On those days when passions flare, when Miami cannot help revealing its more ominous shadings, half the city seems determined to have Miriam Alonso canonized. And the other half to have her eliminated. There is no middle ground when it comes to the woman who would be Miami's next mayor. She is savior or demagogue, invisible outside extremes, and impossible to ignore. Even during a riot.
Art Teele found that out on a drizzly night this past May. A jury in Orlando had, hours earlier, acquitted Miami police officer William Lozano of manslaughter in a 1989 shooting that left two black men dead. The verdict sent Miami scurrying into full alert. Downtown workers raced home early. Police mobilized. Politicians, acutely aware of the visibility demanded at such times, combed nearly deserted streets.
In Overtown the most notable violence erupted at the site of Lozano's fateful shot, where a mob ransacked the nearby police mini-station and tossed a computer onto the sidewalk, presumably in the absence of an actual employee. The crowd then set a Dumpster afire and raided half a dozen neighboring shops. Police dispersed the crowd before looting could commence, but the line between order and chaos had blurred. Glass littered the ground. Cops fanned out everywhere. The air stank of burning trash. And as is so often the case in Miami, the real action was taking place off-stage, in a quiet corner of a parking lot, away from the lights and sirens and reporters.
Here Teele, the imposing chairman of the Dade County Commission, and Victor De Yurre, Miami's diminutive vice mayor, huddled in conference. Given the magnitude of the crisis -- a riot in the offing -- the official tate-a-tete was to be expected. But the topic raised by De Yurre nearly floored Teele. In the midst of this uprising, he had seized Teele's arm and impressed upon him a frantic message: Miriam must be stopped. Specifically, Teele had to come out now in support of Steve Clark, Alonso's principal opponent in the city's upcoming mayoral election.
De Yurre's obsessive loathing of Alonso had reached mythic proportions since her election to the city commission in 1989. The pair had skirmished regularly in the press, as they vied for bragging rights as Miami's "Cuban" commissioner. Their staffs harassed one another. In 1991 Alonso led a dogged campaign to derail her rival's re-election. De Yurre, having retreated from the mayor's race himself, was now determined to play the spoiler in Alonso's bid.
Teele, however, was still undecided about Alonso's candidacy. Endorsing her, he knew, would rankle Clark's cronies throughout the county. But Teele, like Alonso, was a shrewd politician. In less than eight years, he had risen from a little-known black Republican to Dade's de facto mayor. He understood the mechanics of power. He didn't bet against winners. And Alonso looked nearly impossible to beat. The numbers showed that.
Back in 1989, Teele had helped Alonso win by gauging those same numbers. Since then he had watched the 52-year-old activist become the driving force in city politics, a tireless and ferocious worker whose startling ascent had bred a common sentiment among her prominent early boosters. "We've created a monster," they would comment, only half-jokingly.
There was a grain of truth to the quip. ly their aid had helped Alonso take office. But there also was a dangerous implication in the monster wisecrack -- that Miriam Alonso was somehow the Frankenstein of more skilled politicians. That she was an aberration, in other words, rather than an inevitability. And this, as a panicky Victor De Yurre knew, was patently untrue. Miriam Alonso was no fluke. She was, and is, the political incarnation of el exilio.
"We are forever looking for the leader with all the solutions," observes historian Miguel Bretos, author of Cuban Florida. "Machado. Batista. Castro. That's the danger about the Cuban psyche, the dark side to it. We are too ready to surrender our will, to grab for something that promises our providential role in history."
To those exiles she calls her "army," an Alonso victory on November 2 holds just such a promise: an end to the era of feeble leadership, to the watery rhetoric of crossover candidates. For Alonso is a Cuban politician in the grand tradition. A woman of action. A servant of the people. An emancipator bent on rescuing her immigrant constituents from official neglect.
But her backers rarely acknowledge the less flattering aspects of her political machinations: Alonso tailoring her values to suit the common will, for instance. Or thriving on divisive politics. Or holding herself above the law. Or the fact that she and her husband Leonel refuse to discuss their mysterious past and the source of their considerable fortune.
Nor does Alonso's conduct as a private citizen appear to matter to her most committed followers. After all, the Alonsos' reputation as landlords of dubious repute, and as monumental deadbeats, is not only well-worn rumor but a matter of public record. Less widely circulated is the testimony of former staff members and campaign workers, many of whom are fearful of what the Alonsos would do to them if they spoke publicly. They describe the couple as power-hungry tyrants who promote thuggery, abuse city employees, goad supporters to spout racist drivel on radio call-in shows, and dispatch minions to steal newspapers critical of Miriam.
