Alex Penelas's Rite of Passage

Last week something remarkable happened. Something I wasn't certain was possible. Last week Alex Penelas became mayor.

Oh, sure, I know he was elected mayor back in 1996, but all that did was confer on him a title. Until now Penelas has simply been playing mayor. He dresses up in his suit, and he makes earnest speeches at the Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club, and he flies off to Washington to hobnob with powerful people who tell him he's a rising star. But let's face it: He hasn't really accomplished much since being elected. He's been a strong mayor who refused to do any heavy lifting.

Look at his record. He spent his first year in office showing up at crime scenes and plane crashes, assuring everyone he was in charge. He was his own Al Haig. Eventually Penelas recognized that arriving by helicopter every time there was a catastrophe, while getting him major face-time on TV, was actually bad for his overall image. The public began associating him with carnage. He was Dade's Angel of Death. Even when he'd appear at some normal, noncalamity-related county event, people would look around for bloody corpses and sniff the air for burning jet fuel.

Penelas staked out some bold policy initiatives that first year. He declared, for instance, that crime was a bad thing, and announced a novel plan using these things called "police officers" to fight the bad crime. I remember thinking at the time that Penelas was taking a chance here, because criminals might be less willing to vote for him in the future. But then I learned Penelas's handlers had already done some polling on this issue and discovered felons aren't allowed to vote, so they really weren't much of a threat at the ballot box.

After the first two years of his administration, Penelas proudly pointed out, crime had fallen. Of course he neglected to mention that crime had fallen the two years prior to his being elected, and that the crime rate has been down across the nation, not just in that tiny portion of it governed by Penelas. But why nitpick.

During the past two years, Penelas further refined his "Crime Is Bad" strategy by stating unequivocally that he thinks it is wrong for children to shoot other children with handguns and assault rifles. This belief prompted Penelas, on behalf of the county, to sue gun manufacturers, claiming they should do more to make guns safer and to keep them out of the hands of criminals. Some have argued that Penelas's decision to square off against the National Rifle Association was actually the moment he finally showed political gumption. I disagree. Don't get me wrong, I applaud the lawsuit and its aims. But I also realize it is a very chic bit of litigation. All Penelas did was jump on a bandwagon with a bunch of other Democratic mayors to sue the gun makers. Why? Because that's what good Democrats are doing these days, especially Democrats who are hoping to have a place in a future Al Gore administration.

(Penelas's obsession with Gore is a different issue altogether. He isn't just trying to curry favor with the vice president; he's stalking him. He follows him around the country trying to get noticed. Last year in St. Louis, Penelas reportedly hip-checked the pope so he could get closer to Gore during a photo op.)

Crime and guns aren't the only matters the mayor has dealt with. He has also led a crusade on the weighty issue of diaper-changing stations in men's restrooms. Talk about a load of crap. This issue reeked of a PR stunt. I can just picture all the mayor's men sitting around saying, "How can we endear Alex to women voters? Sure he's got those dreamy Eddie Munster good looks, but isn't there something we can do to show his sensitive side?" BAM! Diaper-changing stations. Shows he's a modern, caring dad who's not afraid to handle a dirty diaper. Next thing you know, restaurants all over Miami-Dade County are ripping out Korean War-era condom machines in their bathrooms to make space for changing stations.

Suffice it to say Penelas has never been a risk-taker, especially when his future is at stake. You never hear the words bold, innovative, or maverick used to describe his administration. Penelas has treated the mayor's job as if it were the political equivalent of high school senior class president. Being popular, he knew, was the key to success. And since everyone knows you can't make a career out of being senior class president, you view it as a stepping stone, something that helps you get into a top out-of-state college. In Penelas's case that would be a good post in Washington as a senator or a cabinet officer or (dare we say it?) vice president of the United States.

To remain popular you must tell people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. To find out what they want to hear, you conduct polls, and the mayor employs one of the best pollsters in the country, Keith Frederick. Penelas loves polls. Penelas lives by polls. Penelas is surrounded by more polls than Lech Walesa. Whenever a contentious issue arises and you hear the mayor's spokesman say, "The mayor doesn't have a comment at this time, he's still formulating his position on that issue," it means Frederick is frantically taking a poll to see what the mayor's beliefs should be.

But as I said, all that changed last week.
Last week, standing before the county commission, Penelas became his own man. Brushing aside his advisers' warnings, he advocated raising the sales tax by a penny in order to establish a long-overdue dedicated source of funding for transportation. For once this was not the popular thing to do.

"Today we are considering an issue that is much more important than a transportation plan," he declared. "This is about our future vision for Miami-Dade County and where we want this community to go. This is more than just about buying new buses, which we desperately need, and doubling our fleet. It's about the quality of life we are going to be providing to present and future Miami-Dade Countians. This is more than just about expanding Metrorail by 90 new corridor miles, which is also desperately needed, but it is also about bringing 60,000 new jobs to the people of Miami-Dade County in the next twenty years."

I'm telling you, folks, mark that day on your calendar. On June 22, 1999, 981 days into his term as mayor, Alex Penelas finally began acting like one.

Watching the commission meeting unfold, I thought I was witnessing Penelas's political bar mitzvah. I kept expecting chairwoman Gwen Margolis to run to his side, tuck a 50-dollar bill in his shirt pocket, give him a big kiss on the cheek, and cry, "Today you are a man!"

