Standing in front of what once was Elian Gonzalez's Little Havana home, Jan Weininger, whose father was killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion, railed against Attorney General Janet Reno's decision to send in federal agents a few hours earlier. "I think every Cuban American or anybody who loves democracy needs to resign from the Democratic Party," she barked. Almost on cue the most powerful Cuban-American Democrat in the nation, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, emerged from the back yard of the house and walked behind Weininger, oblivious to her comments.
Penelas had been to this celebrated locale many times during the five-month impasse, playing to the crowds gathered faithfully behind barricades, proclaiming his solidarity with them in their support of the Gonzalez family, assuring them their cause was just. He would shake their hands and welcome their applause. The rest of Miami may not have comprehended his defiant comments in late March about the president and the attorney general, but here in Little Havana he knew his people understood his words and emotions.
But as he walked through the front yard this past Saturday, the mood had changed and the crowd was no longer so understanding. "Go home, Penelas!" some people began to chant. "Go home, Penelas!" Suddenly the crowd became menacing, pushing closer and closer to the mayor. Their anger growing, they were now screaming: "Go home, Penelas!" A few tried to strike him with their fists. Someone in the crowd threw a woman's shoe at him. The mayor's security detail and staff quickly closed ranks around him and hustled him away.
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo's reception a couple of hours earlier had been no better. He too was driven from the front yard amid cries of betrayal. The crowd demanded to know why he hadn't done more to protect Elian. Why did he let them down?
It's not easy riding the tiger known as el exilio, a lesson Penelas and Carollo are learning the hard way. For both men it is only going to get trickier.
Let's clear up a few things right now. The people most to blame for Saturday's raid are Elian's Miami relatives and their attorneys. They set this debacle in motion. Their refusal to peacefully turn over Elian to his father pushed Reno into the unenviable position of having to take the child by force. It's not at all far-fetched to think this is exactly what the lawyers wanted all along. They knew public opinion was heavily against them; their only hope for turning it around would be a show of force by the federal government. Snatching Elian from the Gonzalez home might evoke sympathy from outraged Americans.
One by one, in the hours after the raid, attorneys Kendall Coffey, José Garcia-Pedrosa, Manny Diaz, and Roger Bernstein, among others, stood before television cameras and said, "Shame on America."
In truth the shame is on each of them.
And with all due respect to Miami attorney Aaron Podhurst, University of Miami president Tad Foote, and business executives Carlos de la Cruz and Carlos Saladrigas, this family was never -- repeat never -- going to give up this child. No matter how close these community leaders thought they were to a negotiated settlement, it was never going to happen. Elian was the Miami family's leverage; holding on to him gave them power. Without Elian they are nothing more than distant relatives caterwauling over the way a father wants to raise his son.
Look at what a difference a few hours made. For months Marisleysis and Lazaro Gonzalez had obstinately and arrogantly attempted to dictate the terms under which a father could be reunited with his son, and because they had Elian, the federal government had no choice but to patiently listen to them. But thirteen hours after agents seized the boy, Marisleysis and Lazaro found themselves sitting in a van outside Andrews Air Force Base, demanding entrance and the right to see Elian. This time, though, their demands carried no weight and they were sent packing.
What sympathy the family may have garnered from the raid on their home is quickly being squandered by their subsequent actions. Marisleysis in particular is becoming a liability. While no one in Miami dares say a bad thing about her, the rest of the nation is getting a pretty good idea that this is an unstable young woman. In her various press conferences following the raid, she has shown herself to be mean spirited, petulant, and out of control. After watching her make disparaging remarks about President Clinton and his family, and salacious innuendo about Reno's sexual orientation, and after pompously trying to present herself as the conscience of America -- well, I'm not even sure she's fit to raise the puppy and bunny left behind at the house. We may need to send in an ASPCA SWAT team for those pets.
While on the subject of SWAT teams, allow me to discuss the raid for a moment. Let's walk through those three minutes. The family claimed for weeks that if federal officials knocked on the front door they would turn over the child. Federal agents knocked three times, but the family refused to come to the door. The agents waited 30 seconds before breaking in.
Marisleysis claims she didn't know who was outside her house. That is a lie. Not only did some occupants of the house see the team of federal agents coming down the street, they had the presence of mind to make sure Associated Press photographer Alan Diaz made it in the front door before they locked it.
