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Dade Divided

After ten successful years in the Miami city attorney's office -- first as an assistant city attorney, then as the chief deputy, followed by four years as the city attorney -- Jorge Fernandez abruptly quit in 1991. He and his wife pulled their three children out of school, packed up a houseful of belongings, and moved away from South Florida with the deliberate manner of someone crossing the street to avoid an encounter with a deranged person. In this instance, the Fernandez family crossed the state -- to Sarasota.

"I left at the peak of my career," recalls Fernandez, who has been the Sarasota County Attorney ever since. "I left because I was sick and tired of Dade County. I was tired of people thinking I was selected Miami City Attorney simply because I was the next Cuban in line."

It is a phenomenon, Fernandez argues, fostered in no small part by Cuban Americans themselves when they campaign or lobby for positions of influence on the basis of their ethnicity. "I'm repulsed by that mentality," he says. "It belittles the essence of a person's humanity. It insults me tremendously and it diminishes me when I am looked at only as a Cuban American rather than who I really am."

While city attorney, Fernandez says he saw such ethnic appeals increasing in South Florida, and not just among Hispanics. He believed he had to get his family out or risk having that same corrosive mentality infect his three children, who were nine, ten, and eleven years old at the time. Fernandez feared that his kids were developing what he describes as a "closed picture of the United States," and were becoming too "ethnocentric" in their thinking. "I wanted them to live a few years in Des Moines or Kansas or anywhere but Dade County," he says, "so that they could become real Americans." And so when he had the chance to take a job in bucolic Sarasota, he didn't hesitate for a moment.

Last fall, however, Fernandez learned that Dade County Manager Joaquin Avino was resigning and that the county commission was seeking applicants to replace him. Fernandez submitted his resume. Three years had given his children the perspective he believed they needed. In addition, both he and his wife missed their own families, who were still living in Miami. Besides, he thought, maybe things had changed.

Time away may have broadened his children's perspective, but Fernandez's own views remained unchanged. If anything, he was even more adamant about the circumstances under which he would consider returning to Dade County as its manager: His appointment could have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he is Hispanic. He was almost confrontational on this point in his interviews with Hispanic commissioners. "I made it clear to them," he recalls, "that if that was their criteria, then I would say, 'Thank you, but don't choose me.'"

Without revealing names, Fernandez says several of the Cuban-American commissioners were angered by his approach. "They told me I was too immature and didn't recognize the community's interests," he says.

On December 15, when commissioners gathered to select their new chief executive from among nine finalists (seven Hispanic males and two black females), Fernandez was eliminated in the first round. In the political scrum that followed, Armando Vidal, riding a wave of Hispanic hype, was selected county manager in one of the most ethnically charged contests in the county's history. It was a fracas so fierce it literally drew blood when Chairman Art Teele punched a lobbyist in the mouth for allegedly spreading the rumor that Teele, who is black, was secretly backing the Cuban-born Vidal over rival candidate Cynthia Curry, who is also black.

Fernandez harbors no bitterness over his loss and believes he was treated fairly by everyoneinvolved. He understood from the outset his candidacy would be a long shot, and that commissioners would likely promote someone already working for the county (Vidal was public works director; finalist Curry is an assistant manager). However, Fernandez does express bewilderment at the state of ethnic relations in his old hometown. "Not a single Anglo candidate dared to apply," he notes. "What does that tell you about Dade County? Do you mean that there was not a single Anglo that felt qualified? Or was it that none of them felt they had a chance so they didn't bother to apply? It's ludicrous. I found all of this much more alarming than any of the stories about who punched who and what deals were being brokered in the hallways."

Dade, of course, is not the first area to experience an ethnic shift in political power. Earlier this century it was the Irish in Boston, the Poles in Chicago, and Italians in New York. "Dade County is going through what some of these other communities went through 30, 40, even 80 years ago," Fernandez correctly observes. "But does that mean we can't learn from their mistakes? Is this what we as Cuban Americans have struggled to achieve -- that when we are in the majority, we act no different from when the Anglos ran things here in the past? We need to act in such a manner that brings this community together, otherwise we are no better than when the Anglos controlled everything."  

