That Old Familiar Face
Miami has been feeling cheap. Seduced for years by political sweet-talkers, the city knows it has a reputation. The recent past has been particularly shameful. A city commissioner sent to prison. A city manager sent to prison. A financial meltdown. An election subverted by fraud. One mayor gone loco. Another gone to jail. Other cities laugh at Miami. Newspapers around the world have been gasping and pointing.
What Miami could use is a man of class. A big-ideas guy. A leader with his own money who won't need to dip into the city's purse. Perhaps an old flame whose imperfections the city has forgotten but whose appealing personality lingers in memory. A politician who will let Miami, for once, respect itself the morning after an election.
Some time ago there was a man like that. Campaigning for office in 1983, he stood at water's edge, handsome and tanned as a telenovela star, his linen suit rippling in the breeze. Behind him pleasure boats played on Biscayne Bay. Before him the city's skyline glimmered. He looked out across the city while cameras rolled. "I want to be the mayor for all the people," he intoned earnestly.
Oh, Maurice Ferré, where have you gone?
"I may have left," he answers, "but I didn't go far. I never said goodbye."
That much is clear as Ferré and wife Mercedes pull into the parking lot at Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho. As they enter the Little Havana landmark, diners rush them, eager to shake Ferré's hand, pat his back, exchange a few words. Some, mostly women, embrace him in matronly hugs. While he and Mercedes share their lunch of arroz con pollo and plantains, he grins, nodding at people he knows. Numerous times he rises from his chair to speak at eye level with admirers.
"I always like to get close to people," he says between bites. "You've got to be accessible to people or they won't have anything to do with you."
Ferré had twelve years to learn that lesson. Miami's first Hispanic mayor, elected in 1973, his popularity peaked in the early Eighties when he became known as the Man Who Built Brickell. According to Ferré lore, he Pied-Pipered developers to the avenue, dotting it with international banks and ritzy office buildings.
Sprung from a wealthy Puerto Rican family, this aristocrat already adored by the city's upper crust was christened a visionary even by the common folk. Miami went from country to cosmopolitan thanks to him. The press referred to his administration as Camelot. No wonder Ferré once boasted, "I accelerated history in Miami."
Miami's King Arthur was booted from his roundtable in 1985. He had lost his previously strong support among black voters after firing Howard Gary, Miami's first black city manager. He also lost the editorial support of the Miami Herald. The paper lashed out at him as it endorsed challenger Raul Masvidal, a Cuban-American banker. "It is time for a change, a profound change that can come only by ousting Maurice Ferre," read the editorial. "The sad fact is that Maurice Ferre has become not one man but two. One is a charming, persuasive, urbane, occasionally visionary believer in and evangelist for Miami's potential. For all that this Maurice Ferre has achieved as mayor, grant him due credit. The other Maurice Ferre is venal, vindictive, obsessed with remaining in office at all costs. It is this persona, alas, that seeks a seventh term." Black voters fled to Masvidal, who lost in a runoff against a young, Harvard-educated technocrat named Xavier Suarez.
But people like Ferré, genetically programmed for political life, can't stay out of the limelight for long. In 1987 he attempted a comeback against Suarez and again lost. He remained largely out of the public eye until 1993, when he won a seat on a newly expanded Dade County Commission, whose members for the first time were elected by individual districts rather than countywide. Three years later Ferré and commission colleagues Alex Penelas and Art Teele faced off in a race for the county's new executive mayor. Penelas won. Ferré flirted with the idea of challenging Penelas's re-election bid last year, but he decided he didn't have the stomach for waging the sort of ethnically divisive campaign he believed was inevitable following the Elian Gonzalez controversy.
Today he's pumped up to fight for the job that brought him the greatest glory. "This year just felt right," he explains. Despite undergoing back surgery last month, Ferré insists his health is fine and his age, 66 years old, is not a factor. "I don't think my age matters. Ronald Reagan did it. [Charles] De Gaulle did it."
He'll need all the strength and stamina he can muster for the election November 6. A crowded field of eight contenders will complicate fundraising and likely result in unprecedented amounts of money being spent. As of June 30, the most recent reporting date for campaign donations, Ferré trailed well behind Manny Diaz, a 46-year-old attorney making his first run for office.
