Mistaken Identity

The lunchtime interview has gone on long enough for a busy lawyer with only a few hours left in the workweek, but Victor Diaz has an important appeal to make and he's not going anywhere until it's clear. What he asks is this: that Miami Beach residents go to the polls in the upcoming city commission election and cast their votes with an open and well-informed mind, and without ethnic or religious bias.

There's a reason Diaz, by all other indications an intelligent and well-adjusted citizen, is reaching for such improbable democratic ideals. He wants his friend and fellow Miami Beach activist Matti Bower to unseat two-term incumbent Martin Shapiro, occupant of the Group 6 at-large seat. And, Diaz suggests, Bower can win only if the citizenry does something extraordinary: votes without prejudice.

So Diaz would like to see the populace look beyond the 56-year-old fact that Bower was born in Havana. "There are a lot of people who would like to make her into 'a Hispanic candidate' to pigeonhole her," says Diaz, leaning intently over his tuna salad sandwich in this restaurant a few blocks from the Flagler Street law firm where he works. "We're saying, Judge her as she is and please don't let ethnicity play a part in this election. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was fighting for preservation. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was working to promote economic development in South Beach. Matti Bower was not 'a Hispanic' when she was fighting [squalor in the public schools]."

Yet despite Diaz's entreaties, and despite Bower's having spent nearly two decades waging grassroots battles that largely transcended the traditional divisions of color and class, her ethnicity is exactly what gives her candidacy so much resonance. Even though about half the population of Miami Beach is Hispanic, no candidate of Hispanic descent has ever sat on the city commission. (Abe Resnick, a commissioner from 1985 to 1993, is a native of Lithuania who immigrated to Cuba and then to the U.S. and considers himself Hispanic.) Many political observers say Matti Bower stands the best chance so far of being the first.

Still, it's fitting that Diaz should be the one to put such an implausible spin on Bower's candidacy. The two have been closely associated in recent years through their various civic pursuits. It has been the 34-year-old Diaz -- valedictorian of his class at Duke, graduate of Yale Law School, upwardly mobile, urbane, good-looking -- who has provided the most articulate voice of a movement to socially and politically empower the Hispanic population of Miami Beach.

These efforts have begun to redress a glaring imbalance in political participation by, and government representation of, the city's Hispanics. Compared to the rest of Dade County, change has come late. While other municipal governing bodies are more ethnically representative of their constituents, the Miami Beach City Commission has been dominated by Anglo Jewish males. "[Ours] is probably the most homogeneous group of elected officials in Dade," observes Commissioner Neisen Kasdin of the seven-member body (six commissioners plus a mayor) that now includes two women but remains exclusively Anglo and Jewish.

Bower's candidacy has even galvanized the Hispanic power base on the mainland, which until this race had never concerned itself much with Beach politics. "Cubans never paid attention to the races in Miami Beach because they never felt a Cuban could win," observes political consultant Henry "Kiki" Berger.

"We have not tried to create a Hispanic political machine," insists Diaz. "What we've tried to do is eliminate a barrier to our participation. For years there were all these quality people who were not viewed as credible candidates because of [their ethnicity], and we have worked damn hard to eliminate that barrier. People should be able to participate on a level playing field. But for this empowerment that has gone on, Matti might not have been viewed as a viable candidate."

The astonishing truth was in the numbers. The results of the 1990 U.S. Census provided the first quantifiable measure of the rapidly changing ethnic makeup of Miami Beach: 43,342 A 46.8 percent A of the city's 92,639 residents were of Hispanic descent, up from 22.2 percent ten years before. "People realized the magnitude of the Hispanic population on the Beach," Diaz recalls. "But politically [Hispanics] had been nonexistent."

Mayor Seymour Gelber, who took office in 1991, says the census results didn't exactly "cause a flash" among city officials; everyone was aware that the 1980 Mariel boatlift, coupled with the lure of cheap housing in Miami Beach, had vastly increased the city's Hispanic population. What did have a great effect, Gelber says, were the groups of Hispanic citizens who began to visit city hall after the election, voicing complaints about the city's treatment of minorities.

During his first year in office, the mayor enlisted the help of Abraham Lavender, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Florida International University who prepared a report evaluating the way the commission made ap- pointments to the city's boards and committees. Lavender's number-crunching was revelatory: As of November 1991, only 8.4 percent of all appointees were Hispanic. When it came to the so-called power boards (the Board of Adjustment, the Zoning/Design Review Board, the Planning Board, et cetera), Hispanic representation was even more woeful: 6.1 percent.

