With each passing month, Carlos Alvarez looks more and more like Alex 
With each passing month, Carlos Alvarez looks more and more like Alex Penelas
Jonathan Postal

Double Speak

It's been seven months since Carlos Alvarez was sworn into office. That should have been more than enough time for Miami-Dade's newest mayor to learn a morning rush-hour shortcut to work, figure out his e-mail, record a snappy voice-mail greeting, and finally do something -- anything -- mayoral. Instead the only truly significant achievement of Alvarez's first seven months has been his crusade for more administrative power: a petition drive to place a "strong mayor" referendum on the fall ballot.

There he was at county hall two Saturdays ago, all smiles as he delivered boxes containing more than 170,000 signatures, proclaiming to supporters that "they represent a people in Miami-Dade County calling for a referendum to change our current structure of government." It wasn't exactly JFK's "ask not what your country can do for you" speech, but that should've been no surprise in light of Alvarez's shaky mandate for structural change.

The "strong mayor" signature-gatherer Kulchur chatted with on South Beach's Lincoln Road the evening before the Alvarez victory lap was anything but pumped. Most of the folks she'd been approaching all week were uninformed and largely uninterested in the mayor's travails -- strong, weak, or anywhere in between. In fact, she said, as of the previous Monday Alvarez's petition drive was 30,000 signatures short of its goal. Several days of rain had further dampened canvassing efforts.

So Kulchur won't be too shocked if Alvarez barely meets the county requirement of about 107,000 registered voters and if (shades of Take Back Miami-Dade's fraudulent anti-gay rights signature drive) the petitions are filled with invalid or faked signatures.

More important, though, it's unclear why Alvarez feels so stymied by his job's current definition, since, again, he hasn't actually tried to do anything. Sure, if you peruse the mayor's own Website, you'll find plenty of lovingly archived press releases alongside a series of "initiatives" outlining all the wonderful ways Alvarez is leading the community forward. He has "a fundamental concern" for the elderly. Kids should stay in school. Mentally ill people need help. Crime? It's a bad thing and we're gonna fight it.

But beyond these comforting bromides, Alvarez offers only vague references to a "task force" and unnamed "educational programs and activities." And since "the current permitting process takes too long," causing untold "construction delays and cost overruns," Alvarez's team is drafting a new set of practices for county projects. Clearly, when it comes to doing business, under Alvarez it's not going to be business as usual. So when can we expect this newly streamlined permitting process to kick in? "Recommendations for improving our system are expected in May 2005." Apparently buying a calendar is next on Alvarez's list of groundbreaking initiatives.

True, Alvarez hasn't gotten himself indicted, and none of his top appointees has been arrested yet. By Miami standards, those are indeed laudable accomplishments. It's just that we were promised a lot more on the campaign trail than a pledge he'd stay out of jail. Trumpeting his background as Miami-Dade's police director, the county's "top cop" was going to take a page out of his sergeant's manual and clean up county hall: the rigged contracts, the commission-approved sweetheart deals, and most of all the commission-enabled airport graft that had grown to notorious proportions under Alex Penelas. It all sounded quite inspiring at the time.

Before he had even won the mayoral election, however, Alvarez announced he would retain county manager George Burgess -- the very figure ineffectually presiding over this mess. Then he signed off on Burgess's subsequent ouster of reform-minded Miami-Dade Aviation Director Angela Gittens.

And what happened to Alvarez's much ballyhooed (and long overdue) proposal to take contract procurement out of the hands of commissioners, the very officials whose campaign coffers are often filled with those contractors' donations? Tossed aside in favor of concentrating on his "strong mayor" bid.

In the end, it's hard to tell just when Penelas's tenure ended and Alvarez's began, especially since both men have shared several staffers and senior aides. Yes, Alvarez's delivery isn't quite as smooth as his predecessor's, but he has definitely been a quick study of Penelas's chameleonlike tendencies.

There he was in February at a Christian Family Coalition-hosted breakfast on Key Biscayne, joining hands in prayer and giving a special mayoral proclamation to Coalition founder and executive director Anthony Verdugo, a leader of Take Back Miami-Dade's 2002 anti-gay-rights effort who had previously blasted both Penelas and Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer as "merchants of death" doing the bidding of "homosexualist interests."

"It is truly an honor to have the newly elected mayor of Miami-Dade County select our organization as his first venue to speak to the religious leaders in our community," Verdugo crowed after receiving his award, losing little time in joining the statewide drive to place a gay-marriage ban on the 2006 ballot.

Yet only two weeks later Alvarez could be seen warmly pressing the flesh at a Watson Island Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce luncheon -- though no doubt through gritted teeth and with frequent dashes to the restroom to scrub his hands. After all, as Alvarez had explained during a Telemundo WSCV-TV mayoral debate, he had little sympathy for laws designed to protect the civil rights of gays and lesbians, or as he preferred to call them, people with "problemas sexuales," sexual problems.

Come 2006 and what's sure to be an ugly fight over adding a gay-marriage ban to Florida's constitution, it's unclear how Alvarez will continue attempting to simultaneously woo both conservative Christian activists and gay professionals. But in learning how to talk out of both sides of his mouth, he has only to linger over videotapes of Alex Penelas. In fact his "strong mayor" gambit is eerily reminiscent of Penelas's own push as a county commissioner for an "executive mayor" -- an expanded position to which he was elected in 1996, along with plenty of stirring calls for change. And we all know how that ended.


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