The D Word

Say anything you want, but just don't call them Democrats

"You don't talk to these younger people about foreign policy," Morales groans with a dismissive shake of his head. "Supporting the embargo may not be a huge issue for them, but out of respect for their grandparents and parents, they aren't necessarily going to support a change."

Morales himself, born to a Cuban-exile mother, offers proof of that view. Asked for his opinion about the 45-year-old embargo, he freely calls it a "failed policy" with no hope of toppling Castro. But in the same breath he insists it be kept in place: "Why reward Castro? Ending a trade embargo hasn't changed things in Vietnam. It hasn't changed things in China." Moreover, for as much as he wants to visit Cuba, he says: "I won't. It would break my mother's heart. " Perhaps sensing Kulchur's surprise at his emotional response, he quickly adds, "And I don't want to reward that regime by giving them my hard currency."

There's room in Miami-Dade's Democratic Party for pro- and anti-embargo adherents alike, he says, with Howard Dean's call for a return to party fundamentals as the uniter. "When I was a county commissioner, I represented a district that was half Republican, including lots of Cuban Americans and much of Little Havana," he notes, referring to his 1996-2004 tenure on the dais. "Those people were the first ones to want Section 8 vouchers for public housing, food stamps, job training programs -- all these Democratic öGreat Society' programs that Republicans are cutting. No one ever makes the connection to them. People would call me up and say, öWhy don't we have that bus service any more for the senior center?' Tallahassee cut the money. öWell, do something about it!'"

Photos by Steve Satterwhite
Alex Penelas and Manny Diaz: When their party 
comes calling, ethnic politics trumps all
Steve Satterwhite
Alex Penelas and Manny Diaz: When their party comes calling, ethnic politics trumps all

Morales pauses before repeating his curt reply to that angry constituent: "Why don't you call your Republican state representative you love so much and ask him why he cut the money?" He concludes with a sigh: "That's the disconnect, and that's the message we have to bring."

Not that Morales isn't grudgingly appreciative of the Miami-Dade Republicans' playbook: "They've seen how important it is to build a bench. Look at Marco Rubio, the incoming state house chair -- he started as a city councilman. [State Rep.] Julio Robaino was a city mayor; [state Rep.] Ralph Arza was a community councilman."

But it's the GOP's prowess at fundraising he really admires, and here he once again invokes the wisdom of DNC chair Howard Dean as an example of how a legion of small donors writing checks for $25 can be just as effective as a handful of big-money donors. The comparison seems more than apt. After all, both Dean and Morales were previously considered far too liberal to be Democratic standard-bearers. Now, despite spectacular flameouts at the polls, both are literally the face of their party. Accordingly, having turned conventional wisdom on its head, both men are inspiring fresh speculation about their ambitions. For his part, Morales says he won't consider another race until after he has shepherded his party chapter through the 2006 elections.

He's willing to muse though, telling Kulchur that "the state attorney general race would be a fascinating way for me to make a difference." Asked how he'd like to be addressed in a decade's time, Morales flashes a wide smile: "Ten years from now, in 2015? I'd love to have you call me Senator."

However at least one of Morales's admirers wishes he'd take his own advice on building a bench. "Leading the Miami-Dade Democratic Party will test Jimmy's patience; it would test any rational person's patience," scoffs Derek Newton, a Democratic political consultant who served as Morales's mayoral campaign manager. "If you put a hundred of these activists in one room, you'll hear a hundred different reasons for their being there -- and only five of those people are serious about winning elections."

Newton feels that Morales belongs in Tallahassee, achieving concrete goals. "Jimmy has passed up being the Democratic Party state chair; he's passed up being the nominee for state attorney general or chief financial officer," he says. "He may even have taken himself out of the running to be a lieutenant governor pick. These are huge political sacrifices to do something that I believe is largely unrewarding."

Still another local party strategist believes Morales is following his own timeline, and recalls a recent party meeting: "I was sitting right there when people were discussing how to get Alec Baldwin to come down for a fundraiser. Now, Jimmy can get Alec Baldwin on a plane with one phone call. But he didn't say a word. He's conserving his strength."

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