Don't Call Me a Lobbyist!
Toss out the name of any county politician and it's a sure bet Chris Korge has raised money for his or her election campaigns.
County Commissioner Betty Ferguson? "Betty I've fundraised for," Korge says. "I think in her last election I raised almost $10,000 for her, which was a lot because she didn't raise that much money."
Commissioner Dorrin Rolle? "Dorrin I've raised money for," Korge affirms. "I raised a lot for him." He estimates that for the special election earlier this year, he collected between $25,000 and $30,000 for Rolle, which was nearly half of all the money Rolle had raised for his campaign against indicted former Commissioner James Burke, who in previous years had also received thousands of dollars in contributions gathered by Korge.
Newly appointed Commissioner Bruno Barreiro? "Barreiro I've raised money for," Korge acknowledges. "I raised between $4000 and $5000 for him."
Commissioner Miriam Alonso? Korge nods his head emphatically. "We devoted a lot of time to raising her money," he stresses. Earlier this year he helped organize an event for Alonso at the home of developer Sergio Pino, which brought in close to $200,000. "I spent a lot of time with the commissioner getting her to make phone calls right here in my office to raise money for that event."
Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla? "The last time he ran I raised $25,000 for him and $25,000 for his brother." (Diaz de la Portilla's brother Alex was running for the state House of Representatives.)
Commissioner Dennis Moss? "Dennis I've raised money for in the past," he says, "although in the last election I didn't raise any money for him. I didn't raise money for his opposition, either. The reason I wouldn't have raised money for Dennis -- and I think Dennis has a hard-on for me -- Dennis was in bed with [former Commission Chairman Art] Teele and was marshalling all his forces to run against the mayor [Alex Penelas], and I wasn't about to raise money for someone who was going to use it against the mayor." With Teele now out of county hall, he'll probably raise money for Moss in the future, he adds.
Commissioners Barbara Carey, Gwen Margolis, and Natacha Millan? "Barbara I've raised money for. Gwen I've raised money for. Natacha I've raised money for in the past. I raised $20,000 for Natacha the first time she ran."
Commissioners Pedro Reboredo, Jimmy Morales, Javier Souto, and Katy Sorenson? "Reboredo, Morales I've raise money for. I've raised money for Javier. Sorenson I've raised money for, at least $12,000 or $13,000 so far this year."
In other words, at one time or another Chris Korge has bestowed his special brand of munificence on every single county commissioner currently in office. "Right," he confirms with a smile. "I would venture to say I was one of the top five fundraisers for each individual commissioner in their elections."
And of course he's raised money for his good friend Mayor Alex Penelas. "I raised a lot of money for him," Korge boasts. "Probably in excess of $200,000." It could be more, he adds. It was difficult to keep track of all the checks that came in during the mayor's race. "We raised about $2.4 million in that campaign," he recalls. "Toward the end I think we turned away $100,000 in contributions. I've never seen anything like it."
Korge's financial support of Penelas did not begin with the 1996 mayor's race. Indeed, Korge and business associate Rodney Barreto were among Penelas's earliest supporters, and they raised tens of thousands of dollars for him in 1990 when he first ran for a seat on the county commission.
Today Korge's largess is not limited to local candidates. In the past year or so, he has leaped onto the national stage as a major Democratic fundraiser. "Last year I raised just a hair under a million dollars for the Democratic Party," he says.
In June 1997 Korge cohosted a luncheon for Vice President Al Gore at the Hotel Inter-Continental that raised $300,000 for the Democratic National Committee. This past December he organized an event at the Biltmore Hotel for the DNC that generated a million dollars in contributions -- $700,000 of which Korge claims he personally raised, along with Penelas. After the Biltmore event, President Clinton went to Korge's Pinecrest home for a smaller, more intimate reception. "You have no idea what it's like having the president of the United States in your house," he recounts with awe.
On July 9 Korge was at Sylvester Stallone's home helping organize another million-dollar affair for the president and the Democratic Party. A few days later he hopped a plane for Nashville to meet with the vice president and members of Al Gore's political action committee, which is laying the groundwork for Gore's run for the White House in 2000. He had already sent along $10,000 in checks and committed to raising another $90,000 in the coming weeks. "Not that much," he shrugs.
