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"It's a law ... The citizens have spoken." -- Alvarez on upholding Miami-Dade's gay rights ordinance, speaking in English, August 29, 2004
Give Carlos Alvarez credit for being a quick study. It usually takes Miami's budding politicians a few years before they master the fine art of speaking out of both sides of their mouths, delivering one message to Hispanic voters and the polar opposite to Anglos and African Americans. With just the right amount of verbal footwork, a skilled pol can become all things to all people, taking deft advantage of the hermetically sealed bubbles that often surround our town's English- and Spanish-language media. And here was Miami-Dade mayoral hopeful Alvarez, deploying this tricky move in his first run for public office.
During an August 28 Spanish-language mayoral debate on Telemundo's WSCV-TV (Channel 51), Alvarez was asked if he'd vote for the county's gay rights ordinance, which currently prohibits unequal treatment of gays in employment, finance and credit, and housing. Adopted by the county commission on a 7-6 vote in 1998, just as narrowly saved from repeal in a 2002 countywide referendum, the ordinance is now under fire once again from evangelicals.
"I don't support it," Alvarez answered tersely.
"You are against the ordinance that doesn't allow discrimination based on sexual orientation?" clarified reporter Maria Montoya.
"Can you explain why?" Montoya prodded.
"Because I don't believe that discrimination should be based on problems of race, of where one was born, the origin of where one was born -- but not on sexual problems. And I don't think it has been demonstrated where such discrimination has existed in this community."
Got that? Barring racial prejudice is fine and dandy, but Miami's gays and lesbians -- or, as Alvarez prefers to call them, folks with "problemas sexuales" -- have yet to prove that they face discrimination, let alone that they're entitled to equal protection under the law.
A troubling statement? Only if you're concerned with doing what's right. If, however, you're a mayoral candidate more preoccupied with trying to elbow your way to victory in a six-man field, with rivals José Cancela and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla also wearing the mantle of the Cuban-American native son, Alvarez's stance was a shrewd one. During that 2002 referendum on the gay rights ordinance, predominantly Cuban neighborhoods voted for its repeal in margins that approached two-to-one. And with those same Cuban voters making up the bulk of the August 31 mayoral electorate, if Alvarez was going to secure his slot in the November 2 runoff election, keeping gays at arm's length was simply realpolitik.
Yet Anglos and African Americans, whose 2002 votes had kept the gay rights ordinance in place, would be out in force on November 2, choosing their new mayor on the same ballot as their president. What to do?
The resulting pirouette was on display just 24 hours later, when Alvarez joined a WFOR-TV (Channel 4) English-language mayoral debate and quickly played to his new audience. Asked by Herald editorial page editor Joe Oglesby for his feelings on the gay rights ordinance, Alvarez huffed, "It's a law. As the mayor you take an oath, you take an oath to uphold the law, and the fact of the matter is, it's there, and that's what you should do." Case closed. Perhaps addressing the current rumblings among local Christian activists to capitalize on the national furor over gay marriage and initiate a second, better-funded repeal effort, Alvarez added, "If I'm elected mayor, under no circumstances would there be a second recall. The citizens have spoken."
There was no follow-up from Oglesby, no attempt to untangle these contradictory Spanish vs. English positions. Alvarez, however, was just getting his dissembling started. And with the August 31 election having winnowed his opponents to just County Commissioner Jimmy Morales -- the very co-sponsor of the gay rights ordinance and one of its fiercest defenders -- Alvarez quietly set about shoring up his conservative credentials.
The Christian Coalition's executive director for Florida, Bill Stephens, confirmed to Kulchur that Alvarez had filled out his organization's election questionnaire, which clearly states that he opposes adding gays to the county's anti-discrimination laws. Thousands of voter guides expressing that position are being distributed this weekend through local churches.
Responding to a separate questionnaire from the Christian Coalition's breakaway local chapter -- the Miami-Dade Christian Family Coalition -- Alvarez went even further. He opposed not only gay marriage, but even civil unions and domestic partnerships for same-sex couples. Voter guides touting that view, as well as Alvarez's signing of the "Marriage Protection Pledge," are now circulating, mainly through Hispanic congregations off the radar of the English-language media.