"I've seen Manny's benches," Ferré says, referring to bus benches plastered with the smiling image of his opponent. "Manny isn't a strong consideration in this race, but I never discount someone entirely, especially a guy with that much cash." (By the end of June, Diaz had raised nearly $500,000, compared to Ferré's $275,000.)
Ferré also believes Diaz hasn't "defined" himself clearly. "First-time candidates have to do that," he says. "I've always known how to define myself. Few have really done that, and the ones who have wish they hadn't."
That last comment clearly refers to Mayor Joe Carollo, el reino of unflattering press. Election-watchers and an important June poll predict a runoff between the long-time foes. (Ferré still bristles when reminded of an infamous 1983 press conference at which Carollo, then a city commissioner, was expected to endorse Ferré for mayor but instead condemned him.) "I don't care what anyone says, Carollo is not a concern," Ferré predicts. "But I'm not going to talk about that. Issues only."
He pauses and then gives in.
"I'm not against Carollo," he begins. "He's not been a bad mayor. His problem is that he spends the majority of his time getting even with people and suspecting them of treachery.Instead of directing his energy into being creative, he's worried about who's going to stab him in the back. As a consequence he doesn't have a single friend anywhere. Find one person who can actually say they like him."
To the rest of the world, Miami is a petri dish of corruption, and Carollo's antics have only exacerbated that perception, he says. "This city has a bad reputation, and well earned," Ferré contends. "In the last ten years there have been 28 different negative-headline stories -- from the school board scandal to the mayor [physically abusing] his wife."
Let the spin begin.
If Ferré can convince voters that Carollo is an embarrassing hothead and sell himself as a class act, he's halfway to city hall, says former mayor and election insider David Kennedy, who is running the mayoral campaign of Commissioner Willy Gort. "We've got three ghosts from the past here: Suarez, Carollo, and Ferré," Kennedy notes. "Carollo's mistakes are fresh in everyone's minds. Suarez some. Whatever fouls Ferré made, voters aren't going to remember. Being away is not bad. That's the best thing he's got going for him."
No one seems more aware of that than Ferré, who relishes his image as the city's returning white knight. In fact he is relying on that image to carry him to victory this fall. If it lacks the crispness of detail, that's fine with Ferré. Details have never been his strong suit, especially details about his personal finances.
Over the course of several weeks, New Times repeatedly asked Ferré to explain how he earns a living. Repeatedly he balked, referring to himself simply as "an investor who puts deals together." Most of his income, he says, is generated from "offshore" transactions that are "private" and therefore not subject to disclosure under state law.
According to city clerk Walter Foeman, Ferré was not required to file a financial-disclosure form for this year's mayoral election because he had already submitted a form for a 2000 mayoral election that never took place. In November 1999 Miami voters approved a referendum calling for the creation of a strong-mayor form of government. The first strong mayor would be chosen during a special election slated for March 2000. Ferré quickly jumped into the race and in late 1999 filed the required "statement of financial interests" covering calendar year 1998. But Joe Carollo went to court and succeeded in having the March election canceled. (The courts ruled that forcing Carollo to run for re-election twenty months before his term expired constituted an illegal form of recall.)
The financial information Ferré filed back then remains valid. "Once he files, he doesn't have to file a second time," says clerk Foeman. "There wasn't an election, so the form holds over." Of course Ferré could have voluntarily filed a new, updated disclosure form, but he chose not to do so.
Anyone wishing to determine whether Ferré's business interests might present potential conflicts for him as mayor would get little help from the form he filed in 1999. He listed only two sources of income, both described as "investment income," one with United National Bank, the other with a Maryland-based investment-management company called the Torray Fund. Ferré also noted that he owned stock in the Ferré Development Corporation. (The company, he says, is a 50-year-old private Puerto Rican real estate corporation. He estimates the value of his stock at roughly $500,000.)
Those portions of the form devoted to business income and business-ownership interests were marked "N/A," or not applicable. Yet during recent interviews, Ferré readily acknowledged that he had earned approximately $300,000 during 1998, the period covered by the form. The income, he said, came from "putting [business] deals together." But because the transactions took place outside the United States, he argued, they were not subject to disclosure on the statement of financial interests.