If money is the mother's milk of politics, then Chris Korge is South Florida's very own cash cow.
Chris Korge hates to be called a lobbyist. "I'm an attorney," he huffs. True, he is an attorney, but he is primarily a lobbyist -- arguably the top lobbyist today in Miami-Dade County. The two dozen clients he represents before the county commission include venerable institutions such as BellSouth, Host-Marriott, and Parsons Brinckerhoff Construction Services.
His style is always combative, always intense. "Chris Korge is among the best, most tenacious bulldog presenters before the commission I have ever seen," says fellow lobbyist and political campaign consultant Phil Hamersmith. "He understands the political process very well. He is always extremely well prepared. If I were a company looking to do business in Dade County, I'd hire Chris Korge -- as well as myself, of course."
Preparation and tenacity, however, aren't the only reasons Korge has risen to the top of a highly competitive field. He has also marketed himself as the man to hire based on his access to local politicians and on his friendship with one politician in particular: Alex Penelas.
As Penelas's political fortunes have risen over the years -- from Hialeah city councilman to county commissioner to executive mayor of Miami-Dade County -- so has Korge's predominance over the local lobbying scene. "He has a very close relationship with Alex," Hamersmith observes. "The whole world knows this and he clearly uses it. Does he use it with Alex Penelas's permission and full knowledge? I don't think so. Alex understands some of it but probably not all of it."
Commissioner Barbara Carey agrees that much of Korge's influence stems from his relationship with the mayor. "He draws a lot of strength from that," she notes. "He's into everything. And I know some people don't like how aggressive he can be at times. They think he's a little Napoleon." (At five feet seven, Korge is often compared to diminutive despots.)
Despite Korge's close ties to the mayor, Carey adds, Penelas doesn't always go out of his way to help him. "I've seen incidents where the mayor wouldn't move stuff for him," she says, although she explains with a chuckle that may have been because the mayor had supporters on both sides of those particular issues and didn't want to alienate anyone.
Penelas did not respond to requests for an interview last week, but Korge denies he exploits his connection to the most powerful politician in the county. "I don't think I have ever compromised my friendship with Alex," he contends. "And it's kind of hard when you are involved in politics and you have clients before the county and the mayor is your friend. You've got to be overly sensitive to that."
Hogwash, retorts Hamersmith. "Chris uses Alex's name in a million ways. I have never been in a meeting with Chris Korge when he did not use Alex Penelas's name at least a dozen times. The second that Korge walks into the room it's like Penelas just walked in as well. Chris brings with him the persona of Alex Penelas."
Hamersmith zeros in on what he considers to be Korge's biggest problem: his tendency to let everyone know what he's doing, for whom he is raising money, and to whom he has access. "I think his ego is so far out of control that he hurts himself," Hamersmith asserts. "Chris is continually patting himself on the back while he talks to you. He does it so much that I bet he doesn't even realize he's doing it. You're not supposed to be so outspoken. You're supposed to be a quiet figure who works behind the scenes. But Chris can't do that. And so Chris often becomes the issue."
Nowhere has Korge's influence been more keenly felt than at Miami International Airport. He represents Sirgany-Century and Sirgany International, the companies that run the newsstands and gift shops, and he just persuaded the county commission to let Host-Marriott become the master developer for the airport's many restaurants and fast-food shops. "Of all the lobbyists in the county, I have the most contact with him," reports Gary Dellapa, the county's aviation director. "He is usually pretty up front about what he wants, and I appreciate that. He can be pretty assertive for his clients. I don't mind it so much because I'm used to it."
One way Korge has asserted himself in the past, Dellapa says, is by reminding him that he has powerful friends. "Every lobbyist in town likes to throw around that they are close to this commissioner or that commissioner, and Chris is no different," Dellapa elaborates. "He's attempted a few times in the past to invoke the mayor's name."
A couple of years ago, Dellapa recounts, soon after Penelas was elected mayor, Korge came out to the airport and began acting as if he were speaking on behalf of the mayor. One day Dellapa decided to call Korge's bluff. He picked up the phone and called Penelas. "I asked the mayor, 'Is this the way you want things done?'" Dellapa recalls. "And the mayor said, 'No, no, no.'"
