The mayor of Miami once wore the heavyweight crown of South Florida politics. Maurice Ferre once championed a more cosmopolitan downtown. His successor Xavier Suarez shuffled into Overtown after the McDuffie riots in 1980, acting as the city's spokesman, its leader.
Used to be. In 1996 the title belt passed to Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, a man willing to appear on television at the drop of a cargo plane, the arrival of a spree killer, or the discovery of a sacred rock pile. Penelas has sold himself so successfully that boosters tout him as a short-list candidate for Al Gore's vice-presidency.
Which makes it a bummer to be Joe Carollo. Miami's current mayor presides over a government constrained by state oversight. His job description is limited mostly to budget-balancing. And his visibility rises only when he spars with Penelas. Most recently the two mayors publicly squabbled over the destiny of the Miami Circle.
Now Carollo is offering a bold initiative that will one-up his nemesis Penelas and raise Miami's profile in relation to the county.
City Commissioner Willy Gort spilled the beans three weeks ago. In a meeting before the city's Downtown Development Authority (DDA), Gort blabbed that Carollo is planning to host a summit open to all mayors of cities in the Western Hemisphere with more than 100,000 residents. Gort relayed other specifics: The three-day powwow will focus on community planning, safety, and public finance.
To fund the summit, Carollo has lobbied the legislature for a million-dollar contribution. He has also floated the idea with city commissioners, including Joe Sanchez. "He really wants me to back it," Sanchez says candidly, "so he's promising me support and stuff."
Carollo reluctantly confirms this. He told New Times he intended to delay talk about the summit until at least next month. "I'd rather wait until something is being accomplished," the mayor says. "The thing that makes Miami different from other government agencies is we don't have a lot of press conferences, which is stuff you maybe have gotten used to as of late."
That's not a jab at Penelas (who recently showed up on TV, in Miami of course, to plead for new gun control laws), Carollo insists. But it's hard to interpret it any other way. As the Miami mayor furtively moves forward with his plans, he makes it clear there is no room for Penelas. He even rejected Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's recent offer of financial assistance. Harris requested Penelas be involved as well, according to two people familiar with the meeting.
Still don't think it's personal? In June Penelas is sponsoring a mayoral summit in conjunction with Florida International University. This year's conference will feature speakers and seminars relevant to issues faced by mayors of small- to medium-size cites. Carollo claims his own symposium will fill a separate niche. "The difference is that what the county has been doing is on a very small scale," he explains. "Theirs is geared for small cities.... [And] ours is only for big cities."
Carollo has been a trade buff for a long time. He's even striving to change Miami's civic slogan from "Gateway to the Americas" to the less catchy but more ambitious, "Capital of International Trade and Commerce."
"One of his most important priorities continues to be the development of a world trade and exhibition center located in the heart of downtown Miami," Carollo's official bio states. Gort told the DDA that Carollo's summit could jump-start world trade center planning.
Surprise! Penelas is also working on a trade mecca. "Alex is interested in the world trade center as part of his One Community One Goal program," says Tony Ojeda, director of the county mayor's protocol office, referring to a Penelas-backed initiative to bring together the county's disparate communities. "At this moment, though, the plans ... are not moving based on a lack of available financing."
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Carollo counterpunches: "I'm sorry. The City of Miami has every right to look at every possibility to do a real world trade center in downtown Miami, and that's what I've been working on quietly. I even have drawings I could show you. It's just my policy to not draw attention to something until I have the beef."
"The City of Miami is the flagship city in Florida," he continues. "We were here way before any other government agency and we're not doing this or anything else to compete with any other entity. We're doing it because it's good for Miami and it's good for greater Miami."
Recently Carollo and Penelas met behind closed doors to talk about the relationship between the city and the county. They discussed the Port of Miami and the pesky Miami Circle, but made no mention of the world trade center or Carollo's upcoming mayoral summit.