Furthermore, knowing full well that federal officials were about to enter the house, the family attempted to hide Elian. Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who needs to go back out to sea, admits he picked up Elian, ran to a rear bedroom along with several family members and the photographer, and locked the bedroom door.
For those of you who have never seen an episode of Cops, let me tell you what happens to locked doors when a SWAT team arrives. Those doors get kicked in. And after 30 seconds, that is exactly what happened. Marisleysis would later tearfully complain that she begged them not to bring guns into the house. Too late. How many times have supporters of the family declared they would die before letting the federal government take Elian? Up until a few days before the raid, there had been signs behind the house describing it as the "Cuban Alamo."
There was no way to predict what those federal agents would encounter when they entered the house. To ask them to proceed unarmed or without the equipment they're trained to use would have been wrong. If you still have doubts about the need for weapons, ask yourself this question: If a member of your own family had been part of that federal SWAT team, would you have wanted him to go in unarmed?
Once the agents moved past Marisleysis and down the hallway, they tore through each of the rooms trying to find where Elian had been hidden. Finally they came to the back bedroom. Planners of this operation hoped it would be the female INS agent who could first approach Elian and take him from the house. This agent, Betty Mills, was willing to place herself at greater risk than the other SWAT team members. She didn't don a helmet or other protective gear like her colleagues, and she kept her weapon holstered -- all in hopes of not unduly frightening the boy.
But when the agents came to that bedroom door in the rear of the house, they found it locked. Any law-enforcement officer will tell you that, in this type of situation, one of the scariest things in the world is a locked door, because they have no idea what is waiting on the other side. So not only does the door come down quickly and violently, but the agents who enter the room do so prepared for the worst. The resulting photo -- agents in the room, weapons raised, Elian screaming in terror in Dalrymple's arms -- is horrific. That agent, though, had no idea what Dalrymple's intentions were or who else might be hiding in the closet. For Alex Penelas, Joe Carollo, and especially Kendall Coffey, who once served as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, to attack and vilify those agents truly is unconscionable.
"No one could have imagined this happening, this level of violence," Penelas said over and over in the hours following the raid. The only reason it might have seemed unimaginable to certain segments of this community is because politicians like Penelas failed to prepare them for this inevitable outcome. Instead of trolling for votes, and in the process emboldening the Miami relatives to defy the law, he should have pressured the family and their attorneys to resolve this crisis weeks ago.
Penelas's failure as a community leader during this fiasco has been monumental, and it shows him to be unfit to be mayor of Miami-Dade County. Fortunately an election will take place in a few months.
Currently two major candidates are in the race for county mayor: Penelas and county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. That is likely to change.
In the weeks following Penelas's March 29 press conference, during which he attacked Janet Reno and President Clinton, a number of private discussions have taken place among county business and civic leaders regarding the mayor's race. A recognition is emerging that Penelas must go. At the same time, there is growing concern that Diaz de la Portilla will be unable to beat him.
Diaz de la Portilla's greatest strength is that he is both honest and ethical. He has been a vociferous critic of the cadre of lobbyists who helped propel Penelas into office and have reaped the financial benefits ever since.
Diaz de la Portilla's candidacy, however, is not without its problems. First, he is far more politically conservative than Penelas. At times he comes across as strident and childishly immature. And he appears unwilling to compromise on issues, not so much out of principle but rather stubbornness. He also seems ill prepared to take advantage of the Elian backlash against Penelas within the Anglo and black communities.
Although for years he has had plans to run for mayor, Diaz de la Portilla has made few inroads with these two segments of the electorate. For instance he has virtually no organization in northeast Miami-Dade, the so-called condo canyons, where the old-line Jewish bloc now resides and still manages to vote in significant numbers. He also has made little effort to introduce himself to the predominantly black residents in Overtown, Liberty City, and Carol City.
This flaw has become more apparent in the past few weeks. For example when Penelas enraged Anglos and blacks with his comments about violence and the president and attorney general, Diaz de la Portilla could have spent time meeting with people in those communities, introducing himself and lining up their support. Instead there he was standing in front of Elian's Miami home while Andy Garcia and Gloria Estefan held their press conferences. That was the last place I wanted to see Diaz de la Portilla. And I wasn't the only one to notice.