At New Times's request, Ferré eventually had his accountant fill out a new financial-disclosure form covering the year 2000. It notes that his primary source of income was interest from deposits at First Union bank in Charlotte, North Carolina. It also offers more information regarding "intangible personal property" such as stocks and bonds -- a total of eight separate sources. But once again information about earned income or business ownership is marked "N/A," even though Ferré says he earned about $300,000 in 2000.
Last week Ferré provided this explanation of his business dealings: "I do business with different entities; some are partnerships and some are corporations. All of it is out of Miami and most of it is offshore -- Honduras, Venezuela, and other Latin-American countries and Puerto Rico. My main business now is in Puerto Rico.
"My average income is in the low six figures every year. Most of my income is made from investments I have with two different entities and First Union. And that's how Mercedes and I live every year, off the income of those investments.
"In addition to that, I put deals together. A cement company in Honduras -- I made a handsome profit in stock. Then I did a deal which is actually previous to that, but I didn't get any payment for it until 1999. It's a coal operation, an existing, ongoing coal operation in Venezuela. I put that deal together. And out of that, when I got paid -- and it took a long time to be paid -- I made a very handsome return for my work.
"Those are the types of things I do. Right now I'm involved in real estate development, tourist and residential involvement in Puerto Rico. But I'm not going to get into the details of that. It's not in Miami and has nothing to do with the mayorship of Miami, so I'm not going to talk about that. If [the Puerto Rican business partners] were to come to Miami, I would disclose that, if they said they were going to do business in Miami.
"I always wanted to be mayor of Dade County and mayor of Miami, and I knew that sooner or later I would be back, so I purposely stayed out of Miami in doing business. It used to be that everything I did in Miami ended up being a conflict of interest.
"Making money is not a difficult thing, so I can just as well do a deal in Honduras or the Dominican Republic or in Trinidad or anywhere. My standards are simple: I don't want to travel more than three hours to do business. I've had offers in Brazil and Argentina, but I won't do them."
Ferré remains insistent that state law does not require him to disclose any details of these foreign business dealings. "I know what the law requires of me and I know what I have to disclose," he asserts. "Those are deals out of the country. They are private."
That's simply incorrect, says Philip C. Claypool, general counsel and deputy executive director of the Florida Commission on Ethics. "You have to report that," he stresses. "It doesn't make a lot of sense to say that a deal outside of Florida doesn't have to be reported if it's benefiting someone inside Florida."
Although Claypool says he's unable to judge Ferré's financial-disclosure forms fairly without consulting the candidate's income-tax returns (which the commission uses to determine disclosure accuracy), he does say Ferré has been less than forthcoming about his finances in the past.
While Miami's mayor, Ferré neglected to disclose five "unsatisfied judgments" between 1979 and 1982, Claypool reports. In 1984 the Commission on Ethics recommended that Ferré be fined $1000 after he admitted withholding the information. In 1993 the commission received two complaints (one from Joe Carollo, notes Claypool) that Ferré had not disclosed several outstanding debts related to Maule Industries, a business owned by his father that went bankrupt in 1976. Ferré acknowledged the infraction and was hit with another $1000 fine. The commission, according to Claypool, "also recommended public censure and reprimand, which means the governor would say in his executive order that Ferré had violated that part of the state statute."
There are three penalties for willfully withholding information from state-mandated financial-disclosure forms: disqualification, censure, or a fine not exceeding $10,000. "Disqualification is rare," Claypool says. "That's happened once in the commission's history."
Controversy over Ferré's financial affairs hasn't been limited to disclosure forms. During his mayoral battle in 1985, a court ordered him to pay $70,000 in fines for accepting illegal campaign contributions four years earlier. (Ferré managed to avoid paying that fine until June 1996, when he was running for county mayor.) In 1989 another court found that he tried to hide $1.4 million in consulting fees by transferring them to his wife. Mercedes was ordered to pay that amount plus attorneys' fees to City National Bank of Florida, a Maule Industries creditor.
Marie Petit, Ferré's political advisor and a close friend for many years, blames the media for exaggerating the candidate's financial quagmires: "The press [in the Eighties] didn't see that right before their eyes Maurice was changing. [After the collapse of Maule Industries] he had to look for another way to butter his bread. He never really had to do that before." Petit concedes she knows little about Ferré's personal business. "He puts deals together," she replies, unable to elaborate.