Gelber formed two separate committees to evaluate Hispanic involvement in city government, and the numbers began to increase. But not quickly enough for Hispanic activists, whose frustrations boiled over one evening in November 1993.

A group that included Matti Bower and Victor Diaz had gone before the commission to propose that voluntary goals be set for achieving ethnic and gender parity in city government. "The commissioners all said they supported diversity 100 percent and thank you for coming, and we said, 'We want a timetable,'" Diaz recalls. "They said that we didn't have a right to demand anything. It made us feel ripped off, like we had been sent away with a pat on the back and nothing to show for our energy and efforts to bring the issues to their attention."

Angered, the activists agreed to convene at Diaz's house the following day. From that initial meeting sprang a plan of action and an organization called Unidad. "For the first time, there was an advocacy group that was well-organized and broad-based," Diaz asserts. "We hoped to send a message that we didn't want to divide the community. Our approach was, let's participate, participate, participate. Lobby, register people to vote, speak out. We were going to do it all! We were going to do everything you were supposed to do within the American political process."

At Unidad's urging, Gelber this past year formed the Blue Ribbon Panel, with a mandate to study four areas: the electoral process, the city's employment practices, purchasing and contracting, and appointments to citizens' committees and boards. Roberto Martinez, former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, agreed to lead the group.

Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic appointments and new employees has increased dramatically. In 1992 Hispanics constituted 21.7 percent of all new municipal hires. That number rose to 43 percent in 1994, before dropping to 31.2 percent this year. The most significant transformation has occurred in the upper echelon of the city's administrative wing. This past spring, the commission selected as city manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa; he is the first Hispanic to hold that post in Miami Beach. Now the city's four top administrative jobs belong to Hispanics.

Ethnic parity has by no means been achieved, however. For example, the Blue Ribbon Panel released a report last month revealing that an abysmally small number of minority-owned vending firms have contracts with the city. The report also noted that aside from Stephen Zack, a Hispanic attorney who received more than $200,000 for services rendered from May 1992 to March 1994, the legal department paid minority outside counsel only $1364 out of a budget of more than $2.655 million for that period A less than one-thousandth of one percent.

Though City Manager Garcia-Pedrosa says he is committed to redressing the inequities, he adds, "I'm not an ethnic-counter. It bothers me more than a little bit when we emphasize -- overemphasize -- the color of somebody's skin. I want to bring the best people the city can find. If we do it on a level playing field, the ethnic diversity of this city will reflect itself."

Outside city hall, efforts to empower the Hispanic community are bringing some definition to a hitherto amorphous population. Unidad opened a much-needed Hispanic Community Center in order to provide a legal clinic, citizenship courses, job training, and other social services. In addition, Miami Beach now has two Hispanic chambers of commerce. Several Spanish-language publications have sprung up on the Beach in the past few years, as well, including newspapers Art Deco Tropical and South Beach News, and the monthly magazine La Playa.

A commission seat, though, remains an elusive goal. This past year, six Beach residents sued the City of Miami Beach in U.S. District Court. Their charge: The city's elections system had violated the Voting Rights Act by excluding minorities from public office. The plaintiffs hoped their efforts would lead to the creation of districts similar to those imposed on the Metro-Dade Commission and the Dade County School Board.

The filing annoyed many Unidad members who felt it interfered with a constructive process already under way. "We criticized it as being premature," Diaz recalls. "We were engaged in a process that was moving the city forward." After attempting to persuade the plaintiffs to delay or withdraw the complaint, however, Diaz and several other activists (though not Matti Bower) joined the suit. In August U.S. District Judge James Kehoe threw out the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs had failed to prove that Hispanics are politically cohesive or that Miami Beach's Anglo voters uniformly reject minority candidates, two conditions needed to prove that the at-large elections system unfairly prevents minority candidates from winning commission seats.

Though Bower isn't the only Hispanic candidate running this time around (South Beach hotelier Ada Llerandi is challenging incumbent Susan Gottlieb but is widely considered a long shot to win the seat), Kehoe's decision has put even more weight on her campaign. "I think she's a test; Matti Bower has been an activist for many years, so no one can say Hispanic candidates are people we've never heard of," Mayor Gelber reasons. "She's a quality candidate, and prior to this the response to Hispanics was they never had a candidate who was integrated and part of the community. The candidates didn't have any core support, couldn't raise funds, didn't have identity in the community. I think Matti Bower breaks that mold."

