Mortal Kombat, Miami-Style
Katherine Fernandez Rundle is running for re-election as the Miami-Dade State Attorney. She says don't vote for her opponent Al Milian because he's a tool of the Police Benevolent Association, which wants someone in office it can control. In addition, she adds, he lacks experience and has a hot temper that makes him unsuited for the job.
Milian blasts Rundle for being soft on public corruption, especially on cases involving the politically influential, who have contributed to her campaign. Her ties to the powerful have compromised her ability to prosecute people in Miami-Dade, he asserts.
Wait a minute. Haven't we been here before? Aren't these the same issues, the same harangues from four years ago, when Milian chided Rundle for the "dearth of high-profile public corruption cases" in her office, and Rundle claimed that he was merely a puppet of PBA president John Rivera?
It's as though a querulous couple had taken a four-year hiatus from each other and then picked up a fight in midsentence.
While the rhetoric is the same, the race is not. One reason: Third candidate, independent Gary Rosenberg, could siphon votes from Rundle's traditional support in the Jewish community (beyond that, however, he's not much of a threat).
Between rivals Rundle and Milian, this year's contest is as close to a death match as local politics can get. They talk as if only they stood in the way of complete chaos.
"The roof is leaking," Milian rails. "We have jails that don't function. Our conviction rate is way down. Public corruption cases are a joke. Justice is not being served!"
Rundle, pondering the imponderable, says that losing would not just be a personal setback, but a threat to the moral mission of her office. "I would feel very disturbed by who would take over. There are many qualified people who could run this office. But it troubles me that it would fall into the hands of a special-interest group, the wrong hands."
She brings up an ongoing criminal probe into a failed health insurance fund the PBA was involved with, implying that is one of the reasons the union wants her out of office. Milian, meanwhile, cites a New Times story about her acceptance of campaign contributions from a prominent businessman whose daughter had a criminal case pending at the time and who is himself under investigation in an unrelated corruption probe ("Powers That Be," October 14) as evidence that she can't be trusted to police the powerful.
To win, though, it's clear each needs a strategy beyond destroying the other.
For Rundle, anything is better than 2000, when a confluence of events conspired against her. During her re-election run that year, her office lost a nasty sexual harassment lawsuit that prompted one top prosecutor to resign. Meanwhile, a prominent supporter, former Miami Police Chief Donald Warshaw, was arrested for stealing from a charity. Then, of course, there was the Elian Gonzalez tidal wave, which drenched her. After all, it was mentor Janet Reno, the woman from whom Rundle inherited her job, who gave the order to grab the tyke from his uncle's home. There is nothing this year to match those debacles.
Things look good. She can tout a double-digit drop in crime. She's been able to raise $520,000, compiling a list of contributors that includes a multitude of big businesses and fat cats. Clearly, she is the establishment's candidate.
She also benefits because this is a presidential election year. Voter turnout should be heavy, which favors Democrats like Rundle in this Democratic county. Still, she's going to have to rely more heavily on blacks and whites because Milian has a strong showing in the Hispanic community, especially among Cubans.
And she shouldn't take the black vote for granted.
"A lot of people hold it against her that she hasn't prosecuted one police officer for shooting a civilian since she's been in office," says Leroy Jones, a black community activist. "But to tell you the truth, we feel it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if you-don't situation. Milian, we really don't know his positions, but he's got the support of the police union and they fight prosecuting officers."
Although Milian isn't aided by the kinds of events that plagued Rundle's campaign in 2000, he still feels as confident as ever.
After all, he's spent the last four years essentially running for this job, hosting his own political talk show on Spanish-language radio (yanked after he criticized a Miami city commissioner) and appearing in print and on TV whenever he could.
To run successfully as the reformer candidate, his task this year has been to show that he's not owned by the union, a difficult job when the most noticeable group of donations comes from 24 PBA political action committees and chapters around the state (even though they make up only a tenth of his $150,000 in contributions). He also has to show that he's evolved from the hothead who got into a fight with a defense attorney back when he was a Broward prosecutor and was censured for calling the defense lawyers in one trial "maggots."
In the intervening four years, Milian has tempered this legacy by working with the ACLU on several free-speech issues and supporting the county's human rights ordinance protecting gays. He took a job as a lawyer for the PBA after he lost the election and points to that when soliciting union endorsements, billing himself as an advocate for labor rights. "We live in one of the most anti-labor states in the Union," he told members of the United Teachers of Dade. "And I have stood, and will stand, by the men and women of labor." (The UTD has declined to endorse either candidate.)
Milian has picked up support from different ends of the political spectrum. Miami-Dade police Maj. Carlos Gonzalez, formerly in charge of the department's public corruption unit who has been very critical of Rundle, donated $250 in April; and Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, board member and former president of the local ACLU, also critical of the incumbent, donated $250 in May. (Both declined comment.)
Note the role reversal going on here: The Democratic candidate is finding her support among the plutocrats, and the Republican candidate is mining the union trenches for backing.
The question now is whether voters are willing to see past each candidate's tangled ties to make an informed choice at the polls.
On October 19 Miami-Dade police detectives contacted Jacqueline Arango to ask about a $249.42 contribution she gave in April to Jimmy Morales, who is running for county mayor. Arango, a federal prosecutor, thought the episode was so suspicious that she reported it to the ACLU.
The man Morales is running against, of course, is Carlos Alvarez, the former director of the Miami-Dade Police Department. And Arango is not alone in thinking it was strange that Alvarez's former employees were asking questions about money donated to his opponent. (Other than to confirm the account, Arango declined to comment.)
Morales says several supporters have reported cops interrogating them about checks they wrote, activity he believes borders on police harassment and election tampering. "I got a lot of calls from people who are very upset by this. And I'm very troubled by it. I think it's wholly inappropriate for the Miami-Dade police to be doing this kind of investigation. The conflict of interest is obvious."
Maj. Michael Trerotola, head of the county police department's public corruption unit, confirms that his officers were indeed conducting an investigation of all candidates who accepted public financing. Contributors to Alvarez's campaign were also interviewed, he adds. "At this point the review is over and there's no indication there were any improprieties," he says. The review was prompted by the arrests of two people this past summer for falsifying campaign reports so three Hialeah council candidates and a county commission candidate, Jorge Roque, could qualify for matching public money. "We decided we better take a look at all candidates who qualified for money to make sure this was not more widespread," Trerotola says.
But Morales's camp is not satisfied. Numerous other agencies could have done such a review, and in fact, the county's Ethics Commission did a similar analysis. The timing is also suspicious, Morales says, given the proximity of the election. The first complaints about police visits came on October 17, Morales says, months after the inquiry was started. And in at least two instances the checks in question were from April.
"I understand their concerns," Trerotola says. "It was not our motivation in any way to intimidate anyone. Our position was that we felt we owed a higher obligation to the citizens of Miami-Dade County to make sure their money was not being fraudulently expended."
To further confuse and enrage Morales supporters, one of the officers involved, Ofcr. Mark Martinez, is sitting at the desk of former corruption investigator Luis Cristobal, no longer with the unit, who donated to Alvarez. Cristobal's voice mail still has his name on it, which people heard when they returned calls. Morales supporters believed he was involved in the inquiry. He is not.
"We really didn't think this would upset people," Trerotola says. "Perhaps we could have postponed this thing [until after the election]. But in the meantime you risk public funds being misspent."
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