After that incident, the aviation director notes, Korge stopped using the mayor's name during their discussions. "Chris knows better than to do that any more," Dellapa says. "A lot of times Chris is just bluster. He'll come in here and say, 'I'm going to do this' and 'I've got the votes to do that.' And my attitude is, 'Well, go do it, then.'"
Dellapa acknowledges, however, that while he may be immune to Korge's bullying, other county staffers less experienced in dealing with the lobbyist may be intimidated by his fiery style. "He can be very aggressive," Dellapa repeats.
Ed Marquez, the former county finance director who served briefly as Miami city manager, says Korge never tried to strong-arm him using his political contacts. He and Korge have been friends for more than a decade, and Marquez considers him an excellent attorney who represents his clients well. "I know he has this reputation as being a wheeler-dealer," Marquez relates, "but that has never risen in any of my professional dealings with him. Yes, I know he knows people; everyone is aware of his contacts. But from my perspective he has never used that with me."
Marquez says he is surprised that anyone would allow himself to be intimidated: "I think people who are swayed by the perception of political contacts are wrong to be swayed. They are weak and they are not acting in a professional manner."
Marquez's utopian ideal has been absent from county hall for many years, consultant Phil Hamersmith maintains. The reality, Hamersmith says, is that for most county bureaucrats, dealing with Korge can be "a frightening, life-and-death matter." Their greatest fear, he explains, is that their careers could be ruined if they alienate the wrong person with political connections. "They are hesitant to fight Chris because they don't want to do anything that might in any way anger Alex Penelas," Hamersmith contends, "so Chris often gets his way."
Christopher G. Korge has been learning how to get his way since he was a child. He was born at Mercy Hospital 43 years ago and has lived in Miami most of his life. His parents, both of whom are of Lebanese descent, raised four children, Chris being number three. He attended Catholic schools at St. Peter and Paul Elementary and La Salle High School. His father, an insurance salesman, passed away eleven years ago; his mother, a one-time chemist, is still living.
Korge's oldest brother Tom is a tax attorney and a partner in Korge's downtown Miami law firm -- Hanzman, Criden, Korge, Chaykin, Ponce & Heise. His one sister, also older, is the chief executive officer of Wet Seal, a retail clothing chain with more than 400 stores nationwide, including 30 in Florida. His younger brother is a radio executive with Clear Channel Communications here in Miami.
"Chris has always been driven to win," says Tom Korge. "It's a part of his personality. My mother says he was like that as a kid. It's in his blood. Chris loves to haggle and bargain and negotiate."
Korge himself traces his assertive nature to a childhood reading disability he struggled with through the fourth grade. "I constantly had problems reading," he recalls. The combination of the disability and his relatively small physical stature, he believes, caused him to work extra hard. Today he says he didn't feel that people had adequate confidence in him, and so he sought to prove his doubters wrong. "I wanted to prove I was a winner," he says.
Korge has his father to thank for his interest in politics. Politically active himself, Korge's dad was a long-time friend of Congressman Dante Fascell and served as his campaign treasurer for decades. When Korge was fifteen, he spent the summer in Washington as a page in the House of Representatives. "From that point on I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer," he says. "I fell in love with the legislative process."
Fascell recalls Korge fondly. "I've always had a high regard for Chris," the retired lawmaker says. "I've known this kid ever since he was in diapers, and from the time he was a tiny tot he was very active. He is not a passive person at all. He is on the move constantly."
To Fascell it has been no surprise that Korge has immersed himself in the world of politics: "He always wanted to be where the action was, where the big guys were. He wanted to be a player."
After graduating from the University of Florida magna cum laude in 1977 with a degree in business administration, he went to law school at Temple University. When he returned from Philadelphia in 1981, he joined the Miami Beach City Attorney's Office. In 1985 he moved over to the City Attorney's Office for the City of Miami.
Among his responsibilities there was the role of legal adviser to Miami's Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA). Sitting on the MSEA board at the time was restaurateur, political king-maker, and future tax cheat Monty Trainer, whose personal assistant was an ex-Miami police officer named Rodney Barreto.
