans. "When you look at the history of Europe, you had the Visigoths and the Mongol hordes running through, and they were serious about raping and pillaging," notes FIU's Tracey. "They left a lot of genes behind and they left a lot of people behind. So I tell everybody I'm full-blooded Irish, but the Vikings were there and there were Moors from Spain who landed in Ireland after the armada wrecked, and they became part of the population. So we're all mongrels, except on holidays like St. Patrick's Day."
Not only are our top five mayoral candidates mongrels, they are biologically identical. There is no discernible difference between at least 99 percent of their DNA and anyone else's on the planet. And because the ancestors of all five are from the European part of the continuum, nearly all the remaining one percent is also the same.
They really aren't even Hispanic or Anglo. "The term Hispanic is purely sociopolitical. It has no biological significance whatsoever. Hispanics are very heterogeneous people," says Rene Herrera, a biologist and the director of FIU's Human Diversity Laboratory, home to one of the largest repositories of human DNA in the world. "Anglo is an historical term. It comes from Anglo-Saxons. The Saxons and Anglos, or Anglais, were two Germanic tribes that invaded Britain in the Fifth Century A.D., from what is now Normandy, France."
But all you really need to do is look at Alvarez, Cancela, Diaz de la Portilla, Ferré, and Morales to see what color they are.
"In terms of the biology, I would say biologically they are all Caucasians," Tracey acknowledges.
You mean white guys?
"Yeah." -Kirk Nielson