Manny Alfonso, Ferré's 33-year-old campaign manager, doesn't know much more. "He's a businessman," Alfonso says. "I don't know what that entails. He works with a lot of people in Puerto Rico, I think."
Even Ferré's wife claims she doesn't know details of her husband's business arrangements. Veteran political consultant Ric Katz has known Ferré for almost two decades but he too is unsure how the politician makes a living. Katz, though, believes voters won't be thinking about such things come this fall. Like many others, he speaks dreamily of Ferré's long-ago administration. "Our city is ready for uplifting," he muses. "The next mayor needs to excite people's imagination. They're tired of this city living on the edge of bankruptcy. We want something special that's not about getting by, but getting ahead. And I have to say that Maurice has a reputation for focusing on great ideas."
Ferré says that's exactly what he wants to do. He doesn't intend to dwell on his private life or divulge any more details about his livelihood. And he won't identify the individuals with whom he does business. "All of it is legal and carefully thought through," he says. "I learned my father's lesson. As far as conflicts of interest, I don't have any and won't have any."
The Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center is a boxy, concrete building at 1600 NW Third Ave., just north of downtown in the heart of Overtown. Paint is chipping from its walls. Sixty or so neighborhood residents have gathered here on a Saturday morning eager to listen to a promised lively mayoral debate. But it will be neither lively nor a debate. Only four of the eight candidates bothered to show: Ferré, Xavier Suarez, Emiliano Antunez, and Danny Couch. Instead of engaging his fellow candidates, each man makes a speech.
When it's Ferré's turn, he locks his brown eyes on the crowd. "The city needs a mayor who will represent it with dignity!" he nearly shouts. "This city needs a mayor who will not embarrass it!"
Punching the air with his fist, he continues: "When I was mayor, it was a progressive city." Fist. "We had $38 million in the bank." Fist. "We had more minority directors in city departments than we have ever had before or ever since." Fist with emphasizing thumb.
The crowd is quiet. Only a few random claps.
When the four candidates finish, the forum opens to questions. An elderly black woman in the back of the room asks when any of the men, if elected, would install air conditioning in this public building. Looking slightly annoyed, Ferré explains that the building isn't owned by the city, but he'd do what he could. Each candidate gives her a perfunctory "I'll do my best" response. But none of them capitalizes on the larger significance of such a question.
"We need someone to pay attention to our neighborhoods," explains prominent black attorney H.T. Smith. "We see how Brickell looks and we see how Overtown and other black sections still look."
Because six of the mayoral contenders are Cuban, that community's influential vote, often concentrated enough to boost a candidate to victory without a runoff election, will be diluted. Which means the city's black voters (31,000 out of 133,000 total registered voters) will play a critical role in determining which candidates make it to a runoff. Attorney Smith assures that the city's black community will flock to the polls in record numbers. "We'll prove that the presidential election wasn't an aberration," he says, referring to last year's unprecedented high black voter turnout, locally and statewide. "And people want to pass the [police] citizen-review panel referendum. They'll vote for mayor while they're doing that."
So candidates, Smith warns, had better come up with fresh approaches. "The day when they could waltz in with a fried-chicken dinner, put money in someone's pocket, and expect votes is over," Smith says. "They'd just be whistling Dixie, and we're tired of that song. Ferré has to show us not what he did then, but what he's going to do now."
Ferré's platform relies heavily on changes in education, crime, and economic development, the last of which includes relocating to Miami from Washington, D.C., the Inter-American Development Bank, the hemisphere's largest and oldest Latin-American fiduciary. Ferré says he's tossing the idea around with bank president and friend Enrique V. Iglesias. "If it moved here," he says, "Miami would then indeed become the capital of Latin America."
Adding another bank to Brickell Avenue would seem to be vintage Ferré. But the candidate says he's ready to roll up his sleeves and concentrate on improving neighborhoods, ready to become the proverbial pothole mayor. "Miami's population has grown proportionately poorer," Ferré notes. "It's not white flight; it's middle-class flight that's a problem. The city is an entry point for Third World people and exiles. They do well and they move out of the city to Kendall or somewhere because housing is cheaper. We have to sponsor equal growth in the inner city so that people want to stay."