Barreto and Korge had both gone to the same high school. And although Korge was two years ahead of Barreto, they knew each other; in fact, both played football at La Salle. But after graduation they had gone their separate ways and only renewed their friendship through Trainer and the monthly MSEA meetings.
Korge and Barreto were eager to make names for themselves. In 1988 Korge left city employ for Holland & Knight, joining the burgeoning law firm's stable of lawyer-lobbyists. During that same period, Barreto formed his own consulting firm, Rodney Barreto & Associates. Capitalizing on his ties to then-Miami Commissioner Rosario Kennedy, Barreto signed up a handful of clients and began lobbying city officials on Dinner Key.
Although Korge and Barreto had no formal business relationship, they often worked with one another, referring clients and bringing one another into deals whenever possible.
As the Eighties drew to a close, Korge and Barreto had a taste of what they wanted out of life, and they were growing impatient. They both say they wanted more clients, more influence, more money. They wanted to be movers and shakers. To accomplish that, they knew they had to find a way to establish a presence for themselves at county hall, where the real action was taking place. Every other week major corporations -- Fortune 500 companies -- were warring over profitable county contracts, and each of those firms was paying lobbyists big fees to fight their battles.
The problem for Korge and Barreto was that the county commission for years had been divided up among a well-heeled cadre of influence peddlers who weren't interested in admitting newcomers to their lucrative fraternity.
In 1988 nine people sat on the county commission: Clara Oesterle, James Redford, Beverly Phillips, Barry Schreiber, Barbara Carey, Jorge Valdes, Sherman Winn, Harvey Ruvin, and Steve Clark, who held the title of mayor. Clark may have been mayor, but insiders knew it was really lobbyist Steve Ross's commission. Ross, along with business partner Dusty Melton, exerted enormous -- many would argue unseemly -- sway over each of these commissioners. (Ross died in 1995.) The other major players of the day were attorneys such as Robert Traurig, Stanley Price, and Tom Carlos, who maintained long-standing relationships with various commissioners, relationships they used to entice new clients.
The old guard, however, changed dramatically in the fall of 1988, when Oesterle, Redford, and Phillips were defeated by Larry Hawkins, Joe Gersten, and Charles Dusseau, respectively. With these new commissioners came a new crop of lobbyists who had supported them as candidates and who were now looking to take their place at the trough.
Phil Hamersmith and Greg Borgognoni rolled in alongside Hawkins. Charlie Citrin and Seth Joseph landed with Gersten. And Ric Katz rode in on Dusseau's coattails.
Korge and Barreto watched and learned. Soon it was clear they needed their own Trojan-horse candidate to carry them into county hall.
Alex Penelas and Korge met in 1989. At the time Penelas was a 27-year-old councilman in Hialeah. "I met this young guy and I thought to myself, this guy is going to go the distance," Korge recalls. "He was perfect. He was a perfect candidate." Korge says he was not only struck by what he described as Penelas's honesty and integrity but also by the fact that the budding politician was so young. "This was an opportunity for me to get behind someone and play a significant role in their campaign," he recounts.
Korge and Barreto joke today about who first met Penelas. "Chris keeps telling me that he introduced me to Alex," Barreto chuckles. "I don't remember it that way." There is no dispute, however, that they both realized he could make a powerful candidate for the county commission. "He was good-looking, articulate," Barreto recounts. "We knew he could win countywide if he had the right resources."
In 1990 Penelas ran for county commission against Jorge Valdes. Hamersmith was hired to run Penelas's election campaign while Korge and Barreto helped Penelas raise more than $100,000. Others assisted in raising funds, among them lobbyist Michael Benages and Hialeah Councilman Herman Echevarria, but there was no question that Korge and Barreto were Penelas's point men.
When the young politician beat Valdes and took his seat on the dais, Korge and Barreto knew they too had arrived at county hall. If a company seeking a county contract wanted access to Penelas, then that company hired Korge or Barreto -- and usually both.