The candidate herself, who appears regularly on Spanish-language radio programs hosted by allies, refused to grant New Times an interview. She declined comment on the scandals floating in her wake -- the lawsuits, the apparent lies, the angry tenants, the unpaid bills. She declined comment on her goals and vision for the city. And of course she declined comment on the fundamental irony of her candidacy -- that her army is poised to elect a mayor whose demeanor and tactics bear a menacing resemblance to the leader they fled.
Her silence on these issues will cost her little. Most insiders figure she has the mayor's race sewed up. Soon enough she expects Art Teele to announce his valued endorsement. As the county commission chairman has explained to confidants, Miriam Alonso is not a woman he wants to cross.
The Veiled Past
Pinned next to the door that leads to Alonso's inner sanctum at city hall (a door whose glass has been conspicuously refashioned into a one-way mirror) is an eye-catching calendar. A tribute to Hispanic women created by the promotions department at Miller Brewing Company, the 1993 edition features Alonso as its January cover girl, and the calendar has been opened to January since it arrived. Strikingly slim and youthful in her stylized portrait, the commissioner hovers in front of Miami's skyline; below her are testimonial words such as "compassionate," "honest," and "patriotic." "When Miriam Alonso defected from Castro's Cuba in the early 60s," the accompanying biography reads, "little did she suspect that her odyssey would lead her to the highest levels of Miami city government."
But there is a problem here: Miriam Alonso didn't defect from Cuba in the early Sixties. She defected in August 1966, nearly five years after Fidel Castro declared himself a Communist.
Miguel Bretos, the Miami-based historian who wrote the calendar biography, says he based his account on a resume sent to him by Miller Brewing, which had gotten it from Alonso's office. Though unable to locate the resume today, Bretos did keep the original draft of his biography. It notes that Alonso taught school in the United States beginning in 1964, two years before she and her husband abandoned Castro. "I had no idea when the Alonsos defected, so that came straight from her resume," Bretos says. "I did call her office several times for additional information, but they never called back."
To those brutalized during Castro's early years in power, the erroneous calendar stands as evidence that Alonso has revised her Communist legacy. For the rest of Miami the discrepancy may seem a quibble. But a more basic question persists: Just who is Miriam Alonso?
Don't expect any answers from Alonso. Over the years, the commissioner has remained so evasive about her past that not even long-time friends are sure of much. She refused to provide New Times with her resume, even after receiving a Florida public-records request; nor would she provide one to the city's own public information office. The following account has been pieced together from newspaper articles, books, public documents, and numerous interviews.
Alonso was born in Havana in 1941, the daughter of Guillermo Ara, a prominent politician who opposed the dictatorship of Gen. Gerardo Machado. As a student at the University of Havana she met, and later married, Leonel Alonso, a man nine years her senior and a leader in the powerful student union, the Federation of University Students. In 1955 Leonel was narrowly defeated in his run for president of the 17,000-member union, which, like the exiled Fidel Castro, sought the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Leonel, however, remained an active revolutionary. In September 1955, for example, he helped lead an armed raid on a government television station. The young couple, not surprisingly, lived in tumult.
"Whenever they would have problems, Miriam would come and knock on my door, and we would go get him from jail," recalls Salvador Lew, a former classmate of Leonel's who hosts a radio program on Miami's Cadena Azul (WRHC-AM 1550).
Though Castro enjoyed popular support when he overthrew Batista in 1959, he soon declared himself a Communist and began a sweeping purge. Thousands of perceived and real dissidents were detained, tortured, and executed. Miriam Alonso's own father was imprisoned for two years. But amid the bloodshed and growing exodus from the island, the Alonsos prospered. Leonel rose quickly in Castro's diplomatic corps. He served mid-level roles in Indonesia and the Middle East before being posted in 1964 as the top-ranking Cuban diplomat in Syria and Lebanon.
In August 1966, Leonel Alonso was reported missing from Beirut. He surfaced a week later in Miami, the most recent in a wave of high-level Cuban diplomats to defect. U.S. officials, who viewed these defections as an embarrassment to Castro, were thrilled. At a hastily organized news conference Leonel embraced the role of an anti-Castro Cold Warrior. He detailed the subversive acts required of Cuban diplomats, speculated that Castro had killed fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and optimistically predicted the imminent downfall of El Tirano. A photograph of the event shows Leonel reading a prepared statement. His young wife, sullen and gorgeous, can be seen in the background tending to their only child, five-year-old Marisa.