If the mayor's race remains a contest between Diaz de la Portilla and Penelas, the question becomes this: Will Anglos and blacks vote for Diaz de la Portilla, or will they simply sit out the vote? And if they simply don't vote, can Diaz de la Portilla beat Penelas in a head-to-head contest among primarily Cuban voters, with Penelas outspending him by as much as 4-1?
Some argue that the violent raid on the Gonzalez home actually helps Penelas, because it shows he was correct in attacking Reno and the federal government for exacerbating tensions. Penelas hopes this will win back some of his support in the Anglo community, particularly after it was revealed that community leaders such as Tad Foote and Aaron Podhurst also felt betrayed by Reno.
But suppose for a minute that a third candidate enters the race, someone Anglos and blacks could rally around, someone who could also draw significant numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics, voters who would otherwise be turned off by a contest between a pair of Cuban Americans. Three names are being mentioned now as possibilities: former county Commissioner Maurice Ferre, current county Commissioner Katy Sorenson, and state Sen. Ron Silver. Each has strengths and weaknesses.
Silver, a Democrat, is facing term limits in Tallahassee. He is very popular among his constituents in North Miami-Dade and would likely energize Anglos and at least present an appealing option to blacks who might be inclined to sit out the race. He also could raise money quickly. His greatest strength, though, is his ability to run for mayor as an outsider, persuasively arguing that county hall is a mess and needs a fresh face. His principal drawback is that he is not well-known across the county, and it's unclear how much support he could win among non-Cuban Hispanics.
Heading into her sixth year on the county commission, Katy Sorenson has learned the ins and outs of county hall, and certainly is ready for prime time. Throughout her tenure her integrity and honesty have never been questioned. She is the moral and ethical heart of the commission, and the fact that she often is in the minority on votes only shows how far astray the rest of her colleagues wander. A number of groups have contacted Sorenson's office in recent weeks, begging her to run for mayor. (Sorenson didn't want to discuss it when I called her.) But sources say she is interested. Besides appealing to Anglos and blacks, Sorenson could also find advantage in the gender issue. As the only woman in the race, she could gain support from a significant percentage of women across all racial and ethnic lines.
A Sorenson candidacy has two major downsides. First, she would have trouble raising funds. To run a credible campaign against Penelas and his money machine, a candidate will need to raise between $600,000 and $750,000. That would be a tall order for Sorenson, whose honesty and independence don't endear her to wealthy special interests looking to buy influence. The second problem is that win or lose, Sorenson would have to resign from the county commission. With Diaz de la Portilla also leaving, Sorenson's withdrawal from the dais would seriously drain the already shallow pool of integrity that exists at county hall.
In 1980 Maurice Ferre ran for mayor of the City of Miami using the slogan, "A mayor for all Miami." The time may be right to dust off those old signs. Ferre probably is in the best position to run against Penelas and Diaz de la Portilla. He has strong name recognition throughout the county. He would appeal to both Anglos and blacks. But even more important, Ferre, who is Puerto Rican, would also attract non-Cuban Hispanics to his campaign. Finally, unlike Sorenson, he would have no problem raising the needed money.
The framework for a Ferre victory is fairly straightforward. While Diaz de la Portilla attacked Penelas on the right, Ferre would close off any move by the mayor to the left. Penelas would then become marginalized among a very narrow band of voters, which could be characterized as Cubans who aren't pissed off at him, blacks he can buy, and South Miami-Dade Anglos who favor his stand on turning Homestead Air Force Base into a reliever airport.
Diaz de la Portilla's base also is somewhat marginal, consisting primarily of Cubans who are pissed at Penelas.
That would leave a lot of votes open for Ferre. In this scenario he might be able to draw 60 percent of the Anglo vote, 80 percent of the black vote, and perhaps as much as 20 percent of the overall Hispanic vote.
Four years ago Ferre endured a brutal campaign in his losing bid for county mayor against Penelas and Art Teele. Today he is 64 years old. Does he have the stamina to mount another grueling crusade? He won't say.
In a way the next step is up to the community. People who want these individuals to run for mayor should give them a call. It seems unlikely that any of them will jump into the race without lots of prodding and encouragement. Perhaps Silver, Sorenson, and Ferre should discuss it privately, determine who is in the best position to beat Penelas, and seek the support of the other two. Heck, New Times would even pick up the tab for lunch if the three of them wanted to sit down and talk about it. And if Diaz de la Portilla wants to come along and plead his case, that's fine, too.
Just as long as everyone remembers this: Penelas must go.
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