Mortal Kombat, Miami-Style

It's another Rundle vs. Milian showdown for the State Attorney job, getting messier as the finish nears

Katherine Fernandez Rundle is running for re-election as the Miami-Dade State Attorney. She says don't vote for her opponent Al Milian because he's a tool of the Police Benevolent Association, which wants someone in office it can control. In addition, she adds, he lacks experience and has a hot temper that makes him unsuited for the job.

Milian blasts Rundle for being soft on public corruption, especially on cases involving the politically influential, who have contributed to her campaign. Her ties to the powerful have compromised her ability to prosecute people in Miami-Dade, he asserts.

Wait a minute. Haven't we been here before? Aren't these the same issues, the same harangues from four years ago, when Milian chided Rundle for the "dearth of high-profile public corruption cases" in her office, and Rundle claimed that he was merely a puppet of PBA president John Rivera?

It's as though a querulous couple had taken a four-year hiatus from each other and then picked up a fight in midsentence.

While the rhetoric is the same, the race is not. One reason: Third candidate, independent Gary Rosenberg, could siphon votes from Rundle's traditional support in the Jewish community (beyond that, however, he's not much of a threat).

Between rivals Rundle and Milian, this year's contest is as close to a death match as local politics can get. They talk as if only they stood in the way of complete chaos.

"The roof is leaking," Milian rails. "We have jails that don't function. Our conviction rate is way down. Public corruption cases are a joke. Justice is not being served!"

Rundle, pondering the imponderable, says that losing would not just be a personal setback, but a threat to the moral mission of her office. "I would feel very disturbed by who would take over. There are many qualified people who could run this office. But it troubles me that it would fall into the hands of a special-interest group, the wrong hands."

She brings up an ongoing criminal probe into a failed health insurance fund the PBA was involved with, implying that is one of the reasons the union wants her out of office. Milian, meanwhile, cites a New Times story about her acceptance of campaign contributions from a prominent businessman whose daughter had a criminal case pending at the time and who is himself under investigation in an unrelated corruption probe ("Powers That Be," October 14) as evidence that she can't be trusted to police the powerful.

To win, though, it's clear each needs a strategy beyond destroying the other.

For Rundle, anything is better than 2000, when a confluence of events conspired against her. During her re-election run that year, her office lost a nasty sexual harassment lawsuit that prompted one top prosecutor to resign. Meanwhile, a prominent supporter, former Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw, was arrested for stealing from a charity. Then, of course, there was the Elian Gonzalez tidal wave, which drenched her. After all, it was mentor Janet Reno, the woman from whom Rundle inherited her job, who gave the order to grab the tyke from his uncle's home. There is nothing this year to match those debacles.

Things look good. She can tout a double-digit drop in crime. She's been able to raise $520,000, compiling a list of contributors that includes a multitude of big businesses and fat cats. Clearly, she is the establishment's candidate.

She also benefits because this is a presidential election year. Voter turnout should be heavy, which favors Democrats like Rundle in this Democratic county. Still, she's going to have to rely more heavily on blacks and whites because Milian has a strong showing in the Hispanic community, especially among Cubans.

And she shouldn't take the black vote for granted.

"A lot of people hold it against her that she hasn't prosecuted one police officer for shooting a civilian since she's been in office," says Leroy Jones, a black community activist. "But to tell you the truth, we feel it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if you-don't situation. Milian, we really don't know his positions, but he's got the support of the police union and they fight prosecuting officers."

Although Milian isn't aided by the kinds of events that plagued Rundle's campaign in 2000, he still feels as confident as ever.

After all, he's spent the last four years essentially running for this job, hosting his own political talk show on Spanish-language radio (yanked after he criticized a Miami city commissioner) and appearing in print and on TV whenever he could.

To run successfully as the reformer candidate, his task this year has been to show that he's not owned by the union, a difficult job when the most noticeable group of donations comes from 24 PBA political action committees and chapters around the state (even though they make up only a tenth of his $150,000 in contributions). He also has to show that he's evolved from the hothead who got into a fight with a defense attorney back when he was a Broward prosecutor and was censured for calling the defense lawyers in one trial "maggots."

In the intervening four years, Milian has tempered this legacy by working with the ACLU on several free-speech issues and supporting the county's human rights ordinance protecting gays. He took a job as a lawyer for the PBA after he lost the election and points to that when soliciting union endorsements, billing himself as an advocate for labor rights. "We live in one of the most anti-labor states in the Union," he told members of the United Teachers of Dade. "And I have stood, and will stand, by the men and women of labor." (The UTD has declined to endorse either candidate.)

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