The Alonsos soon relocated to Washington, D.C., where they enrolled in graduate school at Catholic University. One of their first acquaintances was Maria Cristina Herrera, an instructor at the university and a fellow Cuban expatriate. "I taught them in a class, and they would come to my apartment to talk," recalls Herrera, now a professor of social science at Miami Dade Community College. "Leonel told me all about a trip he took with Che Guevara. He told me up-front that he had received red-carpet treatment from the U.S. government, and it was obvious from the new model car they drove and the way they dressed."
Herrera says the couple made no mention of any deal with U.S. officials. "But they didn't need to," she notes. "He was a high-ranking defector, and everybody knew that such a big fish came to this country under special circumstances."
Another professor, Alessandro Crissafulli, recalls the Alonsos as hard-working students who earned top grades in an introductory course they took in 1968. But he confesses, somewhat bemusedly, that he does not remember reading their doctoral dissertations, though he is listed as a reader on both.
TheRev. Thomas Taylor, the education professor listed as director of both Alonso dissertations, says he never read them. In fact, reference librarians at Catholic University report that both works are written in Spanish, a language Taylor cannot read. "It's possible I read a summary in English and signed off on it, but there's no way I supervised them," says Taylor, a retired educator who spent six years at the university. "They may have had trouble getting the works approved in another department and used my name as a front. That shouldn't have happened, but it did in a number of cases."
Just as troubling, Taylor says, is the official chronology. According to school records, the Alonsos received Ph.D.'s in education in May 1969. The earliest they could have enrolled in their doctoral programs was fall of 1966. "The way has to be pretty well greased to do it that quickly, especially with English as your second language," marvels Taylor, who vaguely recalls Miriam Alonso from a summer session. "Most Ph.D.s take five to seven years. Maybe they had some credits transferred, but three years sounds pretty suspicious."
Maria Cristina Herrera, in fact, remembers the Alonsos enrolling at Catholic in 1967. "They could have come before, but I think I would have heard of them, because everyone knew of my interest in the Cuban revolution," she notes. "The only explanation I come up with -- and no one can be sure -- is that some agency put pressure on the institution to grant them fast diplomas." (In her doctoral acknowlegments, Miriam does thank the U.S. government for helping to subsidize her studies through a program to aid Cuban students.)
After receiving their degrees, the Alonsos settled in Maryland, moving to a home, fittingly enough, on Democracy Lane. She took a job teaching Spanish at McLean High School in Virginia. According to former students and administrators, who remember her fondly, Alonso taught at McLean through 1978 before moving to Miami. Alonso's own records, however, indicate that she worked there only until 1974. In either case, by the mid-Seventies she and Leonel already were planting roots in Miami, where they had begun buying property. By 1979 the couple had laid down more than half a million dollars, mostly on homes and apartments in Little Havana.
For years detractors have raised questions about the Alonsos' wealth. Some suggest they raided thousands from Castro's coffers. Others contend they were paid by the Central Intelligence Agency in exchange for defecting. "They counted the money twice and danced for joy," growls Victor De Yurre, Sr., the commissioner's father and a former mayor of Havana. "I had a friend who knew Leonel in Lebanon, and he once asked, 'Why don't you defect?' Leonel said, 'Why? So I can go to America and be a taxi driver or a busboy?'"
The Alonsos have repeatedly denounced these claims, but have refused to clarify how they amassed the $2.3 million Miriam Alonso listed as her net worth in a financial disclosure form filed this past July. Acquaintances remember something about Leonel owning grocery stores in Hialeah. By her own account, Miriam ran a day-care center, which she closed after less than a year. In 1984 the couple incorporated a private school called the Academy of South Florida, where reportedly she worked as principal. Without question, however, the largest income source has been their rental properties, which now total at least fifteen.
Life as landlords, in turn, has afforded the Alonsos time to pursue their true passion: politics. Indeed, while Miriam often speaks of her political "destiny," her career has been meticulously cultivated. According to one newspaper article, as far back as 1968, while still a graduate student, she was campaigning for presidential candidate Richard Nixon. "One day the Alonsos appeared in Miami," recalls Luis Fernandez Caubi, a columnist for Diario Las Americas. "And suddenly every corner you turned, they were there -- giving breakfasts, leading protests, and speaking on the radio."
