State Rep. Gus Barreiro represents one of the most diverse districts in the state
State Rep. Gus Barreiro represents one of the most diverse districts in the state

The Enigma

What do you call a Republican who is pro-choice, supports the National Rifle Association and gay rights, and believes in treatment over incarceration for juveniles but is considered to have one of the worst voting records in the state on environmental issues?

In Miami we call him Gus.

State Rep. Gustavo Barreiro is not an easy man to categorize. As the legislative session opens this week in Tallahassee, Barreiro is hoping to play a more prominent role than he has in past years, when some of his positions angered both the governor and the House leadership. Barreiro led the charge in 2000 to derail a portion of the governor's proposed "10-20-Life" bill for kids. Among its provisions: Any juvenile who commits a crime while carrying a gun automatically would be sentenced to ten years in an adult prison. Barreiro believes the measure was wrong. "I did not want to take discretion away from judges, especially for first-time offenders," he explains. "I felt strongly about it." Barreiro enlisted the help of state Rep. Manny Prieguez, and the two men attacked the bill at every opportunity, lobbying members of the House and Senate until they knew they had enough votes to defeat it.

Once they had the votes, the governor agreed to back down and soften the bill. Being outmaneuvered by members of their own party was an embarrassment to Gov. Jeb Bush and House Speaker John Thrasher, and their retribution was swift. Nearly every bill Barreiro tried to pass for the remainder of that year, and all his budget requests, were killed. "He was willing to sacrifice his own standing for principal," lobbyist Bob Levy opines. "And you have to admire that."

After spending the past two years as vice-chairman of the community affairs committee, most observers expected Barreiro to become its chairman, overseeing sensitive growth-management issues around the state. Instead the fact that he was given the chairmanship of the house juvenile justice committee was seen by some as yet another bit of political retribution for his earlier stand. "The leadership may have decided that since he was so interested in juvenile justice issues last year, we'll just go ahead and make him head of that committee," comments Levy.

Barreiro, however, says he asked to be chairman of juvenile justice. "This has always been my dream," he notes. Typically, Barreiro admits, juvenile justice is viewed as one of the least desirable committee assignments in the legislature. He says he hopes to turn that perception around. And certainly his background makes him well suited for the task.

Barreiro was born in Mantanzas, Cuba, and came to the United States 39 years ago, when he was just two years old. His younger brother is Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. For those who only casually know the Barreiro boys, it's hard to believe they are related. Gus, a former high school football star, is barrel-chested and extremely outgoing, while Bruno is much more mild-mannered. And though they both are Republicans, Gus is considered a moderate while Bruno is more conservative. On several occasions the two men have endorsed opposing candidates.

What most folks don't realize is they actually are half-brothers. Same father, different mothers. Gus Barreiro was raised principally by his mother after his parents divorced shortly after leaving Cuba. Barreiro's father remarried and started a family that included Bruno.

"I wouldn't see my father that much when I was growing up," Gus Barreiro remembers. "My mother and father were both new immigrants; they were both struggling to make their own lives."

Barreiro won a football scholarship to a Wisconsin college, where he studied criminal justice and child development. While in school his girlfriend became pregnant. "I was in my dorm room, it was the week before Christmas, and Patty came to me and said, `I'm pregnant,'" he recalls. "There are many choices you can make at that point. We decided to get married." Barreiro was twenty years old.

Eighteen months later he dropped out of college and went to work at a group home for juvenile delinquents. Eventually he opened his own facility, housing up to eight kids at any one time.

"I had a philosophy which I still believe in today," he explains. "If you have a troubled kid, you don't put him in jail unless you absolutely have to. Instead you should try to place him in a house with structure, give him a family-type setting, and see if he responds to it. Most will. The important thing is for these kids to make a connection with somebody. When they make that connection, they don't want to disappoint that person, and eventually they will begin to realize they don't want to disappoint themselves by screwing up, either."

After seven years his marriage failed, and he returned to South Florida in 1989, leaving behind his ex-wife and his daughter, Nicole. Barreiro was ordered to pay child support, but by 1998 he owed more than $22,000 in interest and delinquent payments.

At the time he disputed the amount and produced 85 canceled checks written to his ex-wife over the years by Barreiro and members of his family. He said he tried to provide for his daughter whenever possible. "I never felt I needed to defend myself as a father," he offers. "I did what I could do."

