In 1858, when Abraham Lincoln ran against Stephen Douglas for the United States Senate, a series of debates was held across the state of Illinois. Thousands attended the now-legendary affairs, and to accommodate the sizable crowds, the debates were often held outdoors with the candidates standing atop raised wooden platforms. Illuminated by torch light and relying upon the strength of their voices to carry their words to the farthest reaches of the audience, Lincoln and Douglas were engaged in more than just a polemic exercise. They were waging an inspiring battle of ideas, embodying the true spirit of democracy.
Oh, how times have changed.
Over the past six weeks, the candidates for Dade County mayor have held more than a dozen debates, none of which has quite risen to the Lincoln-Douglas level. Of course, who knows what the Lincoln-Douglas debates would have been like if Party of God candidate Clennon King had been thrown into the mix, or Manny "Broom-Broom" Gonzalez-Goenaga, or, for that matter, even Xavier Suarez? ("Sure, abolition of slavery is important," Suarez might have argued, "but if I'm your senator, I promise that the streets of Springfield will be free of horse shit. I guarantee it.")
The main shortcoming of the mayoral debates is the fact that they don't seem to be reaching any undecided voters, since each candidate packs the audience with his own supporters. During the Downtown Bay Forum, for instance, when one of the candidates asked how many of the 200 people attending the debate hadn't yet made up their minds about whom to vote for, only a dozen people raised their hands. The other central problem with the debates is that the candidates don't really say anything, because the questions are never sharp enough to elicit anything more than platitudes.
"They really aren't about debating issues," says candidate Art Teele. "They are more of a meat market or a beauty pageant where these groups invite all of the candidates in at the same time to look us over." Among the groups who have so far sponsored debates: the Metropolitan Fellowship of Churches, the Dade Cultural Alliance, the Latin Builders Association, the Northeast Dade Coalition, and the Black Business Association. And there are at least another twenty organizations with invitations pending.
Which isn't to say the debates haven't been entertaining. They have. Amid the relentless drone of how crime is bad and environmentalism is good, several wondrous and awkward moments have emerged.
One of the earliest debates was sponsored by the Metropolitan Fellowship of Churches, a coalition of religious groups across the county that invited the four major candidates -- Teele, Suarez, Maurice Ferre, and Alex Penelas -- to the Riverside Baptist Church. At the outset each of the candidates was asked to discuss in general terms the role church groups would play in their administrations. Each candidate cheerily replied that the community's religious sector would be a vital and integral part of his plans for the future. Penelas even managed to work in a Bible verse from the New Testament (Matthew 5:19).
But the group also wanted at least one specific guarantee: a commitment to loosen zoning restrictions so that new churches could be built in rural parts of the county. No problem, the candidates replied.
Indeed, everything seemed to be going just fine until one gentleman rose and asked the candidates simply to state their positions on abortion and gay rights. Suddenly the church became very quiet; the four candidates appeared as stunned as the Philistines during the Battle of Mizpah, which, as we all know from reading the Old Testament, was a great victory for the Israelites.
Sensing the potential of another slaughter, none of the candidates moved toward the microphone, hoping instead that through divine intervention the question might be miraculously transformed, like water into wine, into a query about the declining tax base in unincorporated Dade County or the role of community policing. Finally, after an interminable pause, Suarez spoke. Slowly and with measured words, he told the congregation that those two issues really had nothing to do with the mayor's race and his views on those subjects were irrelevant.
As Suarez leaned back in his chair, Teele, Ferre, and Penelas all nodded in agreement and silently prayed that the moderator would move on to the next question. Which he did, prompting an angry walkout by about a dozen people who wanted the moderator to press each of the candidates for an answer.
As Herald political editor Tom Fiedler began introducing the four main candidates for mayor to the packed auditorium at Miami's Museum of Science three weeks ago, Clennon King appeared and made his way to the foot of the stage. Fiedler, casting nervous glances toward King, halted his introductory remarks and walked over to the candidate, who by now had climbed up on the stage and was looking for a place to sit. When Fiedler suggested King leave the stage, the 76-year-old former civil rights leader declared that since he paid his $300 filing fee to enter the race he had just as much right as any of the other candidates to be on that stage.
Fiedler quickly retreated to the podium while a police officer ran up on-stage and began whispering feverishly in King's ear. But again King bellowed that he was not leaving, and the policeman eventually withdrew as well. Talking into his two-way radio, the officer kept repeating, "We have an incident. We have an incident."
The entire affair made for wonderful theater, which seemed particularly appropriate given that the debate was being sponsored by Miami's arts community through the Dade Cultural Alliance. As they sipped glasses of white wine and nibbled on cheese and fresh melon, no one seemed to mind the delay. Many had certainly sat through more tedious productions at the nearby Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Before Fiedler could finish his introductions, however, King was back commanding center stage, anticipating the arrival of police reinforcements. "Are you going to allow them to evict me because I'm not a big shot?" he asked fellow candidates Ferre, Teele, Penelas, and Suarez, who smiled but said nothing. "The candidates should be treated equally." As King's indignation rose, so did his voice. "I don't want to be treated like a second-class candidate," he cried. "I'm just as white as you all!"