Fernandez has a parting thought for those commissioners and job candidates who engaged in the politics of division. "Shame on them," he says. "Shame, shame, shame on them."

In their haste to sweep up the mess and move forward following Armando Vidal's appointment as manager, Dade's civic leaders conveniently sidestep any opportunity for introspection. Little thought has been given to lessons that might be learned, and the notion of shame appears to be as alien as a snow storm in summer. But the fact is that Vidal's elevation has lifted a veil and revealed a disturbing truth: This community is far more divided -- even dysfunctional -- than most people would care to admit.

The Miami Herald, with its blinders firmly affixed and its cautious editorial posture guiding its coverage, has neglected to scrutinize the new county manager or to examine the degree to which public confidence in him has been compromised by the perception that his appointment had less to do with merit than with the mere fact that he is Cuban. Neither the Herald nor its Spanish-language sister, El Nuevo Herald, which published a fawning profile of Vidal during his first week in office, has disclosed that Maria Vidal, the manager's wife, is a Herald executive in charge of the company's accounting department.

And while the paper's initial reporting raised the specter of widespread influence-peddling at the heart of the selection process, it failed to (or chose not to) ask the next question: What was Armando Vidal's culpability in the actions taken on his behalf?

Among the many issues that have been left unanswered, one fact has emerged with startling clarity: The Dade County Commission is in disarray and is hurtling toward anarchy. The tempestuous effort to hire a new chief executive exposed to public view the depth of rancor and animosity that pervades the commission. Chairman Teele, who supported Cynthia Curry, is openly at war with at least three colleagues: Gwen Margolis, Bruce Kaplan, and Alex Penelas, all of whom supported Vidal. So indignant is Teele that he is determined to do whatever he can to thwart Penelas's expected bid to become county mayor in 1996. Charging that Penelas uses "paid agitators and mercenaries" to foment tension within Dade's black community, Teele says, "The type of venom and character-assassinating lies that are being spread are extremely dangerous," and warns ominously that they could lead to a repeat of the violence Miami saw in the 1980s. Regarding Penelas's mayoral ambitions, Teele vows, "I am not going to allow someone to run who is prepared to set this city in flames ethnically and not try to stop him."

Commissioner Maurice Ferre, who also wants to be county mayor, is at odds with Penelas as well. The men backed different candidates for manager and used the selection process to attack each other at every opportunity. At least half a dozen other internecine skirmishes are being waged among commissioners. Penelas jokes that violations of the Sunshine Law are unlikely these days because commissioners simply can't stand to be with one another privately. "There are so many factions on that commission," he says, "and so many people who hate each other and don't want to speak to each other." All of which casts doubt on the county commission's ability to function effectively for the good of all Dade residents. Teele, who delivers the annual State of the County address this Friday, January 27, sees trouble ahead: "Out of necessity, I think you will see more ethnic voting blocks. I hope not, but I think that is what is going to happen."

As if the dramatic rupture of cooperation among commissioners weren't bad enough, there remain unsettling questions about Armando Vidal's character. The new manager portrays himself as the unwitting, unknowing, unseeing beneficiary of one of the most pitched political battles Dade County has experienced in decades. "I understand how hard that is to believe," he shrugs from behind his desk in his new office on the 29th floor of county hall, "but those are the facts." He insists he is beholden to no one, and laughs at the idea that he might be as much a politician as any elected official, that he might be willing to resort to ethnic appeals in furtherance of his ambitions.  

That portrait of innocence is not universally shared. Says Ferre, the only Hispanic not to vote for Vidal: "He could have sat back and been altruistic about it and say, 'I'm not going to lobby for it and I'll just try and win it on my merits.' But he didn't do that. He was out there and he had people out there lobbying on his behalf. And Cynthia Curry did the same thing. Does that put a burden on Vidal now? Absolutely. He's in a very difficult position. He's now got to prove himself. He's got to prove that all these questions hanging over him are untrue."