Accordingly, if you tuned in to Spanish-language election coverage on Radio Mambí (WAQI-AM 710), you could've heard Christian Coalition figures visiting the studio to emphasize those very points. However, English-language voters continued to receive a markedly different portrait of Alvarez during the WPLG-TV (Channel 10) debate on October 10. WPLG reporter Michael Putney asked the two mayoral candidates for their thoughts on extending health care and life insurance benefits to the domestic partners of gay county employees.
To Jimmy Morales, this was a no-brainer: "I support domestic benefits rules at the county. The school board has them, Broward County has them, Walt Disney World has them."
Alvarez, likely aware of how his extreme views would be received in this forum, couched his demurral in dollars and cents. "I don't think there has been a study," he stammered. "We have to determine, what is the cost? What is the cost to the county?" There was no mention of his opposition not just to same-sex domestic partnership benefits, but to same-sex domestic partnerships period.
Morales campaign staffers were understandably frustrated with Alvarez's ongoing reenactment of The Three Faces of Eve, a complaint brought to the Herald's Oglesby before he moderated the final English-language mayoral debate on October 15. Asked by Oglesby to explain his conflicting positions on the gay rights ordinance, Alvarez fell back on his tried-and-true line. "It is the law," he said matter-of-factly. "As the mayor, your job is to uphold the law."
A clearly exasperated Morales jumped in: "It's true, an elected official is sworn to uphold the laws and constitution. But I think people have a right to know where you stand on the issues. It's one thing to say you'll enforce the law. It's another to say you support it. Do you believe in it? Are you going to fight for it? If, for example, the commission was to overturn the law, would you veto that overturning?"
We'll never know. Oglesby couldn't be bothered to ask that all-important follow-up question. And Alvarez has refused to return repeated phone calls from Kulchur.
The irony here is that most English-language media coverage of this race has focused on precisely the issue where Alvarez and Morales are of one mind -- the need to stanch public corruption. Indeed of the original crowded field of candidates, Alvarez and Morales are the two with the clearest history of actually trying to clean up county hall and the seemingly endless flow of questionable multimillion-dollar contracts that pour out of it.
Both men have certainly made their share of ethical fumbles on the campaign trail of late -- from Alvarez's use as an "advisor" of notorious fundraiser Camilo Padreda, a convicted felon who has admitted in court to bribing city and county commissioners, to Morales's hiring as a "consultant" the disgraced but apparently still well-connected ex-cop Dante Starks.
Despite these recent missteps, though, both Alvarez and Morales have long records they can hold up proudly. As Miami-Dade police director, Alvarez was one of the few law enforcement officials willing to follow the money wherever it led, his career be damned. This past January, in what seemed like a real-life episode of The Wire, he even publicly called out U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez for dragging his heels in prosecuting an airport corruption case that implicated close allies of current county Mayor Alex Penelas.
Likewise Morales has spent eight years as one of the few consistent voices of reform on the county commission, pushing for ethics and campaign finance legislation, regardless of how many enemies he made along the way.
All of which makes the final contrast between Alvarez and Morales all the more telling. Yes, in a town where indictments of elected officials are as common as hurricane warnings, public corruption demands attention. But becoming Miami-Dade's new mayor has to be about more than simply chasing lobbyists out from under the dais. As clichéd as the phrase may sound, becoming mayor is primarily about offering leadership, articulating a vision of not only what's wrong with Miami, but also the kind of community it could become.
In that light, gays and lesbians aren't simply a sideshow to this city's progress, an interest group to be alternately appeased or used for a political prop. As Miami's electoral course unfolds, the struggle over gay and lesbian civil rights will no doubt become just as divisive -- and, ultimately, just as broadly character-defining -- as the African-American civil rights movement was to the Sixties. And eventually the current outrage over gay marriage will seem just as shameful as the now-forgotten protests over interracial marriage, a sepia-toned memory to be awkwardly recalled in museum exhibits alongside aging photos of " whites-only" water fountains.
Just how long it'll take to reach that day is unclear. But a good way to make it arrive sooner rather than later comes on November 2. You can cast your vote for Jimmy Morales, who's already embraced the future. Or you can throw your lot in with Carlos Alvarez, a man who still refers to gays and lesbians as people with "sexual problems."