Gelber says he will closely study the balloting in Bower's and Llerandi's races. Depending on the results -- and notwithstanding Kehoe's ruling -- he might propose legislation to change the Beach's electoral system. "I've supported districts from the beginning," says the mayor. "But I have to see what the scores are."

If Matti Bower is daunted at the notion of being a test case, she isn't showing it on this particular day. Sunk low into an old easy chair strategically positioned under the ceiling fan in the living room of her modest, Mediterranean-style South Beach home, she's more concerned with the unrelenting heat.

"It's too hot!" she cries, not uncheerfully. "I took off my stockings because it was too hot. He won't put in an air conditioner!" Bower gestures toward her husband Richard, a retired postal worker slouched shirtless on the couch, a "Bud: King of Beers" cap perched on his head and a cool mug of Schaefer in his hand. "After we were married, she promised to leave if I didn't get it," he chuckles. "She's still stalling."

As Bower rolls her eyes in mock frustration, Natalie, her three-year-old granddaughter, emerges from behind a dollhouse in the corner of the room, which is cluttered with children's toys, aging furniture, bric-a-brac, and a vast collection of cookie jars (an obsession of Bower's). A deck of cards precariously balanced on her head, the girl attempts to tip over the candidate's chair before Bower patiently cajoles her back toward her toys.

Yom Kippur will officially commence in a couple of hours, pre-empting Bower's busy campaign schedule and making for a slow day. Relatively. The cordless phone on her lap rings constantly: calls from the school board, the housing authority, the Miami Beach Latin Chamber of Commerce, and a colleague from Bower's PTA days who is trying to organize a campaign function.

Is the grind exhausting her? "I'm having a great time!" she exclaims in her typically ebullient fashion. "It's fun!"

"She doesn't know a thing about it," interjects Richard. "I keep telling her, 'Wait'll the last week or two, with all the dirt sloshing around.'"

At this Bower admonishes her husband and steers the conversation away from that unpleasant terrain. It isn't that she's naive about the requisite downward moral trajectory of political campaigns in Dade. But despite her years on the front lines of community activism, she comes across as a political ingenue, so free of pretense and artifice that her public relations consultants have practically had to order her to upgrade her wardrobe -- which typically ran to sales-bin items and sandals -- and to spend more time in front of the mirror. "They tell me, 'You're a candidate, you're no longer an activist. You have to learn to play the role.' I can't go out without stockings. I have to wear makeup," she says, sarcastically reciting the orders of her hired guns, veteran flack Ric Katz and influential lobbyist Armando Gutierrez. "I'm not a make-up person. Now I'm wearing lipstick; I don't like lipstick! I have to wear a blazer, but it's too hot!"

Lipstick and stockings are about as deep as the campaign makeover goes with Bower, whose supporters proudly praise her as a passionate advocate for the under-represented. "We've always known Matti to have very good instincts about the role of government and whose side government should come down on," says Jeff Donnelly, founder of the South Beach New Democrats. "There are no misfits as far as Matti is concerned. If you're there and you have an interest in the Beach, then you belong. You're part of the equation."

She also has an admitted distaste for prepared speeches. "Everybody is telling me what to do because they're professionals. But I can't read a statement," Bower complained a few days before her first campaign appearance, a mid-September dinner hosted by the Civic League of Miami Beach. "I've never done this before. I have to really feel it." Weeks later, en route to a candidates' panel at the Miami Heart Institute, she was similarly defiant. "These people say I can't say this and can't say that," she explains, referring to her hired consultants. "I can't remember what they tell me I must say because it's not me, it's not how I feel."

Unpretentious as Bower may be, her handlers' admonitions address several characteristics that aren't generally considered advantages among politicians: She never attended college; she isn't a particularly articulate or precise speaker; she lives with her husband on a fixed income, and, according to Victor Diaz, is not too concerned with accruing money.

"I have learned by the things I've done," asserts Bower. "Lots of people have learned by studying; I learn from my experiences. I feel I bring a different story to the commission."

Born in Havana in 1939, she moved with her parents first to New York when she was "ten, eleven or something" then to Miami a couple of years later. (Another potential liability: Bower is lousy with dates.) She had no problem assimilating. "I was the only Hispanic in the school system," she remembers. "Consequently, they thought my accent was terrific. They thought I looked terrific. It was an enhancement to be a little different."

In 1960 Bower married a singer, but the couple separated "about twelve or thirteen years later" and she raised her two daughters alone while working as a dental assistant. The experience, she says, has made her sympathetic to the plight of single parents juggling a lot of responsibility while trying to stay financially afloat. "I was alone for a long time. My ex-husband wasn't mature, so it was a constant battle to get child support. My children had to walk home alone after school. So I can understand because I went through it."

