Ambitious to a Fault

The defining moment in the political career of Dade County Commissioner Alex Penelas came on April 22, 1993, shortly after he and his colleagues were sworn into office as part of an expanded commission elected from thirteen newly created districts.

After taking the oath, each commissioner delivered a speech, and all of them stressed the importance of working together for the betterment of the entire community -- a theme reflecting fears that the new district system would encourage divisions along racial and ethnic lines at the expense of broader, countywide interests.

The only item of importance on the agenda that day was the selection of a commission chairman. Although it was largely a ceremonial position, Penelas openly coveted it. The increased visibility and the leadership opportunities would fit nicely with his plans to run for county mayor three years later. In fact, he didn't just want to be named chairman, he expected to be named.

To Penelas's chagrin, however, his fellow commissioners elected Art Teele. The 31-year-old commissioner did not accept defeat gracefully. Instead he threw a temper tantrum as peevish as any terrible two-year-old's. He branded Maurice Ferre and the other Hispanic commissioners ethnic traitors for supporting Teele, a black man, over him, a Cuban American. "I think Ferre betrayed the Hispanic community today," Penelas bellowed in the hallways after the vote. Singling out Ferre made sense, as he was expected to be one of Penelas's competitors in the 1996 mayor's race. Here was an early opportunity to tar him: Maurice Ferre, Hispanic Judas.

Following the commission meeting, Penelas headed for Spanish-language radio, where he repeated his attacks on Ferre and the other Hispanic commissioners who voted for Teele.

Today Penelas's closest aides insist that he has matured, that he is no longer the overindulged brat who was richly criticized for his outburst. He is more seasoned and thoughtful, they argue. This growth and development are the real testaments to his character. Penelas learned his lesson, they humbly contend, and he is a better man because of it.

But what, exactly, is the lesson Penelas learned? Judging from the three years following his infamous fit of pique, it seems the only lasting lesson was this: He would never lose again -- no matter what the cost.

What emerged after that day was not a new, more statesmanlike county commissioner, but a full-time candidate for county mayor whose single-minded focus on winning has not only drawn criticism from his opponents but worry from long-time friends and supporters. Says one old ally, paraphrasing Shakespeare's warning: "Beware the lean and hungry look of Alex Penelas."

In 1987 Penelas was 25 years old and still living at home with his parents when he ran for a seat on the Hialeah City Council. Fresh out of University of Miami's law school, he saw an opening amid the corruption enveloping Dade's second-largest city, with one councilman having recently been indicted and others deciding to retire. "It was a tremendous opportunity," Penelas says of his campaign and subsequent victory. "Running for office is something I have always had inside of me. I always knew I wanted to serve the public. Maybe it runs in the blood." Penelas's father was active in Cuba's labor movement during the Fifties. His mother fled Cuba in 1959 with his two older brothers, and his father escaped through Brazil a year or so later. Alex, the youngest child in the family, was born in South Florida on December 18, 1961.

His tenure in Hialeah was brief but active. From the outset he was part of a slate of council members who gave lock step support to Mayor Raul Martinez, voting consistently with him on zoning and budget matters, including an eleven percent tax increase in 1988. But Penelas did strike out on his own now and then, most notably by sponsoring a code of ethics and new financial-disclosure requirements for city officials.

Young, bright, articulate, and handsome, Penelas was quickly dubbed a rising star among Dade's otherwise lackluster field of politicians. In 1990, still in his first term on the Hialeah council, he was courted by various civic groups to run for county commission against incumbent Jorge Valdes.

He was viewed as the antithesis of Valdes, a nine-year commission veteran who was linked to powerful lobbyists and who was seen as a puppet of local developers. Valdes's reputation was sullied further by the fact that he lived a comfortable life with no visible means of support. With the public left to wonder who was paying Valdes's bills, Penelas once again saw an opportunity and jumped at it. "A lot of people were concerned about the issues that Jorge had gotten involved with, his close ties to developers," Penelas says. "There was clearly a cloud over him."

The campaign was no simple affair, however. Valdes was the first Cuban on the county commission and was still extremely popular among Hispanic voters. To challenge that support in the final days of the 1990 campaign, Penelas began airing controversial advertisements on Spanish-language radio. The commercial opened with this: "Tell me who you associate with and I'll tell you who you are." It went on to insinuate a connection between Valdes and Jesse Jackson, who had years earlier praised Fidel Castro. Valdes had been endorsed by Carrie Meek, and Meek had helped to run Jackson's past presidential campaign, therefore ...

Thanks to a heavy turnout among Anglo voters -- who never heard the notorious ad -- Penelas won.

Most observers agree that he threw himself into his work on the commission. During his first three years, he was at the center of nearly every major issue, from American Airlines' dramatic expansion to drug treatment for county employees to development of his own plan for single-member voting districts to creation of the position of executive mayor -- the job for which he, Ferre, Teele, and former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez are now vying.

Once again Penelas was soaring. Praised by the Herald and easily winning re-election in 1993, he was not only considered a serious contender for the 1996 mayor's race, but he was also touted as the first Cuban likely to win statewide office in the future.

And then in 1993 he lost his bid to become commission chairman and unleashed his ethnically charged attack. From that moment on, perceptions of Alex Penelas would never be the same. No longer would he command the high ground of the idealist. He was simply another arrogant politician whose sole reason for being was to win the next election.