The stakes are high. The county manager oversees the largest municipal government in the southeastern United States, with an annual budget of $3.9 billion and nearly 30,000 employees. He wields tremendous influence over the awarding of hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts each year. And as more and more local communities express disgust with county government and interest in forming their own cities, it became essential for commissioners to select a manager who was above reproach, and in a manner that was free of divisive innuendo.

The 47-year-old Vidal says he is up to the task and that there are no questions hanging over him. "I don't feel I came into the office with any taint or any cloud over me," he contends. "I think that through time my performance, my skill, and my abilities are going to prove that I was the right choice for the job. I don't owe anything to anybody."

Furthermore, he asserts, he should not be held accountable for the actions of others. "I couldn't control what went on," he says, "and I definitely was not part of what went on. I didn't agree with most of it." Any doubts arising about his character, he claims, are the result of a crush of lobbyists and power brokers trying to take credit for his selection. "I find it very intriguing," he observes. "I tell my wife all the time that lately I've picked up hundreds, maybe thousands, of new friends that I didn't even know I had. I've had people coming up to me, introducing themselves to me saying, 'I'm so-and-so and I want you to know that I really supported you for the manager's job.'"

According to Vidal, wealthy businessman and Cuban American National Foundation chairman Jorge Mas Canosa may be one of those people whose support he never knew he had. "I've known Mas for many, many years," he explains. "I met with him, just like the other candidates met with him. I met with him probably about a month before the applications were due. I discussed with him my interest in the position but he would not commit to me. So I put Mas and anybody else in that column that says, if they helped or didn't help, I couldn't tell you."

There is no question, however, that some people did help him. Vidal says he relied on four advisors to guide him through the process and assist him in winning the appointment: his wife, Maria; Joe Turturice, a former commission aide to Maurice Ferre; George Lopez, an old golfing buddy and Alex Penelas's closest advisor; and Armando Gutierrez, a prominent Dade lobbyist and long-time family friend.

If Vidal's hands are clean, as he says, it may well be because other people didn't hesitate to sink up to their elbows in political muck on his behalf. Still, why would a candidate for county manager want to meet with Mas Canosa to discuss his "interest in the job"? Given that Mas's companies do millions of dollars' worth of business with the county each year, might there be a perception of impropriety in seeking his support? And contrary to Vidal's contention, not all county-manager finalists made the pilgrimage to Mas's office for such discussions. For example, Jorge Fernandez, Karen Jackson-Sims, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, Aristides Sosa, and Ed Marquez all say they never met with Mas. Cynthia Curry herself, Vidal's principal rival, also says she never met with Mas.

Moreover, though Vidal claims he couldn't control and was not involved in efforts by others on his behalf, he acknowledges enlisting the assistance of Armando Gutierrez, a seasoned lobbyist with a well-known reputation for twisting arms.

In the same way that his predecessor, Joaquin Avino, never fully instanced himself from some of his most ardent supporters in the powerful Latin Builder's Association (LBA), Vidal also will be forced to endure skeptical questions about nearly every important decision he makes in the foreseeable future: Who does that decision benefit? And what role, if any, did that person play in Vidal's successful quest for the manager's job?  

One major county project already is coming under intense scrutiny: the redevelopment of Homestead Air Force Base. Two days before Vidal was named manager, the county commission, on an 11-1 vote, granted exclusive negotiating rights for development to a recently created company called Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc., better known by its acronym, HABDI (hab-dee). The project could be one of the most lucrative in the county's history, worth an estimated two billion dollars to HABDI. The company's president and CEO is Carlos Herrera, who is also president of the LBA. Naturally, for a contract of this size, HABDI has hired a lobbyist to run interference at county hall, someone with a thorough knowledge of the bureaucracy and personal connections to match. That lobbyist is Vidal's trusted family friend, Armando Gutierrez.

Gutierrez says he helped Vidal because of friendship and because he thought the new manager had to be a Cuban American. "We believe we [Cubans] can't lose this position," Gutierrez explains. "We feel it is important to our community. Everybody wants to support their own community. In this instance, I chose to back one of my own. What's wrong with that?"

As the new county manager, Vidal will be responsible for overseeing the negotiations between his staff and HABDI's representatives. Eventually he will offer his advice to the commission regarding the wisdom of proceeding with the massive project. "My recommendations to the commission are going to be objective," Vidal promises. "They are going to be the recommendations of what I think is best for the county."

