And they're off! It may be more than a year away, but the 2004 election campaign is in full swing: swanky fundraisers, fist-pumping stump speeches, and that hallmark of American politics, the smoky backroom meeting.
We're not talking about 2004's presidential aspirants, but instead a contest with just as much intrigue -- next year's Miami-Dade mayoral battle to succeed Alex Penelas. In anticipation of that August 31, 2004 election, a slew of well-known figures have already tossed their hats into the ring or appear set to formally announce, including Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, Radio Unica president José Cancela, former county Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, current county Commissioner Jimmy Morales, and school board member Marta Perez.
Among all the resultant jockeying for position, though, one topic looms large: What on earth is Miguel Diaz de la Portilla thinking?
That's certainly been the blunt question du jour among Miami's gay activists as word spread last week of Diaz de la Portilla's private tête-à-tête with Jorge Mursuli, Florida chapter president of liberal advocacy group People for the American Way and former executive director of SAVE Dade, the county's chief gay political organization.
Indeed in many gay circles it's hard to imagine a more reviled mayoral hopeful than Diaz de la Portilla. As a county commissioner in 1998, he voted against Miami-Dade's gay-rights amendment, solidifying his reputation as one of the Christian Coalition's strongest allies on the dais -- even receiving an award of appreciation earlier that year from the outfit's founder, Pat Robertson.
After the gay-rights amendment passed -- barely, by a vote of 7-6 -- it was the local Christian Coalition chapter that spearheaded an effort to repeal it via a ballot referendum. Meanwhile Diaz de la Portilla seemed to take his distaste for not only gay rights but anything that even hinted at homosexuality, to a bizarre extreme. In a Herald profile published during his disastrous 2000 county mayoral run, he phoned his interviewer an hour after she left him.
"Make my favorite author Shakespeare, not Oscar Wilde," he pleaded to Herald reporter Meg Laughlin as she prepared to write her story. "I don't need the hassle." Diaz de la Portilla may have been a fan of Wilde's prose, but that nineteenth-century poet and playwright was gay -- and jailed by British authorities because of it. Heaven forbid Diaz de la Portilla's supporters discovered that he enjoyed reading the works of a -- gasp -- gay writer. "I really admire him and felt bad about what happened to him," he explained to Laughlin, "but why get into it?"
Imagine the surprise, then, at opening up a recent edition of the Sun-Sentinel and reading a headline announcing that the same pol who once held gays (even dead ones) at arm's length now "courts gay community." Or turning on Telemundo's nightly news broadcast to discover that the Pat Robertson honoree had not only broken bread with Jorge Mursuli but had received his mayoral endorsement. Just what is Diaz de la Portilla up to?
"I meet with anybody in Miami-Dade who has a desire to move the county forward, whether it's Jorge Mursuli or anybody else," Diaz de la Portilla explains carefully. Driving through North Carolina on a family vacation while taking questions from Kulchur via cell phone probably isn't his idea of rest and relaxation. Still, he's game.
What exactly did you and Jorge talk about?
"We talked about county issues ..."
Gay county issues?
"We talked about a lot of issues," Diaz de la Portilla counters wryly. "I'll leave it at that."
So are we about to see a revamped, gay-friendly Diaz de la Portilla? Perhaps even an appearance shaking hands and pressing the flesh amid the shirtless throngs at the White Party?
Um, no. If he had to do it all over again, Diaz de la Portilla says he'd vote exactly the same way he did in 1998. "It's unnecessary legislation," he insists of the gay-rights amendment. And, he adds, "it's proven very much to be divisive. It's a 1998 issue, and the debate -- and its divisiveness -- has continued since."
So divisive issues shouldn't be addressed? What if folks found passing laws against racial discrimination too divisive?
"There isn't any disparity study that would show there is discrimination against gays, or denial of access to employment or housing, as has been demonstrated with disparity studies in respect to ethnicity or race." Perhaps sensing he's being awfully clinical about such a hot-button concern, he changes tack: "This is an issue of the past, and elections are about the future." But was he sorry to see last year's repeal effort fail? And how does he feel about the Christian Coalition's renewed petition drive for another repeal vote?
"The result is what the result is," he answers matter-of-factly. "The public has spoken on the issue -- it's time to move forward."
Besides, he's quick to remind Kulchur, this election is about more than gay rights: "It's about accomplishing the greatness Miami-Dade has been poised to achieve for many years. I don't think the gay community cares any less about economic development, cares any less about education, or cares any less about the future of Miami-Dade County than any other community."
