The Dullness of Being Manny Diaz

Miami used to be a punch line, but now the joke is on bored reporters

Speaking as a columnist, I can say that Manny Diaz has been an absolute disaster as mayor of Miami. As Diaz's first term in office draws to a close and he quietly raises funds for his re-election campaign -- a campaign in which he has yet to draw an opponent -- it's hardly an exaggeration for reporters to deem his administration as having presided over the worst state of affairs at city hall in three decades. In other words, Miami is finally beginning to resemble a properly functioning municipality instead of a punch line.

For folks trying to live, work, and raise families here, this turnabout is nothing short of miraculous. Our local press corps, however, has grown accustomed to a steady diet of headline-grabbing corruption indictments, dire financial crises, and incidents of bizarre personal behavior better suited to a junior-high playground than an organ of government. And so the prospect of four more years of Manny Diaz is chilling. After all, chronicling the rise of competence never won anybody a Pulitzer.

You could hear as much during a recent edition of Jason Walker's J Walkin' Wednesday-evening talk show on WMBM-AM (1490). The Miami Herald's Jim DeFede and former New Times staff writer Rebecca Wakefield settled in behind the microphones with Walker, an aide to Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, for a wide-ranging discussion of local politics, moving from Rudy Crew's stormy tenure as Miami-Dade schools superintendent to all things Art Teele; from Mayor Carlos Alvarez's clashes with the county commission to the possible return of Alex Penelas to that very dais. Yet over the course of an hour, Diaz barely merited a mention.

That's quite an accomplishment, one Diaz addressed directly in his state-of-the-city speech this past May, recalling when "city hall came to be known as silly hall, a circus famous for entertaining the many but serving the very few." As for his own accounting skills, Diaz wryly noted the "ingenious approach by our predecessors," who pursued "higher taxes, higher fees, the highest millage rate in history -- making an already poor city the poorest city in the nation." And the marked absence of Cold War rhetoric from this Cuban-exile scion of a onetime political prisoner? "I wish he'd get run over by an eighteen-wheeler tomorrow," Diaz quipped about Fidel Castro to the New York Times. "But as mayor I'm supposed to fix your streets and your parks and your potholes." Hardly Nixon-goes-to-China, but by South Florida standards, it was an idea no less radical -- or overdue.

Equally refreshing has been Diaz's attitude toward this city's other hot-button issue, gay rights. While his 2001 runoff-election opponent Maurice Ferré served up contradictory positions on the county's gay-rights law depending upon which audience he was hitting up for money (liberal Anglos or conservative exiles), Diaz declared the entire controversy settled. He matter-of-factly announced his support for the ordinance, as well as for repealing Florida's ban on allowing gay couples to adopt foster children.

There's always a danger in anointing any political figure as a white knight. The last man to wear the mantle of Miami's savior -- former city manager Donald Warshaw -- ended up serving a year in prison for embezzling $70,000 from a children's charity. But Diaz's businesslike approach has paid off for Miami, literally. February 2004 saw Wall Street's largest financial firms dramatically upgrading the city's bond ratings to A-level status, a far cry from their junk classification the year before Diaz took office, and a vote of fiduciary confidence that enables a budgetary shift of tens of millions of dollars earmarked for debt repayment to city services -- without raising taxes. True to form, though, most news editors merely shrugged. In a media landscape where actual news has to compete for front-page space with tales of orphaned puppies and sexy poker players, the Herald relegated the bond-rating announcement to 600 words in its "Metro" section. Here at New Timesit's drawn only grudging notice.

To be sure, neither heightened bond ratings nor the wave of concurrent real-estate development has yet to translate into "the new destiny" Diaz envisions. Drive a few blocks west from the much-vaunted revitalization of the Biscayne Boulevard corridor and you'll pass scenes straight out of Night of the Living Dead -- scores of homeless remain splayed across the landings of boarded-up buildings, or stagger down the middle of desolate streets. And though it's easy to understand why condo developer Jorge Perez lauded Diaz in South Florida CEO magazine as "the best mayor that the City of Miami has ever had," for many residents living in the shadows of the high-rise sprawl set to remake the skyline, Diaz's "Miami 21" proposed zoning plan is too little and much too late.

Such skepticism is warranted, and given Miami's past, all too necessary. But it's also worth pondering the road not taken -- namely the one offered up by city commissioner and television commentator Tomas Regalado. Though lately he's been on his best behavior while attempting to coalesce opposition to Diaz from any corner he can find it, Regalado -- and his long-rumored designs on the mayor's seat -- stands as a grim reminder of premillennium Miami.

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