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.

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.

"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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