Lobbyist-friend Gutierrez also says he expects no special treatment toward Carlos Herrera and HABDI, his clients. "I don't believe there is anything wrong with the HABDI negotiations and contract," he says. "It is going to be scrutinized like everything else at the county."

Vidal adds this: "Carlos Herrera and the Latin Builders did not support me [for county manager]. Carlos Herrera and the Latin Builders were supporting [rival candidate] Carlos Bonzon for the position."

Political opposition may or may not lead to objectivity, but Vidal is only partially correct in his assessment of the LBA's role. Although the LBA never officially endorsed any candidate for manager, many people -- Vidal among them -- believed the organization's leaders initially backed Bonzon, the county's current building and zoning director. But sources close to the events say that as the vote drew closer and it became clear Vidal's candidacy was gaining momentum, members of the LBA were successfully recruited to switch allegiances and campaign for Vidal. Specifically, these sources say, Vidal's closest associates asked Carlos Herrera to lobby Commissioner Natacha Millan. (Herrera and Millan are friends.) Millan eventually cast the seventh and deciding vote for Vidal.

Millan says talk of Herrera's influence is ridiculous. "I am in awe of the fact that people don't give commissioners, in this case me, enough credit that we have minds of our own and that we make our own decisions," she complains. "It's offensive."

Herrera denies speaking to Millan or to any commissioner about the selection of a county manager. "There are so many stories out there," Herrera says dismissively. "It's all a lot of nonsense."

Commissioner Katy Sorenson, who was the lone vote against HABDI and who also backed Cynthia Curry for county manager, says she believes there was a link between the commission's December 13 HABDI vote and the December 15 selection of Vidal as manager. "The Latin Builders amassed a whole lot of power in connection with the HABDI vote," Sorenson notes, "and I think it carried through for them in the county manager's selection."

Momentum toward Vidal was slow to build, despite Alex Penelas's early efforts to promote him. With six other Hispanic candidates in the running, opinion-makers in the local media had adopted a simple strategy: Keep it Cuban. On Spanish-language radio and in the community newspapers of Little Havana and Hialeah, the message was consistent: The commission chairman was black, so for the sake of balance the manager had to be Cuban.

Jose Cancela, general manager of Spanish-language Channel 51, took to the airwaves on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the Thursday vote. His two editorials pressured Hispanic commissioners A and also quite pointedly Bruce Kaplan, whose district includes portions of Little Havana A to vote for a Cuban as county manager. "I don't think it was a matter of pressure," Cancela says, and then adds, "Well, I guess maybe it was a matter of pressure. I never thought about it that way." Cancela prefers to call it "rooting for one of your own." The outgoing county manager was Hispanic, Cancela reasoned, and there were qualified Hispanics among the candidates, so the position should rightfully stay with a Hispanic. "There was no reason to change," he explains today. Besides, if a Hispanic commissioner or Kaplan had decided to vote for Curry, there might later be hell to pay at the ballot box. "They are elected officials and they have districts to answer to," Cancela argues. "They'd have to deal with that."  

Prior to preparing his editorials, Cancela did not interview any of the aspirants for county manager. But after speaking to "different people at the county," he concluded that there were Hispanic candidates better suited for the job than Cynthia Curry. Cancela acknowledges, however, that he spoke only to other Hispanics in gathering his information. "But I think I spoke to very objective people," he stresses.

Cancela also points out that his station has supported non-Hispanics in the past, most notably Steve Clark over Miriam Alonso in their 1993 race for Miami mayor. "I took some heat for that," he says. According to Cancela, that sort of independence and flexibility is not found in the black community. "Nobody ever questions the Miami Times or the black community for endorsing only black candidates," he says angrily. "That's simply expected and tolerated. The Miami Times is the most racist newspaper in the country. Nobody ever has the balls to talk about that. But when the Hispanic community rallies around a Hispanic candidate, then we are being divisive."