Bower's activism began with her involvement in the Miami Beach schools her daughters attended. Preserve and Revitalize Our Beach's Education (PROBE), a group she helped form in the late 1970s, has proven to be fertile political ground. Susan Gottlieb and Nancy Liebman, two of the organization's other co-founders, now sit on the city commission. "Looking back then, Matti was very quiet," Liebman remembers. "I think she was overcome by the powerful voices that were already on the Beach. And she sat back quietly and she learned how to play the political game."

Bower's involvement in Miami Beach's public schools included three PTA presidencies and membership in or leadership of several Dade County Schools committees. Her resume is a laundry list of civic organizations: chairwoman of the Miami Beach Development Corporation, co-chairwoman of Art Deco Weekend, executive board member of the Miami Design Preservation League, member of the Miami Beach Recreation and Park Facilities Advisory Committee, commissioner of the Housing Authority of Miami Beach, and, of course, member of both Unidad's governing board and the mayor's Blue Ribbon Panel.

In the past two commission races, Bower's name was floated as a possible candidate. Both times she demurred, citing her responsibilities at home: She baby-sits her granddaughters during the day. Having finally decided to make a run for the commission, she has assembled an eclectic array of campaign volunteers, supporters, and endorsements. Diversity has characterized her fundraising parties, which have drawn a fairly representative cross-section of the Beach: powerful developers and preservationists, old-school pillars of the community and gay rights activists, the wealthy and the poor. The long list of attendees at her official campaign kickoff at the Miami Beach Ocean Resort Hotel included Democratic State Rep. Bruno Barreiro, developers Mel Schlesser, Craig Robins, and Wallace Tutt, Spanish-language radio personality/vitamin hawker Dr. Rico Perez, Wolfie's owner Joe Nevel, and representatives of Dade Action PAC (which later endorsed Bower's campaign).

"It's a good old-fashioned grassroots campaign," toots consultant Ric Katz, "and it has a real good buzz about it."

An eclectic guest list might make for a good party, but it doesn't fill the war chest. What good is a fundraiser if the hors d'oeuvre tray and the donations box are empty at the end of the night? Money is particularly hard to come by when your natural base of support consists of grassroots activists in South Beach. "I socialize with people who it's hard to give me five dollars," Bower observes. "I don't socialize with people who can give me a hundred dollars at a bat of an eye."

Nevertheless the candidate has managed to keep up with her opponent, moneywise; by mid-October she had raised $38,856 (as of mid-October, Shapiro had raised $40,632). According to Victor Diaz, the vast majority of Bower's financial support has come from a source that historically has stayed away from Miami Beach politics: mainland Hispanics. "I think the Miami business community doesn't have an 'in' to the Beach," posits Bower. "They have seen I am a viable candidate. I have a track record. Many people have ties [to the Beach]; they do realize there's no representation for Hispanics and they feel they have a candidate who has a chance. It's not local support, but there is a connection."

Assistance from across the Intracoastal may come at a price. "As with all communities, there's always a segment of the population that you can whip up with appeals to race and ethnicity," Commissioner Neisen Kasdin observes, voicing concern about a potential anti-Hispanic backlash. "All in all, though, I think the Beach is less susceptible to voter appeals based on ethnicity and demagoguery," adds Kasdin, who is halfway through his four-year term and is publicly championing Bower's candidacy.

Indications of latent hostility are apparent. Some surfaced last month in the letters-to-the-editor section of the Miami Herald's Miami Beach "Neighbors" section, in a letter criticizing Bower's search for public money to expand the Hispanic Community Center. "Why should the public support such a racist concept?" asked letter writer Morgan Pentacoste. "I would be happy to support a 'community center,' but why must the largest single ethnic group in the city have its own community center? Can you imagine the outcry if Palm Beach opened a 'white non-Hispanic center'? It's called racism, and so is what Miss Bower is doing."

In a reply published a week later, fellow Beach resident Joan Kuperstein wrote, "As election day looms, it's time for the dirty politics and mudslinging to begin. Certainly the letter on Matti Bower's support of a Hispanic Community Center . . . is mud in its dirtiest form. When the writer noted Ms. Bower's support of city dollars being spent on the center, the inference was strong that Ms. Bower was 'the Hispanic' candidate. Failing to mention city dollars spent on other projects that favor specific groups gave strength to the notion that Ms. Bower would only serve those with Hispanic ties."