It wasn't easy. Penelas was a reluctant warrior. Transportation, after all, isn't a sexy issue. He's not going to get written up in the Wall Street Journal or Time magazine for replacing the county's ancient bus fleet.

And I couldn't help but remember Penelas's behavior regarding an earlier transportation tax. Three years ago he led the charge in repealing a portion of the county's five-cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline. He was shameless on this issue, claiming that the $12 or $15 per year (per year!) the average motorist would save if the tax were repealed would make a significant difference in the lives of Dade County's poorest citizens.

Naturally Penelas wasn't stupid enough to actually believe that saving $12 per year would ease the poor's suffering. (Who did he think he was, Sally Struthers? "This is Alex Penelas, and for just pennies a day you can make a difference in a poor Dade Countian's life.") No, the only person Penelas was trying to help by repealing the gas tax was Alex Penelas. He was pandering to the public, particularly to the people who listen to Spanish-language radio. He was, in a word, gutless. But it worked and he won the mayor's race, in part because of his disgraceful performance with the gas tax.

Three years later he finds himself the mayor of the third-most-congested metropolitan area in the nation. (Oh my, how did that happen?) Obviously the gas tax would not have been enough to solve the county's transportation woes, but it did show a commitment on the part of local leaders to try to address the issue. When the county commission repealed a portion of that tax in 1996, it sent a signal that Dade wasn't serious about facing its problems.

Penelas was reminded of that earlier this year, during trips to Tallahassee and Washington. He apparently thought his boyish good looks and insider contacts were enough to get him all the money he wanted from state and federal officials. They weren't. Officials made it clear to Penelas they didn't think he was all that cute anymore.

At the state capital, the governor, Miami's own Jeb Bush, allocated $15 million for transportation projects in Miami-Dade County. But when the governor's budget plan reached the House and the Senate, it expired. The money for Miami-Dade County was stripped out as legislators from other parts of Florida, citing Penelas's efforts to repeal the gas tax, decided the county didn't deserve help from the state. It was only through the efforts of several legislators, most notably State Rep. Willie Logan and State Sen. Daryl Jones, that five million dollars were restored to the budget for Miami-Dade County.

In Washington the news has been even worse. In meeting after meeting with senior transportation officials in Congress and the Clinton administration, Penelas was warned that without a dedicated source of revenue for transportation, Miami-Dade County didn't stand a chance for getting any projects funded by the federal government.

Then in March County Manager Merrett Stierheim did what a leader is supposed to do. He led. He made it clear there was a crisis and that time was running out, so he proposed raising the sales tax by a penny, which would generate nearly $240 million per year for transportation.

Penelas appeared to have been blind-sided by his own county manager, and a day later he came out against raising the sales tax. He said he would come up with his own plan to solve the transportation crisis, and in the meantime he tried to shift the public's attention to the Miami Expressway Authority, publicly vilifying it for raising tolls. After several weeks he offered a plan that looked very similar to what the county manager had proposed. But the mayor suggested the vote on the sales tax should take place only after the public had been educated about transportation issues -- perhaps in 2001, after he'd safely been re-elected mayor.

Federal officials, however, made it clear to Penelas that 2001 wasn't an option. There was a only a small window of opportunity during which federal money would be available. If the county wanted to be considered for those funds, it would have to apply by mid-August of this year.

The short notice was partly Penelas's fault as well. In his zeal to consolidate power, he had abolished the commission's committee system. Those commissioners who sat on the transportation committee usually kept track of such looming and important deadlines. But Penelas did away with all that, and now he was paying the price.

Suddenly the mayor found himself at the proverbial crossroads. He had ducked and dodged all he could. It was decision time. His advisers were urging him to scrap the penny-sales-tax plan. They told him that as things stood now, he would coast to re-election in 2000. Why risk angering the Hispanic community, which is pathologically deranged on the issue of taxes? If the measure lost, it would be a humiliating defeat in which the mayor would have placed his credibility on the line but couldn't deliver the votes. If it passed he'd be tagged by future political opponents as a tax-and-spend liberal. That added up to a no-win situation.

Politically his advisers were right. And normally for Penelas being politically right is all that matters. But for some reason, on this particular issue, the mayor began talking about the greater good. He told his staff there are times when a politician must do what he knows is right, not merely what he thinks is expedient. He'd made up his mind, he said. They were going to move ahead with the sales-tax plan.

Truth be told, the details of the mayor's transportation plan are less important than the tax itself. Projects can change. Priorities can shift. Perhaps we will spend less on Metrorail and more on buses. The immediate concern is establishing a dedicated source of revenue for transportation needs.

Toward that end Penelas has worked hard to gain support for his initiative. He's brought aboard the business community and the unions. He's attempted to neutralize, or at least temper, the zealots on Spanish-language radio. He's called on an old foe, Maurice Ferre, to head up the citizens committee that will raise money for the campaign leading up to the July 29 referendum. He's tossed in some additional funding for the arts and social-welfare programs as a sweetener. But most important he has remained front and center on the issue.

This is his campaign, his fight. And no matter how it ends, it's good to see him out there finally swinging.

Mazel tov.


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