If Cancela took his best shots prior to the commission vote, the weekly Miami Times published its most provocative material afterward. On December 22, the newspaper's lead editorial was headlined, "Cuban Power in Miami":

"The appointment of Mr. Vidal does no more than ensuring that white Cubans remain in control of the county, as they are in the city. The fact that the commission chairperson is a black man, Mr. Arthur E. Teele, Jr., does not count for very much since it is a largely ceremonial job because the system of government places executive power in the hands of the county manager. And when the executive or strong mayor is elected in 1996, it is certain that the Cubans will elect one of their own....

"It is only we African-Americans who allow ourselves to be persuaded into forming alliances with other communities in our quest for friends. We understand the grim realities of life in Miami and in Dade County under Cuban control, but we have not yet come to grips with the pressing need for us to mobilize ourselves and confront the new masters who, on the one hand, talk of getting rid of Fidel Castro while, on the other hand, they close the circle of domination ever tighter in this city and this county."

A week later the paper ran another editorial, this one entitled, "The Bitter Taste Lingers":

"The backroom shenanigans of wealthy businessman Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation and Commissioner Gwen Margolis have set the stage for the sort of banana republic politics that can be expected from now on from a rather strange combination of bedfellows." The editorial also criticized the Miami Herald for not being more aggressive in its coverage of the selection process before the vote was taken. "The newspaper should have paid more attention to the way Ms. Cynthia Curry was being sacrificed at the altar of Cuban political expediency." But it saved some of its sharpest barbs for Vidal, declaring that "Mr. Vidal had better learn quickly, since he does not seem to know the lesson yet, that he may have gotten his promotion and bigger salary because fellow Cubans voted for him, but he is chief executive of all of Dade County, not only the 650,000 Cubans, most of whom still refer to themselves as exiles, who live here."

Miami Times editor Mohamed Hamaludin defends his paper's rhetoric and its unabashedly biased coverage of Cynthia Curry. "We promoted Cynthia Curry because we felt that the time had come for an African American to run the county," explains Hamaludin. "We felt and still do that she was the best candidate. The final analysis, however, was not based on qualifications or experience, but who you know and who can pull strings for you. The Cuban community flexed its muscle and took it away from her."

Miami attorney and black activist H.T. Smith echoes Hamaludin's frustration. "Why shouldn't black commissioners support Cynthia Curry?" he asks. "She was easily the most qualified. I don't think that any of the black commissioners or Katy Sorenson have any reason to be apologetic. The story is that the Hispanic commissioners did not support the most qualified candidate." Smith's criticism extends to the so-called Anglo media as well, New Times included. "A big part of the problem," he argues, "is that any time blacks or Latins support their own, it is seen as ethnic. But when whites back their own, you all don't say a damn thing about that."  

Shortly after being selected, Vidal, at the request of Commissioner James Burke, paid a visit to the Miami Times offices, a conciliatory gesture reminiscent of that made by Octavio Visiedo in 1990, when he edged out black candidate Tee Greer to become school superintendent. "That's the trend," Hamaludin says. "They get in and they try and mend fences. Victors can always afford to be charitable."

Cynthia Curry's loss did more than disappoint Dade's black community; it also reinforced doubts about Art Teele. The commission chairman has always been viewed with some suspicion by many blacks for the simple reason that he is a Republican. But until now he has always been able to deliver for his constituents. Indeed, when Teele became chairman in 1993 -- after craftily outmaneuvering Alex Penelas for the position -- he developed an aura of strategic brilliance and political invincibility.

When Curry wasn't selected county manager, numerous black community leaders blamed Teele and suspected that he really didn't want her to win the job. Those suspicions, it turns out, were justified -- at least partially. "Many feel that I wasn't aggressive enough for Cynthia," Teele says. "They are probably more right than wrong. I wanted Cynthia, but I was not prepared to make that an ethnically charged issue. I was not prepared to fight fire with fire. I discouraged some of the African-American churches from making this a movement because I didn't think that would be productive to the community. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake."

At the least it led to the most bizarrely melodramatic moment of the manager-selection process. In an effort to protect his reputation, Teele punched lobbyist Rick Sisser in the face after accusing him of spreading rumors that Teele had abandoned Curry.