High crime also drives people out of the city, he acknowledges. "Close to 50 percent of kids in schools within the city live in poverty," he says. "It's clear from all the stats I've examined that crime in the city is committed by young, uneducated men. Once I decrease crime, education follows, and employment increases."
Ferré would like to found an educational program in Miami similar to Pennsylvania's Glen Mills Schools, the nation's oldest high school for court-referred teenage boys. The year-round curriculum concentrates on vocational education and post-graduate employment. Grants, loans, and scholarships are offered to those who show the desire and ability to straighten out their lives.
Among other specifics Ferré considers part of his campaign platform: Turning the Miami River into a tourist attraction dotted with outdoor cafés similar to Lincoln Road, building a new science museum in the downtown area, and cashing in on what he says is ten billion dollars in federal funds to build a citywide trolley system that would decrease traffic congestion.
Ferré speaks with excitement and enthusiasm about such projects, but when it comes to the current civic agenda -- a new baseball stadium and the Latin Grammys debacle in particular -- he quickly grows exasperated. "Geez, that's such a simple matter," he groans. "The stadium has been mishandled just like the awards. My God, any intelligent person could have foretold what was going to happen. How can you not bring the exile community and the ACLU together with Grammy organizers in advance? And why was there no contract? If there were, [Grammys chief executive Michael] Greene wouldn't have been able to walk away without a major penalty. The stadium has similar haywire potential. [Marlins owner John] Henry should sign a contract agreeing not to sell the team until we make a lot of money. To me that's business."
The business of government itself also needs an overhaul, according to Ferré. "One of the first things I'm going to do," he vows, "is get the county and the city together for regular meetings. There's an attitude of us against them and vice versa. That's got to stop."
At Little Havana's Ogles Apostolic Presbyterian Church, the congregation bows in prayer. Oh, heavenly father....Ferré reaches into his navy-blue suit's breast pocket. If we walk in the light as He is in the light....Retrieving a Palm Pilot, he cradles it low. We have fellowship with one another....He strains his eyes to see the day's schedule. Hispanic church, check. Black church before lunch, next. It's a slow Sunday. He usually visits at least three before noon and one in the early afternoon. "We're a little behind schedule," he whispers. "We're not going to make it to the black church on time."
But Ferré is going to be even later than planned. After the final hymn, he becomes the Tom Jones of Miami politics, an aging star who still inspires his aging groupies. An elderly Cuban parishioner with poinsettia-red lipstick and Cruella De Vil hair uses her cane to whack her way through the church. "Señor Ferré, Señor Ferré!" she shouts as other ladies encircle the former mayor. With tears welling, she says, "Tengo fe" ("I have faith in you").
As Ferré listens to the woman, an elderly, lanky man asks him to autograph a church program. "This is part of it," wife Mercedes says. "Everyone always wants to touch him."
Several handshakes and hugs later, the couple is back in the car, racing to Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church. They arrive just as Rev. James Kinchen wraps up a fiery sermon. Across the aisle Vernon Clark waves.
Ferré's eyes and ears in Miami's black neighborhoods, 65-year-old Clark plugs the candidate at labor-union meetings and other gatherings. He relates stories of a long-ago mayor who did good by jitney drivers and old men playing checkers along 62nd Street. Clark, an Amtrak attendant and Ferré campaign bee for nearly two decades, is convinced that his man will sweep the black vote.
Tapping his toe to the gospel music, Ferré holds Mercedes's hand for a moment. Later he'll joke that he's tone deaf and rhythmless. "I'm not so hot on the dance floor," he offers. When the organ dies down and the flock shuffles out of the church, he and Mercedes stand like flight attendants bidding farewell to passengers. Ferré repeatedly introduces himself and compliments women on their Sunday dresses. When the last of them has left, Ferré's pageant-queen smile fades and he heads inside the church to talk with Clark.
Willie Nyman, a 61-year-old Opa-locka nurse, still sits on a pew fanning herself and talking about how hot the day is bound to get. A few yards from Ferré and Clark, she asks, "Now, who is that again?"
One of her three friends answers, "Some politician."
Nyman has lived in Miami 41 years but barely remembers Ferré. Neither can the women next to her. "It's been so long ago," she says, straining to remember. "I think he did some good."
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