Penelas says his single greatest accomplishment as a commissioner has been the development and implementation of a plan to aid Dade's homeless population. But in truth he backed into that issue, not by choice but by circumstance: When Art Teele became chairman, he assigned Penelas to the commission's homeless committee. Furthermore, a significant amount of momentum had already developed within Dade's business community to deal with the unsightly problem of street people. Given the time, energy, and resources the downtown elite had committed to the homeless problem, it was in Penelas's best political interest to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to the task at hand.

Apart from the homeless issue, and its offshoot program to deal with domestic violence, Penelas has become a ghost on the dais, speaking up only when he is likely to secure a sound bite on the evening news or a quote in the newspaper. In the past year, he has been outspoken on just two subjects: advocating a rollback of the county's gasoline tax, and opposing the proposed new arena -- positions that are immensely popular among many voters. And reminiscent of his days as a Hialeah reformer, Penelas also led the successful drive last year to establish a countywide ethics commission.

A review of the ordinances and resolutions Penelas initiated over the past twelve months suggests a politician more interested in pandering to voters than addressing the problems of the community. He sponsored a resolution declaring February 20 to be "Don Shula Day." He promoted another resolution urging the City of Miami to rename a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard as "Yitzhak Rabin Boulevard." In another, he asked the Florida Board of Regents to establish an architecture program at Florida International University.

More than anything else, Penelas pushed measures that allocated money to favored organizations, resolutions that annoyed his fellow commissioners because they circumvented the commission's normal procedure for distributing money.

Sergio Bendixen, the political analyst and pollster for Channel 51, has watched Penelas over the years and expresses surprise at how quickly Penelas has gone from idealistic reformer to calculating politician. The transformation, he notes, has not been lost on voters. "He's grown up too fast for the taste of a lot of people," Bendixen says. "Penelas has developed the image of being too much a politician -- he compromises too easily, he changes his stands on important issues, it is impossible to know what he feels passionately about."

He is a registered Democrat, and yet he traveled to New Hampshire to stump for Bob Dole because he says his Republican friends asked him to.

On September 20, 1993, Penelas voted in favor of increasing the gasoline tax, but as soon as it proved unpopular, he attacked it and now acts as if he had never supported it.

He publicly argued against building a new arena, but then in a private meeting with arena supporter Alvah Chapman, he promised to tone down his criticism (and lowered his risk of alienating the Herald).

He declared his support for the private development of Homestead Air Force Base, but then, on the eve of the commission vote, halfheartedly tried to strike a compromise with South Dade residents who opposed the project.

"The problem that people have with Alex," says one of his current supporters, "is that he tries to be all things to all people, and it can't be done. What does he stand for? Why does he want to be mayor?"

One irony of this mayoral campaign is that Penelas now resembles the type of candidate he used to run against. For example, if Jorge Valdes was once his antithesis, what does it say about Penelas that Valdes now supports his candidacy, and that Penelas speaks fondly of his one-time foe? "Listen, I've developed a very good relationship with Jorge and I think he is a very decent man," Penelas offers. "He's never been accused and convicted of anything."

Today it is Penelas who is surrounded by the county's most influential lobbyists and developers. He has raised close to one million dollars so far, and if he makes it to a runoff, he will almost certainly accumulate another $500,000. With such a mind-numbing amount of money in the bank, he has hired one of the best media strategists in the nation, Bob Shrum from Washington, D.C., to package his life in 30-second increments. Between now and the September 3 election (with an expected October 1 runoff between the top two contenders) the broadcast airwaves -- English and Spanish -- will be saturated with Alex Penelas.

That money can buy a tremendous amount of exposure, but it can also raise uncomfortable questions. "If voters in Dade County are afraid of anything, they are afraid of their county government being too influenced by the powerful economic interests that do business with the county," Bendixen says. "When Alex or anyone raises that much money, the voters are going to look at that issue and are going to wonder what kind of debts that politician is going to have if he's elected, and who the politician is going to owe favors. Penelas has developed the image of a dealmaker and someone who has a lot of debts to the special interests of Dade County."

And Penelas certainly appears to be in a dealmaking mood. Knowing he needed to make inroads into the Anglo community, and specifically the condos in Northeast Dade, he agreed to appoint Gwen Margolis chairwoman of the commission in return for her endorsement and support.

He is also reaping the benefits of an alliance he struck with State Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson. Penelas supported Nelson in the past (and will likely support his 1998 bid for governor), and in return Nelson and his political allies have pumped more than $100,000 from the insurance industry into Penelas's campaign from all over the state and across the nation -- contributions have come from Chicago, New Orleans, and Dallas. One local insurance mogul, Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, owner of Associated Insurance Brokers, has added at least $10,000 to Penelas's coffers, artfully dodging the $500 limit by donating through more than a dozen different companies he owns. Another insurance executive, William D. Griffin of the Riscorp Insurance Company based in Sarasota, has given nearly $4000 to Penelas through companies he controls.

Nelson personally sponsored one fundraiser for Penelas in Tallahassee, and Nelson's deputy chief of staff, Brian May, is working as a strategist on Penelas's campaign. How voters -- particularly Hurricane Andrew veterans in South Dade -- will feel about one candidate accumulating that much money from the insurance industry remains to be seen.

Penelas will have a television spot ready to answer such concerns if his advisers think it is necessary. Chances are, though, he won't be using the same script he employed against Jorge Valdes in 1990 -- especially that opening line: "Tell me who you associate with and I'll tell you who you are.


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