In the midst of the controversy, Teele also announced that Penelas and Natacha Millan had been plotting to remove him as chairman of the commission. "The proper terminology is 'coup,'" Teele says today. Both Penelas and Margolis deny any effort to oust Teele. "He's paranoid," Margolis says. "That's his personality."

Whether true or not, Teele's charges of an attempted coup -- as well as his claim that "paid agitators" are attempting to disrupt the black community -- have resonated among black leaders, many of whom already believed that Curry was robbed of her rightful position. On December 29, Rosa Reed, a contributor to the Miami Times, addressed the controversy in a column headlined, "White Cuban Power." It ended with this: "If Teele is removed as chairman, will he quit the commission or will he weather the embarrassment? Are the Cubans now running Dade County? Let's see: We have a white Cuban public schools superintendent, we have a white Cuban county manager. What's next? -- white Cuban county commission chairman? Do we see chairman Alex Penelas on the horizon? Are the white Cubans salivating at the prospect of absolute power?"

As if responding to such concerns, two weeks ago Teele hired Julio Martinez as an adviser on his commission staff. A former mayor of Hialeah who survived several attempts to oust him from office, Martinez (who is no relation to current Mayor Raul Martinez) will provide counsel regarding something Teele calls the "coup mentality" that he believes is prevalent in Hialeah. "We assume everybody understands our culture and our rules and plays by them," Teele says warily. "However, there is a real challenge to democracy in the mindsets of a few elected officials."

If Teele came out of the manager vote with his political skills in doubt, Commissioner Gwen Margolis showed that the power-brokering that fueled her Tallahassee career as a state senator plays just as well at county hall. There are certainly some easy comparisons.

In November 1990, Margolis, a Democrat, became Senate president because of an alliance she formed with three Cuban-American Republicans A state senators Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Javier Souto, and Roberto Casas. According to press accounts at the time, Margolis persuaded the men to support her during a private luncheon that was also attended by Jorge Mas Canosa and Rick Sisser, who is a registered lobbyist for Mas's Cuban American National Foundation as well as a close friend of Margolis. Mas encouraged the senators to vote for Margolis, and in return she rewarded them with influential committee assignments.

Now, a little more than four years later, Margolis is a county commissioner (along with Souto), and once again Mas became involved in her political life at a crucial moment. Margolis acknowledges meeting with Mas about a month prior to the vote for a new manager. Mas, she says, did not push for Vidal or any other candidate. Rather, like many others who wanted to influence the selection process, he kept open his options until it became more apparent how the commission votes were shaping up. "He wanted to know who I was going to support," Margolis recalls, "and I said I didn't know. So he asked me to let him know when I decided, but I never called him back." According to several sources, Mas realized in the final week that the votes were headed for Vidal, and he jumped in with his support.  

Teele, however, believes there was more to the Mas-Margolis connection. "The players who put together the senate presidency behind the scenes," he claims, "are the same people who put together the Armando Vidal deal."

Not long before the commission vote to pick a new county manager, Herman Echeverria, a member of the Hialeah city council, hosted a small cocktail party at his home. Echeverria and others in attendance can't remember if the gathering was December 14, the night before the commission vote, or December 13, two nights before. "I'm always having get-togethers at my house," Echeverria says by way of explaining his memory loss.

The stated purpose of the affair was to toast Raul Martinez's December 6 victory in the Hialeah mayor's race. In addition to the guest of honor, county commissioners Alex Penelas and Natacha Millan were on hand, as were members of the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce. All together about fifteen people attended. Commissioner Maurice Ferre had been invited, but declined, sources say, in part because he was uncomfortable at the prospect of the party turning into a lobbying blitz for Armando Vidal.

Echeverria, Penelas, and Martinez were already strongly backing Vidal. "I always thought Armando would be an outstanding county manager," Echeverria says effusively, adding that Vidal is "one of the most capable people" he has ever met. When Vidal submitted his application for the manager's job, Echeverria offered him a bit of political advice. "You've got to know how to count the votes," he recalls telling Vidal. Certainly Echeverria had been counting, and he knew it would be close. "Alex was always there for Armando," he says. "Natacha made her decision at the very end." (The Herald has reported that Margolis was the seventh and deciding vote, apparently based on the assumption that Millan would vote for Vidal. Millan, however, was far from a certain vote.)