King's initiative emboldened the other fringe candidates in the room, as they also stood in protest. Besides the four front-runners for the mayor's job, seven other candidates will have their names on the September 3 ballot.
"I find this to be not a very democratic process," offered the normally timid Dori DeFalco, whose campaign centers on the belief that attorneys should be barred from holding elected office.
"Very un-American," agreed Gonzalez-Goenaga.
"All right," said Fiedler, trying to move the proceedings along. As a compromise, the moderator suggested that each of the second-tier candidates make a brief opening statement. King used this opportunity to continue his rant about the process and to express his disgust that the so-called major candidates would allow him to be treated this way. "I really thought Mayor Suarez loved me," King said, "because he has been in my bedroom on two occasions. He brought me a gift -- a book, The Little Prince -- because he said that is the way he sees me. He even autographed it." Suarez nodded in agreement. King then turned to Teele. "Now, Brother Teele has said he is interested in fair treatment," King began. "Well, he would not be running for mayor if it wasn't for a few people like me." Shifting his gaze to Penelas, King offered, "He's my darling. He's the best-looking one up here."
Sensing trouble, Fiedler cut King off, summoning socialist candidate Rachele Fruit to the podium. "I'm the only worker running for mayor," she declared. The problem with Dade County, she posited, is that not enough attention is being paid to the needs of working-class families, and "farmers and peasants" whose lives are being crippled "due to the capitalist economic crisis." As mayor she promised to push for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Haiti, Bosnia, and the Middle East. And, she noted, she is opposed to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. "And I think the most important thing," she said, wrapping up, "is for the workers of the world to unite."
Striking her anti-attorney themes, DeFalco said what county government desperately needs are "new voices." DeFalco's principal problem is that, even with a microphone, her voice barely rises above a whisper, and most of the people in the auditorium were unable to hear her. Gonzalez-Goenaga was next. With a sense of drama, he carried a book containing the complete works of William Shakespeare up to the lectern and, standing the volume upright for everyone to see, explained how he alone understands the needs of the arts community, since he is the only candidate who has acted in a Shakespearian play with fellow Puerto Rican native Raul Julia.
With the fringe candidates temporarily satisfied, the main debate proceeded. Primarily, the cultural alliance wanted to hear the candidates' plans for establishing a dedicated source of money in the county for arts funding. Teele, Ferre, and Penelas all agreed that such funding was necessary. Suarez sidestepped any commitment.
At the end of the debate, Fiedler allowed the other candidates to make closing remarks. By this time King had noticed that the back wall of the auditorium was now lined with police officers, and shifted his final plea to the electorate accordingly. "I don't have a closing statement," King said. "I'm just wondering whether I'm going to be arrested." And the appreciative audience burst into laughter. "No, I'm serious," he repeated, and noted that he has been arrested before and doesn't find it the least bit amusing, which only made the audience laugh harder. Turning toward Fiedler, he pleaded, "I just have these anxieties. Will you assure me I'm not going to be arrested?" Fiedler nodded yes, and while the other candidates took turns at the podium, King quietly made his way out of the auditorium a free man.
Like jackals, the men and women who are running for county and circuit court judge seats follow the mayoral contenders around, hoping to pick up votes. During one forum nearly 30 prospective judges showed up for a chance to say their names into a microphone and hand out brochures at the door.
It's like when you go to a concert and some no-talent wanna-be is standing outside the auditorium singing a song and hoping you might drop a few coins in his empty guitar case. Nobody goes out at night intending to see the guy on the street, but once in a while you hear one you like and you toss him half a buck. Likewise, if candidates such as Manny Crespo and Andy Hague can panhandle a couple of votes from each mayoral event, they might be wearing judicial robes by autumn.
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"I absolutely love that these guys have to go through this," says Dade Democratic Party Chairman Joe Geller, eschewing the view held by many that judges should be appointed, not elected. Geller argues that if judges and their challengers didn't have to run for office, they would be even more arrogant and out of touch than they already are. Now, he says, not only do they have to humbly ask people to support them, they have to stand there and smile while complete strangers "assault them with their bad breath" and wave "bony fingers" in their faces. "I'm telling you," he says once more, "I love it."
After several weeks of polite sparring, the mayor's race took its first ill-tempered tack during the debate hosted by the Downtown Bay Forum last month. Suarez began the affair with a rambling and alliterative opening statement, derisively summarizing his opponents' records as "Ferre's follies, Penelas's pandering, and Teele's temper."
Penelas opened up on Ferre by saying that what the mayor's office needs is "a leader of the future, not a leader of the past." But Penelas saved his best attack for Suarez, who had earlier in the debate criticized Penelas for being tied to special-interest groups and lobbyists. Penelas called Suarez a hypocrite and noted that the former Miami mayor was himself a lobbyist. Adding to his barrage, Penelas read a letter from Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber to Suarez complaining about Suarez's conduct as a lobbyist. "'This is to advise you that you are no longer welcome in this office,'" Penelas read from Gelber's letter, as Suarez stood by dumbfounded.
"The gloves are off," said one Penelas advisor after the debate. When Penelas was asked about his new aggressive stance, he pointed to a black three-ring binder one of his aides carried and explained that it contained damaging information about all of his opponents. If in the future they choose to attack him, he promised, he will gladly respond in kind.