With keen eyes for the right cause and a talent for grassroots organizing, they tapped the nascent political energies of Calle Ocho's older exiles. When Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre proposed a penny tax hike in 1982, they led the opposition and prevailed. They rallied for a police substation in Little Havana. Later they lashed out at a proposal to open school health clinics that provided birth control -- what they branded "sex clinics." The crusades resonated among Little Havana's first-generation Cubans. Virtually unknown in the English-language media, by 1982 los Alonso, as they became known, were fast fixtures in Cuban Miami.
Initially it was Leonel who did the talking, he who seemed the aspiring candidate. But at a certain point -- no one can pinpoint precisely when -- Miriam stepped into the foreground. Articulate, charismatic, and perhaps most important, without the stigma of having been on Castro's payroll, she quickly became the couple's public half. Leonel settled into the role of chief advisor and strategist.
By 1983 Miriam was mulling a run against veteran Commissioner J.L. Plummer. But with a new state representative's district cutting a swath across her home turf, she decided to enter the 1984 Republican primary against fellow newcomer Alberto Gutman. The race, which hinged on the exile vote, turned ugly in a hurry. An anonymous mailing accused Miriam of having served as Castro's personal interpreter, and a now-notorious photo, purportedly of a young Miriam Alonso in military garb standing next to Fidel, began making the rounds. She lost by more than twenty percent.
Undaunted, Alonso set her sights on a Dade County Commission seat in 1988. Confounding the experts, she finished a close second to incumbent Beverly Phillips in the primary. But days before the runoff election, she was removed from the ballot after a judge found she did not live at the address she listed on her oath of candidacy. Caught in a lie, she barely averted being charged with perjury; only a technicality prevented the State Attorney's Office from prosecuting her. Pundits suggested the two-time loser could save money on future campaigns by printing posters that read simply, "Miriam Alonso A Candidate." Others joked that she should run her next campaign from a mobile home.
Such public humiliation might have convinced another breed of politician to lie low. But Alonso recast the scandal as an anti-Cuban vendetta and a month later held a breakfast of "indemnification" at which she assured loyalists she would run again. Before long she was considering a challenge to Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez.
Instead she ran for city commission against Rosario Kennedy, a former incumbent who entered the fray only after an ill-fated effort to win the congressional seat left vacant following the death of Rep. Claude Pepper. Though an underdog heading into the November 1989 runoff, Alonso played to her strength -- the Cuban vote. Art Teele's last-ditch support in the black community, where she took a third of the votes after being shut out in the primary, pushed her over the top and into office.
Ms. Alonso Goes to City Hall
Inside Miami City Hall this past July 22, four-fifths of the commission sat fretting over the fate of the city's woebegone downtown arena. As usual the fretting was more ceremonial than substantive. And as usual the real action was taking place off-stage, behind closed doors in Miriam Alonso's office. Here she and Art Teele were tucked away, passionately discussing sewage -- more precisely, the county's need to install a massive sewage pipeline beneath the streets of Miami and across Biscayne Bay.
For months county officials had been warned about their rundown sewage system, the collapse of which could spell ecological doom for South Florida. Teele had come to lobby the city for permission to begin ripping up the requisite roads. The personal appearance was, in the image-conscious world of politics, a gesture of deference, one made necessary by Alonso's public threats to block the project.
A day earlier Alonso had taken the extraordinary step of penning a four-page memo about the crisis. She chided the county for failing to maintain the system and decried the inconvenience the construction would cause. To county officials who had wrestled with the sewer crisis for months, the last-minute ploy reeked of politics. For Teele the issue was one of concessions: What did Miriam want?
When the item came before the commission a few hours later, she took the lead, insisting that the city be paid handsomely for any work not completed on schedule. She also secured from Teele a promise that he would consider implementing a discounted water bill for elderly Miamians on fixed incomes. With the mayoral election drawing near, Alonso had cast herself in a triumphant light -- a city politician willing to go toe-to-toe with the county. At a more subtle level, by eventually voting to allow construction, she had done a favor for her old ally Teele, whose support would prove key come the November 2 election.
Four years earlier such deft maneuvering would have been wholly out of character. In her first months as a commissioner, Alonso's shrill style, her theatrics in the community, and her penchant for packing the commission chambers with partisans often overshadowed her job performance.
Despite a rocky start, she quickly staked out a role as the commission's fiscal hawk by pushing through a proposal to set aside $6 million as a city reserve account. She consistently opposed hikes in municipal taxes and service fees. In 1990 she proposed that the Port of Miami impose on cruise-ship passengers a five-dollar fee to raise money for the city. Two years ago her objection to a tax increase nearly spiked a hard-won pact with local unions. Last year she flew to Tallahassee to lobby against a sales-tax provision.