There are other indications that anti-Hispanic sentiment may be on the rise in Miami Beach. A group of Anglo police officers recently organized, reports City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. "These things don't happen by coincidence," the top bureaucrat observes. "It was formed in response to the understanding that discrimination won't be tolerated, that change is coming and it's here." The city manager himself has been the target of nasty sentiment, including hate mail calling him a "dirty Cuban." Bower and Diaz have also received disparaging correspondence. One note addressed to Bower ranted, "You kiss Cuban asses," the candidate recalls. A letter to Diaz said, "You people need to leave this island and go back to your island."

The commission hopeful's handlers are on guard against this sort of reaction at the polls. Beyond trying to educate the press about delicate distinctions of ethnicity and politics A Bower is Hispanic, yes, but she's not "a Hispanic candidate" A they have been careful to leave her identity as it has been for the past two decades, including her name. (The candidate was born Matilde Herrera Lopez, but she took the name of her husband, an Anglo whose father was Jewish.) The tactic could work both ways: While Bower's ethnically ambiguous name may keep anti-Hispanic bigots at bay, it may also cost her some votes among ill-informed Hispanic voters who otherwise would be predisposed to vote for a Hispanic.

"I think it's ludicrous!" exclaims long-time Beach PR consultant Gerald Schwartz of the decision to play down Bower's ethnicity. Schwartz, who isn't assisting any commission campaigns this year, says Bower should be trying to wrap up the Hispanic vote and not worrying about inciting ethnic backlash in other communities. "Beach liberals, particularly Jewish liberals, and even Jewish conservatives, would be the first to vote for Hispanics," Schwartz declares, and notes that more than half of the city's registered voters are Jewish. "I don't think they should undersell her ethnicity."

Besides overcoming whatever antipathy may exist toward Hispanic candidates, Bower must beat Martin Shapiro. The two candidates have certainly approached November 7 from completely different directions.Whereas Bower has arrived after years as a Miami Beach activist with no long-held dream of entering politics, her opponent has been a political animal for at least the past sixteen years.

A 59-year-old real estate lawyer, Shapiro was born in Cincinnati, moved to Miami Beach when he was seven, and graduated from Miami Beach High. He entered politics in 1979, winning election to the Bay Harbor Islands town council, a seat he held until 1985, when he became that city's mayor. In 1989 he returned to Miami Beach and within several months had been elected to the commission.

The candidates haven't debated one another directly. For that matter, they haven't clearly outlined their respective platforms, a lack of differentiation that will only benefit the incumbent, according to Gerald Schwartz. "I don't think it's possible to win a campaign against an incumbent without taking on the incumbent, and I haven't seen her take on [Shapiro] in any way, shape, or form," says the veteran PR consultant. "To replace an incumbent who is reasonably well liked, you can't run a totally positive campaign unless you have a great deal of money and can overwhelm them."

Bower says she chose to run against Shapiro -- rather than Gottlieb or David Pearlson, whose terms are also up -- because she believes he has been an unproductive commissioner unresponsive to his constituents. "In my dealings as an activist, I have found Shapiro was hardest to get anything out of," she explains. "He doesn't give any advice. He just sits there, collects information, and doesn't give anything back."

She also admits to having a difficult time confronting her opponent, and because she eschews anything that smacks of negative campaigning, all teeth-baring with respect to Shapiro must fall to her flacks and backers. "He has been totally lackluster," Ric Katz says. "He has no initiative and sleeps -- figuratively speaking -- through commission meetings." Adds Victor Diaz: "Marty has stayed as long as he has because he doesn't 'stand for' anything."

Both fault Shapiro for his position on two recent high-profile issues: The South Pointe land swap between the City of Miami Beach and developer Thomas Kramer's Portofino Group, and the multimillion-dollar Lincoln Road renovation, which is currently under way. In both cases Shapiro cast the lone dissenting vote when the deals came up for approval before the commission. In each instance his disfavor materialized suddenly, after the outcome was no longer in question. "He's Marty the panderer," Katz carps.

Shapiro stands by his performance on the commission. "I'm running on my record," says the thin, tanned attorney. "I've constantly opposed wasteful and unnecessary expenditure of tax dollars." He voted against the Lincoln Road face-lift, he explains, after seeing the dramatic upsurge in visitors to the mall. Regarding the Portofino land swap, Shapiro says that although he can't recall having made any public statements against the proposal before casting his first dissenting vote, he had voiced his reservations all along "to our people who were negotiating." (Shapiro was on the losing side of a 5-2 vote, along with Kasdin, when the commission approved a conceptual development agreement in March. He was alone in voting against the agreement when it came before the commission four months later and again was the lone holdout during the final approval process.)