In a room filled with Vidal supporters, on the eve of one of the most anticipated commission votes in years, is it possible the conversation may have turned to that subject and to the single undecided commissioner? Is it possible that Echeverria and others used the cocktail party to pressure Millan? "I don't specifically remember what was discussed," Echeverria reports.

Millan says that from the outset of the manager-selection process, she did not allow anyone to speak to her on behalf of a particular candidate. And she definitely did not talk business with Penelas at Echeverria's party, she says, because she is "respectful of the law."

Penelas says the purpose of the gathering was to celebrate Martinez's victory and nothing more. At no time, he insists, did he discuss with Millan the upcoming vote for county manager. "I know what is right and what is wrong," he says, "and that would be a clear violation of the Sunshine Law. The fact that there was a cocktail party -- and I know a lot of people are trying to make a lot of it -- so what? There are cocktail parties in Hialeah every day that Natacha goes to, that I go to, that Herman goes to. We all served together [on the Hialeah City Council]. It's not unusual for the four or five of us to be seen together at events.

"I know a lot of people like to point fingers and say, 'Oh, that was where the deal was cut,'" Penelas continues. "If I were going to cut a deal with anybody, I wouldn't be stupid enough to do it at a cocktail party where there were all these people, people you can't trust. That's ridiculous."

(The State Attorney's Office already is investigating possible violations of the Sunshine Law in relation to the vote for a new manager. This past week Gwen Margolis was interviewed under oath by prosecutors regarding her communications with Art Teele via Cynthia Curry. A private meeting between Art Teele and Bruce Kaplan is also being investigated.)

Even as Armando Vidal learns the details of his new job, some of his bosses on the commission are thinking about a new job to which they aspire, a job that will dramatically affect the county manager.

Next year Dade County voters will be asked to elect an executive county mayor, a new post that will carry far more power than any existing office. Overt campaigning has not yet begun, but at least one commissioner, Alex Penelas, is forthright about his ambitions, and he'll be watching Vidal's progress closely in the coming months.  

Because Penelas so strongly promoted Vidal, the manager's performance could become a campaign issue, especially if Vidal's performance is criticized. "If Armando screws up," Penelas says, "people running against me can say, 'Hey look, here's the guy you encouraged to run for manager. You exercised pretty bad judgment in that call.'"

But Penelas has confidence in Vidal and says the new manager's style will be a refreshing change from the detached intimidation that marked his predecessor's tenure. Vidal is considered much more open, and far more friendly. "It will be a happy balance between a Sergio Periera and a Joaquin Avino," Penelas predicts. "Armando won't be the publicity hound or the political maniac that Sergio was A you know, always in the press for this or for that. But he won't be the hands-off, quiet person Joaquin was, either. I think Armando will be more active on the second and third floors [where most commissioners have their offices]. I think he will come down and visit with commissioners and aggressively pursue policies that he thinks are in the best interests of the county."

Penelas gained considerable political clout in his successful stewardship of Vidal's candidacy, especially in contrast to his bungled effort to become commission chairman in April 1993. When he lost that contest to Art Teele, he publicly blasted his fellow Hispanics on the commission for deserting him and the Hispanic community as a whole by voting for a black man. Penelas's heated references to ethnic solidarity drew ferocious criticism. "I have matured tremendously since that run for chairman," he says today. "I'm learning that sometimes it is better to be less vocal."

Not necessarily less reliant on ethnic appeal, just less vocal about it. Let others do the haranguing. Why become a target for criticism by stirring up Cuban sentiments on behalf of Armando Vidal or another candidate when others will do it anyway?

If these are the things local politicians have learned from the December 15 vote for a new county manager, then next year's race for executive mayor should be anything but dull. Among the possible contenders: Penelas, Ferre, former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, and former staterepresentative Mike Abrams. "That's going to be a great battle," Penelas says eagerly. "I can't wait.


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