Her flip-flops, on the other hand, have been striking. In 1990 she blasted Mayor Suarez for proposing to cut the salaries of top city administrators. A few months later she reversed herself and pushed a similar plan. Last fall she yielded to angry citizens and voted against moving Camillus House to the Allapattah neighborhood, just weeks after pledging her support for the proposal. Critics insist that Alonso concentrates all her efforts on Little Havana and accuse her of voting in favor of issues involving prominent political supporters such as her lawyer, Jose Villalobos, and Tony Zamora, a financial backer.
At times, as when hyping a plan to build toilets in a Little League park, she has taken self-promotion to absurd lengths. But most observers agree her transformation from rabble-rouser to insider is now complete. Even foes award her high marks for her knowledge of city issues, accessibility to her constituents, and diligence.
"Nobody has been better at gauging the wants of her constituency and fighting for them," stresses seasoned political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "The truth is, part of the reason Suarez and De Yurre didn't run is that they were afraid of losing to Miriam."
This truth was obvious to the viejitos who sat toward the rear of the commission chambers on July 22. For hours they had waited quietly -- he in a pressed guayabera, she in a modest dress -- listening to a language they barely understood, spoken by politicians who barely understood them. American politicians were like that, even the ones with Spanish surnames. They spoke like bureaucrats. Without passion. Sin coraz centsn.
As the meeting groaned into the homestretch, Xavier Suarez had begun snapping at speakers to speed up. Victor De Yurre was locked in an embrace with his portable phone. Miller Dawkins looked ready for bed. Miriam Alonso, by contrast, was in peak form. Arrayed in a bright-green pantsuit, hair still puffed to maximum volume, she listened as a passel of Coconut Grovers tried to select a committee to oversee a planning study. "Why do we have to complicate things so often?" she asked to a smattering of applause.
"You people want to spend $100,000 on a study when we have parks that don't have safe equipment," railed one man who had commandeered the podium.
"Bring the item to my office tomorrow and we'll talk," Alonso interjected before the man at the podium could gain a head of steam.
Finally the viejitos' item was called. For half an hour Alonso listened to each side's entreaty, her face animated, eyebrows engaged in a dance of well-timed sympathy. Plainly she saw the madness in this supermarket developer who wanted to destroy the viejitos' neighborhood off Coral Way. But the other commissioners, Suarez excepted, were too exhausted. The issue was deferred. Alonso offered an apologetic shrug.
It was then, as the commissioners presented a spate of off-the-agenda resolutions, that the couple bustled up to the front of the room. Their neighborhood crisis may have been passed over, but they were not going to squander an opportunity to meet la doctora face to face.
As they stepped up to the dais, she leaned over to greet them, smiling broadly, and issued the sort of salutation reserved for a long-lost cousin.
"Excuse me! Excuse me! This meeting is not over!" The words came from somewhere in the periphery. "Please!" the voice repeated, this time in heated Spanish. "You must realize we are still meeting!" Looking up, the couple found Mayor Suarez glaring at them crossly, a gavel sagging from his hand.
They were pleased to find that Alonso paid him little mind, that her loyalties and attention were still benevolently riveted on them. And so they turned back to her, enchanted, while the lame-duck mayor closed his mouth and came to the prudent conclusion that the day's meeting was, perhaps, over.
Not Just an Election, a Mandate
It is moments like this, multiplied a thousand times and cast onto the vast loom of Cuban Miami -- the restaurants and community centers and old-age homes -- that have built the foundation of Miriam Alonso's political strength. Years of making appearances. Pushing causes. Unifying the little people. Leading citizenship and voter registration drives. This is what Miami's power elite failed to recognize a decade ago, why they have been reduced to shaking their heads, muttering into their cellulars: "We've created a monster."
Like the Irish in Boston more than a century ago, Alonso has forged a political machine from disenfranchised immigrants. She seems, on the surface, an unlikely party boss: the wife of a one-time Fidelista, a millionaire populist. But she understands her people. They are innately political but alienated by America's bland polemics. They mistrust government but are reliant on social services. They are ravenous for a leader but demand one they know personally. Once empowered, they have proved eager to volunteer. To proselytize. To vote.