As Korge's client list grew, he left Holland & Knight in 1991 to become a name partner in the Miami law firm Zack, Ponce, Tucker, Korge & Gillespie. While hard work certainly helped, the secret to Korge's success was that he backed a politician with staying power. When Hawkins, Gersten, and Dusseau faded from the scene, so did the influence of their friends, except perhaps for Hamersmith, who established links to other commissioners, primarily by running their election campaigns.
Korge too understood the value of diversification and accomplished it by becoming a prodigious fundraiser for other commissioners. And the key to fundraising, of course, is knowing people with money.
Not long after Penelas defeated Valdes, Korge met Valdes's main financial supporter, Sergio Pino, a real estate developer and the owner of Century Plumbing. Valdes had mounted a vicious campaign against Penelas in 1990, which included attacks on Spanish-language radio depicting Penelas as a homosexual. Pino had been vital to Valdes's campaign, but that fact did not discourage Korge from establishing a relationship in accord with one of politics' best-known axioms: Always try to turn your enemies into your friends, especially if they are rich.
After meeting Korge, Pino then met Barreto. "One day Mayor Clark introduced me to Rodney," Pino recalls. "He told Rodney that I was a good guy and he said someday Alex should have a friend like Sergio." Pino, Barreto, and Korge became fast friends and soon Pino became one of Penelas's major campaign contributors.
Politically Korge, Barreto, and Pino have become a machine. Korge is the fighter, Barreto the schmoozer, Pino the money man. In a matter of minutes, Pino can pump $20,000 into any candidate's war chest by funneling dozens of $500 checks through his many corporations. He thereby skirts the intent (though not the letter) of the state's campaign finance laws, which seek to limit an individual's donations to $500 per candidate.
The men have become so closely identified with one another politically that in 1996 Miami Mayor Joe Carollo derisively dubbed them "the three amigos." In addition, their business dealings have become inseparably intertwined. For instance, Korge helped Pino's company win the much-sought-after contract to run the newsstands at Miami International Airport. Pino acknowledges he has private business relationships with both Korge and Barreto. On "three or four occasions," he says, he has included the two in real estate deals he has worked on. He also says that Korge is "one of the largest investors" in Century Partners Group, a Pino company that specializes in real estate and which is projected to generate revenue approaching $250 million by the end of 1999.
In the years since Korge first arrived at county hall, the lobbying profession has run amuck. If the elections of 1988 and 1990 brought in a trickle of aspiring power brokers like Korge and Barreto, the election of 1993 opened the floodgates. That was the year a federal judge ordered that commissioners be elected by district. And the number of commissioners was increased from nine to thirteen.
By the time all the votes were counted from the March 1993 special elections, the county had nine new commissioners, each towing along a pack of eager influence peddlers. Overnight the halls of county government were filled with people calling themselves lobbyists. The bureaucracy has never been the same.
Lobbying, of course, is not intrinsically evil. In its purest form, it consists of nothing more than an individual conveying the substance and merits of a client's position. Contrary views are conveyed by opposing lobbyists. Legislators and their staffs should benefit from this exchange and -- theoretically at least -- be able to make more informed decisions.
Today, however, lobbyists are no longer primarily information providers; they are also important fundraisers. In Miami the relationship between county commissioner and lobbyist has evolved symbiotically: A lobbyist raises needed money for a commissioner, who in turn grants that lobbyist special access. The lobbyist can use that access to sign up new clients, whom he solicits for yet more campaign contributions, which helps raise that lobbyist's stature and affords him even greater access to one or more commissioners. That allows him to then sign up even more clients, whom he solicits for yet more donations on behalf of even more commissioners, which begets more access -- and on and on.
These days it is no secret who needs to be hired in order to crack the door to a particular commissioner's office:
If you want to talk to Natacha Millan, you hire Sergio Pereira.
If you need to bend Gwen Margolis's ear, you hire Eric "Ric" Sisser.
If you want a meeting with Miriam Alonso, you hire Armando Gutierrez.
If you have a message to pass to Barbara Carey, you hire Phil Hamersmith.
Down the line it goes. If you wish to cover most of them in one pass -- and toss in the mayor for good measure -- you hire Korge and Barreto. On some major contracts, companies have hired eight or more lobbyists, each with a specific assignment to contact an individual commissioner. This phenomenon is not limited to elected officials. Lobbyist Jorge Lopez, for example, attracted dozens of clients based on his close relationship to former County Manager Armando Vidal.
