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Just how tough is it being a red-state Democrat these days? "I inherited a party that's broke," grimaces Jimmy Morales, the new chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, likening his job only half-jokingly to one of "herding cats." Indeed, while talk of loyal party apparatchiks tends to conjure up visions of the crafty ward heeler with a smoldering cigar in one hand and a tattered precinct map in the other, Morales's own experience sounds closer to presiding over the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
"You go to these meetings and people are debating bylaws all night long," he recalls with exasperation. "If we had two-thirds of the House and Senate, I'd say, 'Debate all the minutiae you want.' But not now."
Having waded into this fracas, Morales must now steer the conversation back to the nuts and bolts of rebuilding a party infrastructure. He begins ticking off his initial moves: obtaining an up-to-date voter list and contributor databases, setting up phone banks, and acquiring a working fax machine.
Hold on, Jimmy. A fax machine?
"Yes, I donated a fax machine."
Are you telling me the Miami-Dade Democratic Party didn't own a fax machine when you took over? With all the millions of dollars John Kerry's people poured into town, they couldn't even leave behind a lousy fax machine?
Morales stops short, looking sheepish during this lunchtime chat with Kulchur at Miami Beach's Van Dyke Café. Over the past hour he's barely paused for a bite of his sandwich, instead enthusing nonstop over the Democratic Party's message in a voice more attuned to an amplified stump speech than a restaurant conversation. "The polls show a majority of Americans agree with us on the issues!" he had thundered, banging his fist repeatedly on the table for emphasis, sending Kulchur's tape recorder bouncing into the air and a Van Dyke waitress scurrying. "A majority of people didn't want Terri Schiavo to be kept alive forever -- it's all about how we frame the issues!"
Now, however, he stares down glumly at his plate. Perhaps the situation is even worse than he thought. He sighs, as if still trying to process what exactly happened this past November. "On November 3, everybody disappeared," he recalls. "You gear up for the big election and then afterward the party just -- ." He trails off, but his frustration, even six months later, is palpable.
This past fall it was easy to find local Democrats who would wax apoplectic about President Bush and the war in Iraq. They would even write generous checks to Washington, D.C. outfits while citing chapter and verse from Maureen Dowd's and Frank Rich's Sunday op-eds in The New York Times. But it wasn't at all easy to ask those same folks to pause during their Kerry cheerleading and take an interest in the mayoral race unfolding in their own back yard.
"The party never recognized how important myrace was," Morales says, leaving more than a little irony hanging in the air as he reflects on the eighteen months in 2003 and 2004 he spent slogging away on the campaign trail. "One of the reasons I stepped into this [party chairman] role was my own frustration, not just with things I wish I'd done differently, but things I wish the party had been able to do differently." After all, if his predecessor at the Miami-Dade Democratic Party had done his job more aggressively, today we might be calling Morales mayor.
"I'm trying to reach out beyond folks who are half-Cuban, half-Puerto Rican, and married to nice Jewish girls," Morales had quipped to one fundraising audience while he was on the mayoral trail. To national Democrats, though, that wry self-description is the stuff of crossover dreams, along with a personal biography that comes ready-made for a campaign commercial: The son of working-class immigrants in Miami Beach, Morales went off to Harvard University and then Harvard Law School, married his high school sweetheart along the way, and returned to his hometown to (cue the swelling music and smiling children) "make a difference."
Call it a story that was two parts Horatio Alger and one part Norman Rockwell, all bundled together and given a fresh cultural update -- just the thing to win races in the new multiethnic exurbs across the Southeast and the West.
However, for as much as Miami may have made Morales, Miami has simultaneously seemed the one place he was doomed to be a marginal player. Upon his 1996 election to the county commission, his adviser Armando Gutierrez had cracked that "Morales may be a graduate of Harvard, but he never had an education in street politics." Despite his re-election in 2000, it was a label that stuck. Well-meaning, intelligent, articulate? Sure, went the conventional wisdom, but Morales was too, well, nice to trade body blows in the heated atmosphere of Miami politicking.
Moreover the identity he carved out for himself was at odds with a man who had his eye on the mayor's office. Along with fellow commissioner Katy Sorensen, Morales was one of the few trusted voices of progressive reform on the dais. But reform -- his push for ethics legislation, public financing and outside monitoring of elections, and cosponsorship of the county's gay-rights ordinance -- played to the wrong crowd, an Anglo crowd. And it was Cuban-American voters who held the key to crowning Hizzonner, an honor that would never go to a man whose blood was only 50 percent Cuban.