Jimmy Morales: He coulda been a mayoral contender
Jimmy Morales: He coulda been a mayoral contender
Jonathan Postal

Acute Democratitis

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 my race 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.

Come 2004, however, Morales seemed to have discovered a way to turn that formulation on its head. For the first time in recent history, the mayoral runoff -- all but assured given the crowded field -- was being held November 2, the same date as the Bush/Kerry face-off. If past presidential elections were any guide, Miami's voter turnout would more than double, with Cuban Americans finding their numbers counterbalanced by the Anglo and black voters who gave Miami-Dade to both Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and who were seen as Morales's base of support.

"Kerry is going to win Dade," Morales's campaign manager Derek Newton had argued to Kulchur last August. (Newton is now a Democratic political consultant.) "He may win by only 30,000 to 40,000 votes, but that's more than enough for me." All Newton had to do was ensure that the bulk of Kerry's supporters remembered to vote for Morales also: "We just become the Democratic candidate -- the Anglo, black, progressive candidate. And everybody else goes wherever they go."

Newton's strategy was hardly a lock. But if you crunched the numbers, it offered Morales a clear path, perhaps his only path, to the mayor's seat. Sure enough, Kerry did indeed win Miami-Dade -- by 48,000 votes. But a funny thing happened on the way to the victory celebration. At least 88,000 Kerry voters either left their mayoral choice blank or crossed party lines and selected the Republican Carlos Alvarez. Even more telling, Alvarez outperformed George W. Bush in the county (397,000 to 361,000), making it clear that his win was due to more than merely GOP backing.

How did so many Democrats lose their way, particularly with a candidate whose previously perceived weakness was too Democratic?

"I wasn't allowed to say I was a Democrat," Morales explains, rolling his eyes as he attempts to translate the convoluted laws governing a nonpartisan race such as his: No flyers touting his face alongside John Kerry's, no newspaper ads telling people how to put a Democrat in charge at county hall. And without any party identification next to his name on the ballot, "most folks didn't know." Curious voters would see only four words as they stared at their touch-screen voting machines: Carlos Alvarez and Jimmy Morales.

Of course Morales had months to prepare for this hurdle, and it's here that he turns his ire back on the Democratic Party itself, citing an almost daily barrage of miscommunications between Kerry staffers (mostly from New England and clueless about Miami), local figures, and his own campaign.

A John Edwards appearance in Miami Gardens? It might have been nice for Morales to introduce the vice-presidential nominee to the thousands of fired-up Democrats there -- perhaps even gaining a TV or press mention in the process, a further way to spread the word about his party status. Although a host of local Democratic officials flanked Edwards at his podium, Morales gripes, "I couldn't even get onstage."

Out-of-town activists hired by Rep. Kendrick Meek -- Kerry's Florida campaign manager -- produced palm cards for early voters in predominantly black districts, dutifully informing these staunch Democrats of their party's nominees. But somehow the mayor's race was missing from the lineup -- the one race in which such information was actually needed. "I remember calling up Kendrick as soon as I saw those cards," Morales says, still disturbed at the memory. Meek had, after all, personally endorsed him. "It took several days for him to get new palm cards made. Who knows how many votes I lost there."

Worst of all was visiting the University of Miami on election night. Hours after the polls had closed elsewhere, hundreds of students still waited in line to vote there. Many had spent much of the day canvassing the city for Kerry and were proudly festooned with Kerry T-shirts and buttons. "I started going down the line and 80 percent of them didn't know anything about the mayor's race," Morales says. If even hard-core Kerry volunteers were oblivious to his candidacy, one can only imagine the attitude of the rest of the electorate.

For Derek Newton, who fielded angry phone calls from Morales's mother, incensed at the tactical withdrawal from Little Havana in favor of devoting resources to Anglo neighborhoods, that day's tallies were particularly distressing.

"A lot of people have assumed that Jimmy lost the race because he didn't hold his own among Hispanic voters," Newton says. "That's not true. We hit our mark there, and we hit our mark with African Americans. We didn't make our mark with Anglo Democrats. We won 55 percent of them, when we needed a margin of 75 percent. And the reason is, those are Miami Herald readers."

Here Newton singles out Herald columnist Jim DeFede with the kind of vehemence most liberals reserve for Rush Limbaugh. "When Jim DeFede beats you up every day -- and he is the self-appointed leader of the reform movement, the 'Angry Anglo' -- and the Herald backs him up with their endorsement of Alvarez, what can we say? The only constituency who cares about that endorsement is Anglo Democrats, but we just couldn't get past that pounding at our base.

"These Anglo Democrats wanted reform. They come at municipal politics from the view that it's completely broken, that it's about more than replacing a window. You have to tear down and rebuild the entire house. When they were looking for reform, a former police chief versus an incumbent commissioner?" Which is essentially all the mayoral race came down to. There was little media attention on the often drastic policy differences between the two men, especially Alvarez's pledge to a Christian Coalition offshoot that he'd not only repeal the county's gay rights ordinance, but also any domestic partnership laws. Alvarez even referred to gays and lesbians as people with "sexual problems" during a debate on Telemundo's WSCV-TV.

Unable to cast the race as a true-blue Democrat against a die-hard Republican, Newton concludes of Anglos: "We weren't going to change their minds."

It's an analysis Morales himself shares, citing a poll figure Alex Penelas related to him: Only one-third of likely voters read the Herald -- mostly Anglos. Accordingly, "If you're running in Coral Gables, what the Herald writes can be important," he says, adding with a laugh: "But if you're running in Hialeah, when's the last time a candidate the Herald endorsed there won?"

To hear both Newton and Morales lay out the Herald's role in Miami's current political landscape, former New Times staffer DeFede has grown beyond a well-read columnist, now occupying a king-making position among Anglos similar to that held by Radio Mambí's Armando Perez-Roura among Cuban exiles -- able to single-handedly make or break a candidacy.

"The Herald was not fair and balanced," Morales continues. "They went out of their way to expose my weaknesses and didn't really say much about Alvarez. To me the greatest irony of it all is when DeFede wrote a column describing Alvarez as the family man in the race. I've been married with children for fifteen years of my life. Alvarez is twice divorced with a son in jail for rape. He's the family man and I'm not?" (Alvarez's 27-year-old son Carlos, Jr. is serving an eighteen-year prison sentence for a spree of sexual assaults committed in Kendall in 1994.)

"Those were the kind of stories I had to deal with," Morales says. "I just couldn't get a fair shake."

Next week: Revenge is a dish best served at the polls: Jimmy Morales looks toward 2006.


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