The Million-Dollar Question

How did José Cancela manage to spend so much money and get so little in return?

The clearest lesson from the August 31 county mayoral election: $1.8 million just doesn't buy what it used to. That was the size of candidate José Cancela's immense campaign war chest, and it delivered only a distant fifth-place finish for the media mogul turned pol. Contacted by Kulchur, Cancela declined to elaborate on his election-night statement that he would "return to the private sector," or to comment on the meager returns of his run for county hall -- the most expensive in history. Of course, you'd be a tad press-shy too if after a solid year of pressing the flesh, courting reporters, and kissing babies, all you had to show for your time and money -- did we mention the money? -- was a depressing twelve percent of the vote.

"I think José is still a bit shell-shocked," suggests one of Cancela's now unemployed campaign workers, currently angling for a job with either of the two victorious primary candidates -- former Miami-Dade police director Carlos Alvarez and county commissioner Jimmy Morales -- who will face each other in the November 2 runoff election. Despite poll numbers throughout August that showed Cancela trailing the pack of mayoral hopefuls, a field that also included former county commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and former Miami mayor Maurice Ferré, Cancela, says the campaign worker, "really thought he could pull it off, right to the end. He just wasn't going to listen to anybody who told him different."

If there's a Rasputin here, it might be one of Cancela's chief consultants, Sergio Bendixen -- the nation's preeminent pollster on Hispanic issues and a key figure among the "527" advocacy groups hoping to elect Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

Despite raising loads of money, maybe too much money, José Cancela failed to connect with voters
Jonathan Postal
Despite raising loads of money, maybe too much money, José Cancela failed to connect with voters

Speaking with Kulchur before the August 31 election, Bendixen conceded that Cancela was then drawing the support of only ten percent of the electorate, but managed to spin the lackluster showing into a plus. "We tripled his numbers," Bendixen boasted of Cancela. "He went from three to ten [percent]. He went from a nobody to a being a real candidate. " And as Bendixen saw it, that degree of growth spoke volumes. "In polling at this stage, it's the trend, not the numbers," he insisted.

Cancela obviously agreed, regardless of the counsel some of his other advisers offered. Yet for a businessman well schooled in the hard science of ratings points and audience shares from his days as a television executive at Univision and Telemundo, Cancela displayed an oddly irrational faith in Bendixen's cheerleading. During the final two weeks of the campaign, as local contributions dried up, Cancela blew through his savings and poured $430,000 of his own personal funds into a media blitz, saturating virtually every TV channel in town -- both English- and Spanish-language -- with expensive ads.

So what happened? How could a candidate who looked so good on paper -- articulate, charismatic, well versed on the issues, and not least, rich -- perform so poorly at the ballot box?

That's the $1.8 million question. Here was a man seemingly born to play the role of Miami's ambassador to the world, a political refugee who arrived from Cuba at age three with little more than the proverbial shirt on his back, eventually transforming himself into an American success story. For anyone who caught Cancela in action, cheerfully mixing it up in a guayabera at Little Havana's Three Kings parade, and then, changing into an elegant suit, just as effortlessly holding court at a swanky fundraiser inside Gianni Versace's South Beach mansion, he was the living embodiment of the Cuban-exile experience. José Cancela was Miami.

"Are you familiar with the term Zeitgeist?" asks Robert Harrison. As the campaign manager for Carlos Alvarez, he has a simple explanation for both Cancela's dismal showing and his own client's first-place finish. "There is a new spirit of the time, and it happens that Carlos Alvarez is it," Harrison says. "Not the man, Carlos Alvarez, but the things he embodies. He could be anybody."

Anybody? No doubt realizing this is hardly a stirring stump speech on Alvarez's behalf, Harrison reconsiders. "It has something to do with Carlos, he's a likable guy," Harrison muses. "I haven't met too many other people whom everybody kinda likes. It's actually kind of weird."

With a chuckle, Harrison regains his train of thought: "But I really think it's the Zeitgeist. The people as a coherent whole have this notion that they're just fed up with our criminal -- with a small c -- behavior in county government. And who better to deal with criminal behavior than a man who was the police chief for seven years, and didn't have any trouble actually putting three or four county commissioners in jail. "

Over at the Jimmy Morales for Mayor HQ, campaign manager Derek Newton is less comfortable forecasting sweeping political trends. Though he believes Morales has just as much claim to being an anti-corruption crusa as Alvarez, he sees an electorate that has yet to begin paying attention to any of the mayoral candidates. "Look at the turnout numbers," Newton grumbles. "Our base didn't even show up." His gambit of letting the rest of the field carve up the Cuban-American vote, leaving Morales to concentrate on African Americans and Anglos, was a successful one -- but with a painfully small margin for error.

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