The D Word

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

It's hard to imagine another major city in America with as many closeted politicians as Miami. No, not closeted about being gay -- in the closet about being Democrats. Whatever shortcomings Alex Penelas may have had as county mayor (and as a Democrat), he had few qualms about making county hall a comfortable workplace for openly gay staffers, spinmeisters, and of course lobbyists.

Likewise Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. While his 2001 election opponent Maurice Ferré hemmed and hawed, speaking out of both sides of his mouth about the county's gay rights ordinance -- yea to audiences of liberal Anglos, nay to audiences of conservative Cubans -- Diaz simply declared the entire subject a nonissue. He matter-of-factly announced his support for the law, as well as for repealing the ban on allowing gay couples to adopt foster children. And then he sent his younger, forthrightly gay brother Jorge -- a SAVE Dade veteran -- to canvass in the same Little Havana neighborhoods whose presumably delicate sensibilities Ferré had seemed so terrified of offending.

Yet just try asking Diaz to declare his fidelity to the Democratic Party and it's back to The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.A lifelong Democrat who switched his voter registration to "unaffiliated" shortly before his mayoral bid, Diaz may have long-standing ties to -- and been a generous fundraiser for -- such well-known Democratic figures as Rep. Kendrick Meek and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, but don't even think of nailing down Diaz's identity in front of an open microphone. In fact the only guessing game that excites local gossips more than Diaz's designs on a statewide office is under which party's banner he'll make that leap.

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

Alex Penelas too spent much of his public career as a Democrat in name, raising funds for the party's candidates and shaking the requisite hands. But when partisan passions heated up during the 2000 presidential race and subsequent recount, he went AWOL, leading Al Gore to brand him "the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with during the campaign anywhere in America."

Even Miami Beach's Democratic Mayor David Dermer -- presiding over a burg the Democratic National Committee (DNC) deemed friendly enough to host Gore's massive Election Eve rally -- keeps his party membership card tucked firmly out of sight. Last year Dermer was quick to trumpet his support for turning the Beach's city hall into a national registry for gay and lesbian couples. And he championed an anti-discrimination measure for transsexuals. But when John Kerry rolled into town, Dermer made sure every local reporter knew he was stumping for George W. Bush, coyly hinting that his stalwart support would be rewarded with a job in the Bush administration come 2005.

You hardly need to be an expert in backroom politicking to understand this odd phenomenon. Just listen to Penelas's wife Lilliam, a Republican who crossed the line only to vote for her husband. "Democrats are viewed as Fidel Castro commie lovers," she quipped to the Herald last summer, and, syntax aside, that does indeed sum up the opinion of much of the Cuban-exile community, which sees a history of Democratic perfidy stretching from Elian Gonzalez on back to the Kennedy White House. And with el exilio remaining a decisive voting bloc in local elections, it's a legacy most aspiring pols choose to steer clear of.

Jimmy Morales, the new Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman, doesn't disagree with this assessment. But he argues that it needs to be dealt with if his party is ever going to re-establish itself as a serious force in wresting Florida out of the red-state column. He credits the ineffectiveness of the local party as one of the key factors in his own failed mayoral quest this past November.

"I grew up in the shadow of Dante Fascell, Claude Pepper, Lawton Chiles, and Ruben Askew," Morales explains, intoning the names of Florida's deceased Democratic heavyweights. "Now there's no more shadow. I think of myself as someone who has a lot to offer -- but now, without a strong party, even if I run a perfect campaign, I can't win." So feel free to label his motives in resuscitating the party as self-interested, he continues, even as downright selfish: "I want to be part of making it possible for folks like myself to bring that good old Democratic policy back to bear in Tallahassee and Washington."

The first step, he says, is focusing on younger Cuban Americans, the much-cited Generación ñ. "I'm not going to convince most Cuban Americans who are over the age of 50 to switch their votes. They're set in their ways," Morales concedes. "But there's a lot of younger Cuban Americans coming up. They're fair game. They don't hate Democrats because of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. They're interested in economic issues."

Yet while this past presidential election season was filled with pundits opining on a looming divide between older exiles and more recent arrivals from the island, with the Cuban embargo serving as a wedge issue, Morales sees this approach as a dead end. He contends that groups such as the New Democratic Network, which poured millions into ads attempting to foment such a split, did little more than flush away money, as borne out by the results November 2.

"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!'"

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 askhim 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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