That much was clear in 1989, when Alonso declared that the Hispanic vote would carry her to victory over Rosario Kennedy. "The political reality is that I can win that way, and I will win that way," she told reporters. And the election results proved her right.
While just one in five Anglos turned out, and barely more than one in three blacks, voting in Alonso territory neared half of all registered voters. In one Anglo stronghold along Brickell Avenue, Kennedy garnered barely ten percent. A dozen blocks away, in a Little Havana precinct, the turnout for Alonso tripled that. She won by more than six percentage points.
In upsetting Kennedy, Alonso also upset conventional wisdom. Back in 1985 the national press had naively dubbed the election of Kennedy and Xavier Suarez as the "Cuban takeover" of Miami. In fact both candidates were thoroughly Americanized and enjoyed tri-ethnic support. If anything, Alonso's 1989 election marked the true "Cuban takeover," for it proved that a cultural purist could beat a crossover candidate. Her term as commissioner has confirmed that shift. While many Cuban voters have grown to view Xavier Suarez as a disinterested technocrat, and Victor De Yurre as a slick power broker, Alonso's stock has rocketed. Running for mayor as an incumbent commissioner, and as the lone Hispanic, Alonso hopes to win on November 2 without the need for a runoff.
The man aiming to stop her, Steve Clark, has gotten off to an indisputably wobbly start. Political observers laughed when city officials shut down his original headquarters a few months ago. His search for a campaign team has been something of a running joke. An aide to the avuncular former Dade County mayor initially approached Phil Hamersmith to run the race. It quickly became apparent that Clark "didn't want to run a modern campaign," Hamersmith says.
Clark also contacted political consultant Ric Katz, who within weeks reached the same conclusion. "The mayor was more inclined to run a traditional Steve Clark campaign," Katz explains. "Same signs. Same colors. Same nonmessage. We outlined an aggressive neighborhood-by-neighborhood schedule. But I just didn't see him willing to put in the time or energy." Halfhearted efforts, Katz warns, are not going to defeat Alonso, an around-the-clock campaigner.
"Steve called me three weeks ago to set up a meeting," recalls one insider. "He gave me his mobile phone number, but I could never get through. Finally I called a mutual friend. She said, 'Oh, he's always forgetting to turn on his phone.' I said, 'What? He's in the middle of a campaign.'"
Clark, who now personally answers the phone at his new headquarters, says these days he's "more or less running the campaign myself," with help from consultant Jorge De Cardenas and some friends from the Latin Builders Association. "I plan to run on my record," the 69-year-old veteran says. "People know me."
Clark does hold a distinct advantage in campaign funds, with $150,000 to Alonso's $42,355 as of July. However, all but $2000 of Clark's money was transferred from his aborted campaign for Metro mayor after a federal judge abolished that position in April. Probably the best measure of Clark's dismal prospects are the persistent rumors, often spread by alarmed Alonso opponents, that another major candidate is set to jump into the race.
Even assuming Clark's well-heeled effort gears up, Phil Hamersmith is doubtful that an aging good old boy will wrest the mayoral throne from a Cuban: "The truth is Steve Clark is running where he should have retired. He's off his turf and in over his head. Everyone knows that. They just can't bring themselves to tell him."
Alonso backers, meanwhile, are relishing the contrast between "Alonso the activist" and "Clark the ribbon-cutter." And they are already writing off black candidate T. Willard Fair. Allies say Alonso's real ambition is not just to win, but to win a mandate. The linchpin, she knows, will be revamping her image in the black community, where she is still widely reviled because of two incidents.
In July 1990, police in riot gear clubbed a crowd of Haitians who had been protesting for three days outside the store of a Cuban merchant who allegedly mistreated a Haitian customer. Sixty Haitians were arrested in the ensuing melee, and dozens injured. An internal city report later found that police had used excessive force, and earlier this year the city commission voted to settle a lawsuit with the Haitians by awarding them $650,000.
During the standoff, Alonso sent a memo to City Manager Cesar Odio and went on Spanish-language radio demanding to know why police weren't making any arrests. In a deposition taken later as part of the Haitians' lawsuit, she admitted she had been in contact with Odio at least a dozen times during the crisis. Two highly placed city officials say Odio told them Alonso was pressuring him to order the cops to disperse the protesters. (Odio declined comment for this article.) Alonso also admitted she had spoken to Miami Police Chief Calvin Ross "several times," and records show she placed a final call to police headquarters a half-hour before the cops were finally deployed. Alonso insisted she was merely checking on the situation. But Ira Kurzban, the Haitians' attorney, says he was so convinced of Alonso's inflammatory role that he considered naming her as a party to the lawsuit.
