The Million-Dollar Question

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

Only 30 percent of Miami-Dade's voters bothered to cast a ballot. In predominantly African-American areas such as Opa-locka and Carol City, that turnout dipped to 22 percent, while in largely Anglo areas such as Aventura and Sunny Isles Beach it was as low as 17 percent.

"All the candidates suffered from there not being a sexy issue," Newton argues. "There wasn't a sexy senate candidate, there wasn't a a sexy anything. When the spirit of the debate is over the nuances of an airport authority" -- he groans playfully -- "it's really tough to expect voters to care about whether it's an independently appointed board or whether it's an independent branch of the county commission."

Still, if he has to play analyst, Newton says that Cancela was never quite able to shake the public suspicion -- deserved or not -- that he was a stalking horse for the business interests and lobbyists arrayed around outgoing Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas. But Cancela's biggest misstep, Newton adds, was strategic.

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

"Anybody who tells you his financial resources weren't a cause for pause is lying," he admits. "But José got the wrong message to the wrong audience, and when you do that, it doesn't matter if you put five million dollars behind it." Newton points to Cancela's first English-language TV ads, which touted his Cuban ethnicity and his naval officer father's imprisonment by Fidel Castro for more than a decade. "He wrapped himself in his Cuban-ness," and while the same exact ad may have worked brilliantly on Spanish-language TV, "Anglos are running away -- fleeing -- from that. For a guy who is media savvy, I don't know how he missed this."

Not that Newton isn't quickly making overtures to Cancela's circle. He's already hired Cancela's financial director, rainmaker Nick Inamdar, as well as consultant and Manny Diaz associate Al Lorenzo. Several other figures close to Miami Mayor Diaz are also set to support Morales's campaign, Newton says, including Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, Rep. Kendrick Meek, and his mom, former Rep. Carrie Meek. Meanwhile, across the political divide, Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart are said to be preparing to formally back fellow Republican Alvarez.

Looking back, though, the competitor who truly worried Newton in the closing weeks was Maurice Ferré, who, siphoning off crucial African-American and Anglo supporters, finished just 7000 votes behind Morales. "I never took Ferré lightly," Newton recalls. "Had he been able to raise more money, he could've done a lot more."

Indeed. Though pundits -- including Kulchur -- may have tagged Cancela as a Sunshine State Rockefeller, his declared $1.2 million net worth was dwarfed by Ferré, who admitted to a net worth of $3.2 million, with nearly $200,000 cash sitting in his Union Planters Bank account, another $300,000 in easily liquidated stocks, and likely far more stashed away in his wife's name.

Unlike Cancela, who submitted his complete 2003 federal tax return to the elections department as part of his financial-disclosure form, Ferré merely listed a hodgepodge of investments, including $1.7 million in Coconut Grove property and six-figure plots of land in Vermont. For those curious to know how a man who claims an income of merely $30,337 manages to pay the annual taxes on such holdings -- and still have money left over to gas up his Mercedes and BMW SUV, not to mention to buy food -- Ferré has a simple response. As he typed on his disclosure form (in all capital letters, mind you): "Mrs. Mercedes Ferré's separate income is not included." Ditto for his wife's "separate property."

To the unpaid creditors of his bankrupted Maule Industries construction firm, who scratched their heads throughout the Seventies and Eighties as a supposedly broke Ferré managed to continue his comfortable lifestyle, this should bring on an uncomfortable tinge of déjà vu. After all, it was in 1989 that a Miami court found Ferré had hidden $1.4 million in "consulting fees" in a bank account under his wife's name. He was ordered to hand over the entire sum.

Leaving aside Ferré's moral fitness for office, such creative accounting begs a more immediate question: Given that he came so close to knocking aside Morales to secure a runoff berth against Carlos Alvarez, why did Ferré refuse to cough up a single dollar of his sizable fortune to boost his campaign, instead relying solely on other donors and $300,000 of taxpayer-provided matching funds?

In an earlier interview with Kulchur, Ferré joked that he had to practically beg his wife for permission to run for mayor this time out. Having watched her husband incessantly leap on and off the campaign trail for the better part of the past two decades, Mrs. Ferré was growing tired of having her life disrupted.

The more precise gist of that conversation was recently related to Kulchur by a longtime friend of the Ferré clan: "Maurice had to promise his wife he wouldn't spend any of their own money on the race -- that was the only way she'd let him run." Having been dragged into court by her husband's financial shenanigans once before, Mercedes Ferré was apparently unwilling to further indulge his electioneering ego without laying down some firm ground rules. José Cancela's family is no doubt wishing they'd served up the same ultimatum.

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