Miami's Favorite Cover Girl

Miami commissioner Miriam Alonso has suffered some recent setbacks in her bid to become the city's first female mayor. Considered a strong front-runner just weeks ago, polls now indicate Alonso will have to scramble if she is to overcome rival Steve Clark in a runoff. (New Times went to press before this week's election, but earlier polls predicted Clark would beat the commissioner handily in a head-to-head race.)

Precise reasons for Alonso's apparent tailspin remain a subject of speculation among political observers, but recent critical press coverage is considered a factor. One of the most potentially damaging reports appeared in the Spanish-language weekly ­Exito!, which published a lengthy, two-part profile October 20 and 27. While reporter Mabell Dieppa did outline the Alonso platform, she also detailed instances of alleged political thuggery, including accusations that volunteers for Alonso routinely stole newspapers that contained negative stories about the commissioner.

The first installment of Dieppa's series featured a photograph of Alonso on the paper's cover. But few copies of that edition of ­Exito! were seen by Alonso's most ardent supporters. Within hours of distribution, an estimated 10,000 copies or more mysteriously disappeared from newsracks in the Little Havana area. The tabloid, owned by the Sun-Sentinel Company, publisher of the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, distributes 75,000 copies, all in Dade. (To date there have been no reports that the second installment suffered similar losses.)

­Exito! publisher Alfredo Duran filed a complaint with the Miami Police Department a day after the apparent theft. That report lists an anonymous witness who saw two men in a gray 1989 Ford van cruising the streets of Little Havana in the early hours of October 20, looting ­Exito! newsracks. According to Miami police spokesman David Magnusson, the vehicle was traced to Westchester Bank (now International Finance Bank), which has two locations, both on Calle Ocho. But police have yet to make an arrest. In fact, it's not clear whether they could make an arrest at all, Magnusson says, because ­Exito! is a free publication. "If they're free for the taking, does it constitute a crime to take them all?" he asks.

"That's ridiculous," snaps publisher Duran. "Somebody stole 10,000 copies of an issue we worked very hard on. We can't speculate on who might have done it, but it's obviously a violation of some statute." Duran was so miffed over the missing papers that he wrote a column the following week announcing a new policy: The first copy of ­Exito! is free, but each additional copy costs one dollar. (New Times has long maintained a similar policy.) Last week's issue also included ­Exito!'s endorsement of activist T. Willard Fair for mayor.

Editor Humberto Cruz says the sharply critical Alonso profile signals a shift for ­Exito! -- away from personality journalism and toward more investigative, politically sophisticated articles. "Naturally, as the publication matures," he explains, "we will be tackling harder issues."

Judging by one recent cover, the same trend would appear to have taken hold at another Spanish-language weekly, Mi Casa. Though generally devoted to lighter lifestyle pieces, the free tabloid published a politically charged cover story in its October 20 issue. The subject: Miriam Alonso and her campaign for mayor. The similarities ended there, however. The Mi Casa article read more like a press release than a profile.

That shouldn't come as any surprise, given that the story's author, Juan Garcia, is a paid campaign aide to Alonso.

Virtually ignoring the scandals that have trailed Alonso since she took office in 1989, Garcia portrayed his boss as a noble martyr plagued by anonymous accusers, and whose "political and humanitarian record of sacrifice and heroism" is unknown to many people.

Why did Mi Casa decide to champion Alonso's cause? Sources at the paper say the decision came from Charles Fernandez, the president of Viva America Media Group, which owns Mi Casa along with Radio Mambi (WAQI-AM) and Radio Ritmo (WRTO-FM). "He feels it is very important to the Cubans in Miami that another Cuban take office," says one employee, who requested anonymity. (Fernandez was traveling last week and did not return calls from New Times.) Alonso is a frequent talk-show guest on Mambi and recently has purchased hundreds of dollars worth of commercial air time on the stations.

Willie Blanco, Mi Casa's editor, says he had nothing to do with the article and could not comment about it. But others at the paper, which distributes 50,000 copies weekly, claim that Blanco was upset over management's decision to run an Alonso puff piece. Again Blanco would not comment, but for the first time in his seven-year tenure at the paper, the editor removed his name from the masthead. In its place: "Vivamerica Media."

Juan Garcia, a former aide to outgoing mayor Xavier Suarez and a one-time Alonso enemy, says he was asked by Mi Casa's "management" to submit the article. He would not specify precisely who made the request. A former newspaper columnist in Puerto Rico, Garcia concedes he was a little disappointed with the result. "The article had a lot stronger appeal for Miriam before they rewrote it," he observes. "I guess they wanted to put it in their own style and kept my byline."

As of last week, no copies of Mi Casa were reported stolen.


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