In order for lobbyists to keep their clients happy -- and for commissioners to keep the checks rolling in -- those clients at some point have to actually win contracts. To that end, a lobbyist attempts to influence the selection process. He can try to persuade county staff or the commission to establish requirements for prospective bidders that favor his client and perhaps even exclude competitors. He can attempt to influence the county manager's appointments to a selection committee that might review proposals and make recommendations. And finally, he can privately pressure individual commissioners to select his client, even if that client is not the most qualified.
Earlier this month Florida International University released a survey of more than 400 top Miami-Dade County administrators, who indicated that lobbyists influence nearly all their significant decisions. More than half the participating bureaucrats declared that political interference by lobbyists was a major problem. Before the release of the report, several measures had been brought before the county commission designed to curb the influence of lobbyists, including limiting their contacts with the county's professional staff. Among those proposing changes is Alex Penelas.
Given his close association with Korge and Barreto, Penelas's new role as reformer is viewed cynically by some county hall observers. During the $200,000 Miriam Alonso fundraiser earlier this year, for example, Penelas went out of his way to publicly thank Korge and Barreto for their efforts in raising money for Alonso. The gathering at the home of Sergio Pino was packed with other lobbyists and their clients, who had also anted up substantial contributions for Alonso. A few later groused that Penelas's special thanks to Korge and Barreto was nothing less than a signal to all that those two are his main men. Korge dismisses the complaint, saying Penelas "recognized the fact that we were there giving an extra effort to help [Alonso] in her fundraising -- and we did."
Despite the widely held perception of a direct link between fundraising and favorable treatment, Korge denies it, and insists there is nothing untoward in his raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for commissioners and the mayor while also pleading with them to help his clients. "The general public, I think, feels that lobbyists do not conduct business in an ethical way," he says. "I think our community is very, very immature in terms of how it views lobbyists. In Washington lobbyist is definitely not a bad word. In fact, some of the most respected people in Washington are lobbyists.
"Yes, I have some degree of influence on the process," he concedes, "but I would like to believe that my influence is based on my ability to articulate the merits of an issue." The only benefit he receives from raising money for a commissioner, he claims, is "a keener ear from elected officials" when he makes his presentation. "They are going to let me make my point and not stop me from making my case."
One former county administrator, John Van Wezel, who oversaw the concessions program at Miami International Airport says Korge's influence wasn't based solely on the merits of the arguments he made but on his political connections as well. Van Wezel dealt regularly with Korge and his airport clients until he retired from county service last year. "He was a very tough negotiator," Van Wezel recalls, "because you always knew he had the influence downtown to pretty much get whatever he wanted from the county commission and from the mayor." Van Wezel says he routinely felt that he was at a disadvantage in dealing with Korge, and he would relent on issues as a result -- even though it might not have been in the county's best interest -- because he believed Korge "would eventually get what he wanted anyway."
Van Wezel's observations are echoed by Judith Byrd, a principal partner in the Chicago-based Unison Consulting Group. Byrd says that when she came to Miami in 1994 to help develop a retail master plan for the airport, Korge's name came up in nearly every meeting with county administrators. "He was looming large over our project throughout," she recalls. "I've done consulting work for airports all over the country -- Chicago, JFK, Newark, LAX, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis -- and I have never worked at an airport in which a lobbyist played such a major role in how the staff operated."
Byrd's blueprint for MIA's retail development was scrapped immediately after Penelas was elected. She believes that happened because her recommendations were not what Korge wanted for clients such as Sirgany-Century, Sirgany International, and Host-Marriott. "I'm totally convinced of that," she says, asserting further that the county government's poor reputation nationwide is a direct result of the role played by lobbyists like Korge. "There are many, many companies who would like to do business in Dade County and at the airport," she says, "but they refuse to go where they think they have to hire a lobbyist just to be heard."