The incumbent further cites as notable accomplishments the so-called Shapiro Ordinance -- "I sponsored the only ordinance named after a commissioner" -- restricting the commission's authority to sell or lease city-owned property, and he takes credit for spearheading the anti-litter contest that resulted in the slogan "Excuse Me, You Dropped Something." Moreover, he sees what he calls "very important philosophical differences" between himself and Bower. Among them, he notes, is a basic disagreement about the issue of affordable housing. "Matti is a leader in the effort to increase government-subsidized housing and homeless housing in Miami Beach," he says. "I think we went overboard with it." He also mentions taxes: "I think she will be very much inclined to raise taxes, not reduce them."

Bower responds that she has no intention of raising taxes. "People who live on fixed incomes do not believe in raising taxes," she notes. As for affordable housing, she says Shapiro is again mistaken; she wants to upgrade available affordable housing, not increase it. "But thank God those are the issues he brings up," she adds. "They're human issues."

Can Matti Bower win? Political consultant Phil Hamersmith says that even if she were to capture a vast majority of Hispanic voters, who constitute about 30 percent of all registered voters on the Beach, it won't be enough to carry a candidate in an at-large election. "It's at a point statistically not to guarantee [victory] in a citywide election," says Hamersmith, who is not involved in the Beach elections this time around. "If the percentage was in the high thirties or low forties, you'd probably have a Hispanic sitting on that commission." (Hispanics constitute nearly 34 percent of voters countywide, and about 49 percent of the total population, but unlike Miami Beach, Metro-Dade is divided into commission districts.)

In addition, the Beach has a more diverse Hispanic population than does the rest of Dade. While residents of Cuban descent account for about 59 percent of the county's Hispanics, they constitute only 48 percent of the Beach's Hispanic population. (At ten percent, Puerto Ricans are the next-largest group.) "Cubans tend to vote as a bloc, but the term 'Hispanic' does not denote a common political interest in Dade," notes Robert Joffee, Miami-based director of the Mason-Dixon Florida Poll. This diversity, coupled with the fact that Miami Beach's Hispanic population is composed of relative newcomers, goes some way toward explaining why Hispanic leadership has been slow to form in the city, Joffee and others say.

Traditionally the Beach's Hispanic vote was largely for sale. "Anglo candidates could court two or three operatives, who would hold breakfasts for 150 voters at a time," says Diaz. "You were brought to a breakfast, someone said a few words in Spanish and served you cafe con leche and Cuban toast." Elderly and poor voters, who made up most of the Hispanic voting bloc, were vulnerable to this sort of persuasion because at other times of the year they were ignored, Diaz explains. That, however, is no longer necessarily the case. "It's a factor of changing demography," he says. "The new breed of political leadership said, 'That's enough. We have needs.'"

FIU professor Abraham Lavender calls the Hispanic vote a sleeping giant, but observes that voters won't go to the polls if they feel disenfranchised from the political process. "There's probably a certain hopelessness that's been at work in the Hispanic community A I think it's just a feeling that if someone of your background and identity was there, you'd feel that your position isn't likely to be overlooked," he says, adding, "If people feel that it doesn't matter, then they don't get involved."

The election of a Hispanic to the commission, argues Victor Diaz, would follow other progressive changes that have characterized the Beach's development over the past decade. From preservation laws to the human rights ordinance, he points out, there has been a "mainstreaming" of ideologies and groups that were once considered fringe. "I think when a Hispanic is elected to the city commission, it will be sort of the ultimate recognition of something everyone knows is happening," the attorney says. "It's part of the same dynamics that have changed the Beach from a sleepy, elderly population to this very diverse, hot, residential community. And I like to believe that this dynamic, if it's properly focused, would eventually transform Miami Beach government into an entity that more closely resembles the community: diverse, progressive, contradictory, but exciting. Matti's campaign is a test of the strength of this momentum. Her election would blow the perceived conventional political establishment wide open."

As momentous as that might be, Bower's backers are equally vehement in expressing their idealism regarding the campaign. First and foremost, they assert, she is a strong candidate whose record of Miami Beach activism has nothing to do with her ethnicity. A by-product of her election -- not the sole intent, they emphasize --would be a commission that finally began to reflect the diverse populace it purports to represent.

Concludes Diaz, perhaps more wishfully than certainly: "It will heal our community.


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