Musical Mayors

Steve Clark never really wanted to stop being mayor of Dade County. Though the post was largely ceremonial, Clark relished the kingly role, whether it was a photo op with retiring employees, or a ribbon cutting for a new community center, or a closed-door meeting with Dade's most influential power brokers, being mayor was the area of government at which Clark truly excelled. And despite his election two years ago as mayor of Miami, that title just doesn't have the same ring. "When I left as mayor of the county, I was ordered to by the judge," explains Clark, referring to U.S. District Court Judge Donald Graham's 1993 decision abolishing the county mayor slot and creating district elections for county commissioners. "It hurt me a little bit. But I got over it and I'm very happy where I am."

At least for now.
For the past month Clark reportedly has been exploring the possibility of making a run for the newly reconstituted position of county mayor. Potential supporters are being contacted, pledges quietly being lined up. Clark remains coy about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. "People do a lot of talking," he says, neither confirming nor denying his desire to run. "Time will tell these things. I never rule anything out."

While it may be that the 71-year-old politician is simply enjoying the ego gratification that comes with being gossiped about, the specter of a Clark candidacy is causing waves of concern A particularly among his potential opponents A despite the fact that the election is eighteen months away. "He has always been an immensely popular politician," observes veteran political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "Maybe the most popular guy out there. If he does decide to run, he would have to be taken seriously."

Clark served as mayor of Miami from 1967 to 1970, when he ran for and won the post of county mayor. Two years later he lost a re-election bid to Jack Orr, but when Orr died of cancer in 1974, Clark took back the job, and was faithfully re-elected by his constituents until April 1993, when Judge Graham did away with the job. Upon the mayor's retirement, Metro commissioners renamed the 29-story county hall the Stephen P. Clark Government Center. The layoff, however, was a short one. Seven months later, Miami voters chose Clark over opponent Miriam Alonso.

If Clark makes another run for county mayor, he likely will join an extremely crowded field. County commissioners Alex Penelas and Maurice Ferre, as well as former Miami mayor Xavier Suarez, are almost certain to enter the race. Commission chairman Art Teele is another possible contender. Less certain, but rumored to be considering a bid, are Commissioner Pedro Reboredo and former state representative Mike Abrams.

Clark's assessment of the other major contenders for county mayor is typically diplomatic: "They are all fine people." And how would he do against such a field? "We'll have to wait for that day to arrive," he says wryly.

His supporters argue that Clark stands a good chance of moving back into the building that bears his name. Assuming the field of candidates is crowded with Hispanics, they postulate that a split Latin vote would give an Anglo such as Clark an excellent shot at making a runoff. He'd be expected to fare well against a Hispanic opponent in a runoff, receiving heavy support from Anglo and black voters, as well as respectable backing from older Cubans, who have always turned out for him. In a runoff against a black opponent such as Teele, Clark's supporters say, the ultimate winner would have to carry the Anglo and Hispanic communities A another plus for their candidate.

"There is no doubt that someone like Clark would be a serious contender," admits Alex Penelas. "He certainly has name recognition. But I think this talk is too soon. Right now I'm not concerned with who runs." Suarez acknowledges that he's heard the recent chatter about Clark entering the race but doesn't know whether to take it seriously. Suarez, who supported Clark two years ago in his campaign against Alonso, says Clark has never expressed any interest to him about running for countywide office again. "When I supported him in the Miami race, he indicated to me that he didn't have any desire to move back to the county," Suarez recalls. "He said he didn't want to be the county's executive mayor and that he seemed satisfied with his role in the city."

While Clark may or may not be satisfied with his current position, it is likely that many of his advisors -- some of Miami's most influential lobbyists and special interest groups -- may not be satisfied with having Clark close out his career inside the modest confines of Miami City Hall. The city's budget, after all, is a mere $300 million per year, versus Dade County's annual operating budget of nearly $4 billion.

Several candidates and political consultants contacted for this article say they believe that if Clark does run, it is because he is being pushed into the race by a small cadre of lobbyists and business leaders who see him as their best chance to exert influence on what undoubtedly will be the most important position in Dade politics. (As opposed to pre-1993 county mayors' relative impotence, the new job will be endowed with broad powers, including the ability to veto legislation passed by the commission.)

Clark's critics also charge that the mayor is simply too old and tired to vigorously lead the county into the next century, and that the county, which faces a bleak economic future, needs more energetic leadership, rather than what the backslapping Clark is liable to provide. Phil Hamersmith agrees that Clark's age will likely be an issue. "It all depends on how serious the voters are about having an activist mayor," the consultant says.

Clark says he will announce his decision next spring. But no matter how much prodding he may receive, many still doubt he'll run. "He would be in the political fight of his life," says one consultant who requested that his name not be used. "I don't see him taking the risk of ending his political career as a loser.


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