These days, hearing from Chris Korge can be a most unwelcome experience for many a Miami businessman. Increasingly it means he's calling for money. In addition to stocking the campaign coffers of county commissioners and gathering more than a million dollars for the president and vice president, Korge is now raising funds for various congressional candidates outside Florida. For instance, he recently hosted a Miami fundraiser for Rep. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who is running for the Senate. As the 2000 election approaches, he will be expected to raise even more money. And should Miami be selected to host the Democrats' national convention, Korge will be expected to sweet-talk a host of corporations into coughing up the millions needed to underwrite such an extravaganza.
Korge is quick to note that he has raised many thousands of dollars for a variety of charitable causes, but it is his political arm-twisting that is growing tiresome to many. "Everybody I know is walking around griping and grousing about how they get put upon by Chris to donate money to various candidates," says one local lobbyist who asked not to be identified. "And yet we all keep writing these larger and larger checks. And we are doing it not because Chris Korge is asking but because the mayor is involved."
In the same way Korge uses his relationship with Penelas to recruit clients, so does he use it to raise funds for politicians far and wide. Another businessman Korge has tapped for money, who also asked not to be identified, complains there is no subtlety in his approach. "He's pretty heavy-handed," says this donor, who at Korge's urging has written thousands of dollars in checks for local and national candidates. "You do it because you are afraid that if you don't you might alienate Alex Penelas. When Chris talks to you, he tells you that he is calling because 'the mayor wants you to write a check for this,' or 'the mayor wants you to write a check for that.' I have no idea if that's really what the mayor wants. But you don't question it. The implication is that if you don't write the check, the mayor will be upset."
Korge insists it's a mistake to think that a person's ability to do business with the county depends on his willingness to contribute. "There are no ramifications to not donating," he says. "If anyone thinks that, then they erroneously came to that conclusion because of their own paranoia or fear that is unwarranted." And he rejects the notion that donating to various political campaigns at his request -- or the mayor's -- is simply a cost of doing business with Miami-Dade County: "I think they would be stupid to think that."
As a result of Korge's successful fundraising efforts, he was recently named co-chair of the Democratic National Committee Business Council, a group of influential donors and fundraisers who meet regularly with the party's leadership. Commissioner Barbara Carey expresses amazement at how quickly Korge has become active within the party at a national level. "I asked him once what he wanted, and he said maybe he'd get an ambassadorship," recalls Carey.
"I wouldn't mind being an ambassador someday," Korge acknowledges. "I think it is a job I could do well. I've always liked foreign affairs. But at this point in my life I don't think I could afford to do that. It is a very costly job." He says he and his wife have talked about foreign service, but she is loath to live outside the United States while their three children are still growing up. (The youngest is seven years old.) But he quickly adds, "If I were ever offered an ambassadorship, I would consider it."
Korge is thinking plenty about his future. He says he's eager to move beyond the relentless battles at county hall, and he certainly doesn't want to be known as a lobbyist, or even a lawyer-lobbyist, for the rest of his life.
Among other things, he's given thought to running for office himself. In fact, he claims he was approached earlier this year about running for Florida secretary of state but declined for two reasons: "I don't think that particular position interests me, and I could not afford to live off a $95,000-a-year salary at this point in my life." (Korge will not discuss his income. "What my clients pay me, as far as I'm concerned, is privileged information," he says. Commissioner Dennis Moss once suggested that lobbyists should be required to disclose their fees, but the idea was quickly shot down after strong opposition from Korge and others.)
Sergio Pino can barely imagine Korge the candidate. "I wouldn't let him run for office," he says with a laugh. "I would never let a friend of mine do that." Such talk provokes Phil Hamersmith as well. "Chris has this need to be loved, to be applauded, to be somehow recognized," he opines. "He desperately wants to be respected. Chris has talked to me and others about running for office himself. I don't believe he is at all electable. Maybe I'm wrong, but I don't think a short, balding Lebanese guy from Miami is electable in the state of Florida."
For the time being, though, Korge says he is most interested in continuing to influence the political process from the sidelines. More than that, he considers it his civic duty. "I have a responsibility to put my forces behind people I really believe in and to oppose people who I really think are not up to par," he declares. "I think I have that responsibility. Chris Korge has a responsibility to support good people."
And it's a safe bet those "good people" will continue their support of Korge's position as a wealthy and powerful man.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.