The second incident occurred in June 1991, when Alonso, alone among city commissioners, refused to sign a proclamation honoring African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. The document, however, remained out of public view for two weeks. Then Mandela, during an appearance on Nightline, announced his support for Fidel Castro. The next morning one of Alonso's staffers supplied a Spanish-language radio station with a copy of the proclamation. Victor De Yurre and Xavier Suarez soon withdrew their names from the proclamation, an action that spurred the Boycott Miami movement.
After this episode, posters popped up in Overtown and Liberty City depicting Alonso clubbing Mandela and stomping on Haitians. More recently sighted are signs reading, "Miriam Alonso supports Lozano."
"The words I hear most often associated with her in the community are 'dragon lady,'" comments H.T. Smith, the attorney who spearheaded Boycott Miami.
"What she did with Mandela is what she does constantly on Cuban radio," adds Bill Perry, Sr., a former candidate for city commission. "She throws a rock and hides her hand."
But Alonso is mounting a visible effort to redeem herself. In June, after a stray bullet killed a six-year-old black child, Randy Wadley, she met with the grieving family to offer support and spoke at the boy's funeral. She now has several African Americans working on her behalf, including Miller Dawkins, attorney Gary Siplin, and consultant Bobbie Mumford, and is ardently courting black leaders by meeting with them to introduce "the real Miriam Alonso" and presenting a detailed package of her voting record.
Like all perceived winners, she also is finding old enemies willing to become new friends -- Richard Dunn, for example. After the Mandela debacle, he denounced her on the radio as a "racist demagogue." Now the Liberty City preacher and former school board candidate is publicly supporting her. "We still don't see eye-to-eye on Mandela," he says, "but she supported me in my run for school board, and I'm backing her. I've matured."
In February 1990 Juan Garcia, former top aide to Xavier Suarez, launched a public smear campaign against Alonso, claiming she owed him $8500 for work done on a previous campaign. "During the worst eight years of the communist regime, when thousands of people were executed, she was a close collaborator of the government," he told radio audiences. Today Garcia is on Alonso's campaign team. "She was the first one to call after Suarez fired me in 1991," Garcia recalls. "She told me, 'Now you know who your true friends are,' and that same night I went by her house to discuss the campaign." The outstanding debt has not been discussed again.
Life as a Landlord
Consider her one of the little people.
Until two months ago Jakonda Espinales lived in a cramped three-bedroom apartment at 1432 SW Eleventh Terrace. But Espinales failed to pay the $575 rent due on June 1. A week later she was given three days' notice to pay, and booted a fortnight after that. As part of the eviction action taken by Leonel Alonso, who with his wife Miriam owns the building, Espinales proferred but one document in her defense. The note, scrawled in barely legible Spanish, reads in part: "The owner of this property has refused to make repairs, such as the air-conditioner, which has not be repaired in eight months. When he collects pay he says he will repair, but we have been here for sixteen months and no repairs. Almost the entire house is in bad condition. I made some repairs but there is something everywhere.... I need time to move out."
Espinales, a factory worker, says she was uprooted a week after giving birth to her third child. She has since moved to an apartment in Hialeah, where, as she notes proudly, "They actually have maintenance."
Some of the Alonsos' other tenants have not been so lucky. They still have to worry about children falling down an unlit staircase. Or playing in a dark parking lot littered with broken bottles and garbage. "I put the chain up to keep the kids away from the stairs," says one single mother. "It also makes a good doorbell." On this particular August night, she is painting the small one-bedroom apartment for which she pays $475. The task, aided by a pair of gleefully splattered children, is the latest of several undertaken since she moved in several months ago. "I gave Leonel a list but they just don't care," says the computer saleswoman who, like other tenants, feared retribution if she supplied her name. "She's the mayor or commissioner or whatever, so she must know it's illegal. But since the hurricane, it's been tough to find a place. You put up with a lot when you've got kids." Like the bum air conditioner. And the gaping hole under the sink. And the fire extinguisher that expired in April 1990.
At a nearby building on SW Seventh Street, residents say the maintenance is so shoddy one of the tenants has become a de facto superintendent. "We've spent maybe $250 on repairs since we moved in, and they've raised the rent a hundred dollars," says a mother of three. Her latest dilemma? A broken bedroom window and walls that leak when it rains. "Leonel used to try to say that he didn't own the building," she claims. "But later he came by to collect fifteen dollars from the tenants to pay the water bill."