Jorge Mursuli sounds just as confused by Diaz de la Portilla's overture to him as everyone else in the gay community. "I constantly want to educate people on who we are," he says. "Some people come aboard on Monday. Some people come aboard on Friday -- and you've got to let them in on Friday. People grow, people learn. I was curious if that was going to be what our conversation was going to be about."
It wasn't. Mursuli found himself still trying to convince Diaz de la Portilla that gays and lesbians needed legal protection. "He's truly a very smart guy," he continues with a sigh. "But in this day and age, unless he's living under a rock, I just don't understand how he can believe that gays aren't discriminated against."
So, memo to Telemundo, there's no mayoral endorsement in the offing. And just who will Mursuli be lending his imprimatur to next August? "Gay people should welcome Miguel and anybody else who wants to evolve, but we need to look at everybody's record and pick the person who's put their money where their mouth is."
Enter Jimmy Morales. In his mind there's little mystery to Diaz de la Portilla's awkward queer outreach. It's pure electoral math, Morales argues. With so many high-profile Cuban Americans running for county mayor (including himself -- his mother is Cuban, his father Puerto Rican), no one candidate will be able to monopolize the support of Cuban voters and garner 51 percent of the vote. Subsequently, a runoff election is assured. And given Diaz de la Portilla's virtually nonexistent support beyond conservative Latinos in his 2000 mayoral attempt, unless he makes fresh inroads with Anglos, blacks, and the liberal-minded, his victory chances are slim to none.
"Gay and lesbian voters are going to have a say in who makes the runoff," Morales predicts. Even if that bloc only constitutes a tenth of the more than 50,000 voters SAVE Dade identified through canvassing as firmly pro-gay, it'll still be a decisive margin. Factor in the $1.5 million SAVE Dade raised to defeat last year's gay-rights repeal, and you've got a newly emergent political force that can't be ignored. Which, as someone who voted for 1998's gay-rights amendment, suits Morales just fine.
"Everyone's going to come around now and say 'I'm going to be the better mayor for gays,'" Morales scoffs, "but I would be shocked if people forget [Diaz de la Portilla's] vote in 1998. Gays and lesbians know who's been supporting them." Morales flashes a triumphant smile: "I've been out of the closet on this issue since my first campaign in 1996."
To be sure, gay rights will be on the national agenda throughout the coming months. The steady drumbeat of media coverage -- from Canada's legalization of gay marriage to the Episcopalian Church's ordainment of an openly gay bishop to the TV phenomenon Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- should reach a fevered pitch by next summer. Particularly since social conservatives seem to relish a showdown in what Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, bitterly dissenting from a decision to overturn Texas's sodomy laws, termed "the culture war."
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However, for right-wing Republicans seeking to hold onto their base while simultaneously appealing to those all-important moderate "swing" voters, coming down firmly on either side of that war is problematic.
Witness President George W. Bush's tortured equivocation on homosexuality last month. Standing in the White House's Rose Garden he stressed how important it is to "respect each individual" and "be a welcoming country," even invoking the Gospel of St. Matthew to that effect as he cautioned "those who may try to take the speck out of their neighbor's eye when they got a log in their own." Yet without missing a beat, Bush then dismissed gay marriage as beyond the pale -- "And we've got lawyers looking at the best way to do that." There's something in Bush's stance for everyone, a balancing act that may be inspiring Diaz de la Portilla's own strategy for capturing county hall.
The former commissioner may indeed be testing the crossover waters with Jorge Mursuli, muses SAVE Dade chairman Javier Reynaldos. Or, he quips, "Maybe Jorge is the only gay guy he knows!" Reynaldos declines to comment on an ominous parallel with Mursuli's controversial 2001 role in giving the SAVE Dade endorsement to Miami Beach mayoral contender Elaine Bloom -- whose votes against gay adoption and gay marriage as a Florida state representative were quickly downplayed as she hit the campaign trail.
But regardless of Diaz de la Portilla's motives, Reynaldos notes that at SAVE Dade's offices, "Our phone hasn't rung. Diaz de la Portilla isn't calling the county's gay organization. He's calling the guy who used to be part of the gay organization. We've called him to set up appointments to talk, and we haven't gotten them. I hope through discourse we can win him over, but he's got to show us something."