And what of the large "Miriam Alonso for Mayor" sign out front? "Oh, they came by and put all those up. They wanted to put stickers on the doors, too. But we said, 'No way.' She can't take care of her own buildings. How is she going to lead the whole city?"
Other renters, however, insist they haven't had a single problem in years. In fact, some are so devoted to los Alonso that they phoned the couple to warn that a journalist was on the premises asking questions.
This past April the City of Miami ordered the Alonsos to tear down a building at 1871 SW Seventh Street after it had devolved into a crackhouse. In August their duplex at 2535 SW Nineteenth Street appeared headed in the same direction. Neighbors say the last tenants moved out three months ago after a rent dispute. A tremendous pyre of junk A everything from child safety seats to radial tires A filled half the driveway, marring an otherwise neatly kept neighborhood. A stack of lumber sat inside the house, awaiting a work crew neighbors had yet to see.
If the Alonsos are lax in the repair department, they make up for it in collections. According to court records, the Alonsos have won some dozen evictions in two decades, four since 1992. (They have also been sued by at least one tenant.)
Paradoxically, the Alonsos have repeatedly shirked paying their own bills. Dade Water and Sewer Authority records indicate that in the last two years alone they have been late in paying up to seven of eight quarterly water bills on some properties. Service has been cut off altogether at three buildings. During the same period, they racked up more than $3500 in unpaid solid-waste fees, including $184 in penalties. The backlog accrued for nearly a year before they paid up this past May.
County property tax records show that the Alonsos have had certificates of delinquency issued a dozen times in the last four years. The periods of delinquency range from two to 33 months. Taxes for one building were paid late four years in a row. The lapses are especially notable because Florida law grants landlords nearly six months before property taxes are considered delinquent. The approach of an election has, perhaps, helped temper the Alonsos' recalcitrance. A few weeks ago they paid $3000 to clear one overdue account, leaving them with just one outstanding bill as of September 3. The amount: $3400.
For the Alonsos, who have made a habit of stiffing public bills, damning media reports have often triggered their belated payments. But in the private sector, lawsuits have been the preferred enforcement tool. County records list them as defendants in more than half a dozen foreclosure actions.
Now defunct Centrust Bank filed three lawsuits against the Alonsos in 1990, all involving a debt in excess of $50,000. Also defunct Southeast Bank filed a suit in May 1991 alleging that the Alonsos owed $50,000. The Florida United Methodist Foundation sought foreclosure on another Alonso property after the couple allegedly defaulted on a debt of $37,347. This past July Terrabank filed suit seeking repayment of an $82,500 loan. According to court documents, the Alonsos had missed their last six monthly payments. All these cases have been voluntarily settled, presumably after the Alonsos paid. (Miriam Alonso's most recent financial disclosure form, filed in July, lists eleven liabilities totalling $547,000.)
The couple's legal woes have not been limited to hefty mortgage payments. In 1987 Coma Cast Corporation sued the Alonsos after they purportedly failed to pay a $1500 roofing fee. Last year Cedars Medical Center sued for $2145 in unpaid bills for treating Leonel. Both cases were settled.
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Miriam Alonso has often answered questions about her debts by dismissing them as "mistakes." A more prevalent response, particularly when she offers it to Spanish-language media, has been to accuse reporters of persecuting her. Most commonly Alonso simply ducks the press altogether.
Her attitude of avoidance appears to be shared by her husband Leonel and it doesn't seem to be limited to inquiring reporters. The recollections of Yolanda Mendoza are a case in point. Mendoza, a process server hired to deliver a subpoena to the Alonsos' home two years ago, submitted this written statement as part of her official report:
"I rang the bell several times and knocked on the window. I knew they were home, the car with the city commission plate was parked in the driveway. I started to leave. I fell down the steps. While laying on the ground I yelled for help. After awhile Mr. Alonso opened the door. I gave him the summons then asked for something to clean my leg -- it was bleeding. He said he had nothing for me and slammed the door in my face." (Mendoza later sued the Alonsos for negligence. The suit was dismissed.)
The irony of all this, as even her defenders concede, is that Miriam Alonso's hallmark as a politician is championing fiscal prudence and honesty. Should she be elected, however, Alonso will inherit a municipality many feel is on the brink of insolvency. The question may well be this: Will the anti-tax crusader sacrifice that title if the city budget demands it? Or will she fall back on the deadbeat's patented solution A slamming the door on the problem?