Clearly, though, Barreiro made mistakes. According to his divorce agreement, payments were supposed to be made through the courts. And despite his claims, there were long periods in which neither Barreiro nor his family sent any money to his ex-wife. (Barreiro also erred by failing to report the child support debt on his financial-disclosure forms when he first ran for office in 1998. He was sanctioned by the state's ethics commission and admonished by his colleagues in the House.)

In 1999 Barreiro stopped disputing the amount and paid off the $22,000 notice.

When the child support story first broke in the Miami Herald, Nicole Barreiro refused to talk about the controversy. She was eighteen years old at the time and says she was hounded by the Herald, wanting to know how she felt about being abandoned by her father.

She's 21 now and has gained a little perspective. "No, I don't feel he abandoned me," she tells me by phone from Wisconsin. "I don't feel he was there for the most important parts of my life, but at this point I'm not really blaming him. Things happen, and I know he loves me."

She says her mother had a rough time financially, and she wishes Barreiro had done more to support them. "We struggled, but we made it through it," she says. "I'm sure it made me stronger."

More important to her now is the relationship she has with her father. "We're not as close as we could be," she admits. "We're not as close as we probably should be, but now that I'm older and I understand the situation, I can see it getting better." She is in Florida this week for spring break, during which she'll see her dad. I asked her if she thought it was odd that he has gained a reputation in the legislature for being very progressive on child-development issues while his own dealings with Nicole and her mother leave much to be desired.

"I don't think he's a hypocrite," Nicole maintains. "I think what happened between him and me made him realize what is important." Whether he is championing these causes today as a way of atoning for his behavior in the past Nicole says she doesn't know, but it does seem likely that Barreiro's dedication to children's issues is in part the result of his own experiences.

Gustavo Barreiro's legislative district is one of the most diverse in the state. It runs from the Deering Estates in South Miami-Dade to Lincoln Road on Miami Beach and includes parts of Little Havana, Coconut Grove, Key Biscayne, Brickell, and downtown Miami.

This year Barreiro was elected chairman of Miami-Dade's 27-member delegation. It will be his job to unite the delegation around certain key issues and hold them together. The county, he points out, has some key players in powerful posts, including Rep. Carlos Lacasa, chairman of the House appropriations committee; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who will take the lead in redrawing all the congressional boundaries in the state based on the latest U.S. Census figures; Rep. Renier Diaz de la Portilla, chairman of the committee overseeing K-12 education; and Sen. Ron Silver, dean of the legislature and chairman of the committee that will decide spending on health care issues.

"It would be a shame if we do not use the positions we have to make sure Miami-Dade County gets its fair share of the state budget," Barreiro says.

The state's $43 billion budget will be the most vexing problem for legislators. Without a state income tax, Florida is almost entirely dependent on the money it collects in sales tax. As the economy begins to slow down and folks begin to spend less, the impact on the state budget can be severe.

Last year the legislature had almost three billion dollars in new revenue to dole out in tax cuts or new spending. This year initial budget estimates forecast there will be less than one billion dollars in new revenue. Certainly one billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but when you factor in cost-of-living increases and salary hikes for state employees, that number begins to come down sharply. Also, the state is looking at a major shortfall in Medicaid, owing to an increase in costs (particularly in the area of prescription drugs) and eligibility (more people are qualified for the program than state officials previously had estimated). Some officials predict the state might need to come up with one billion dollars more than it previously allotted for Medicaid.

Further complicating the matter, the governor is pushing for a tax cut, and there are at least 1600 new projects currently unfunded in this year's proposed budget. Almost none of those projects will make it into the state budget, but for those few that do, the money has to come from somewhere.

The result: Existing programs are coming under attack as never before.

A preliminary budget already has been released; among the casualties is New World School of the Arts, which is slated to lose 50 percent of its funding, or about $500,000. The county was hoping to receive five million dollars for cleanup and dredging of the Miami River and another ten million dollars for the empowerment zone. As of now there is no money in the budget for either project. Florida's PBS television stations are having their budgets slashed, as are groups battling diabetes, epilepsy, and breast cancer. The University of Miami's School of Nursing is losing money as are programs designed to help poor, pregnant women receive prenatal care.

And these are only a fraction of the proposed cuts.

Barreiro says projects such as a new stadium for the Florida Marlins are going to face a tough battle. And, he notes, time is running out. He predicts that if a site isn't selected and the financing worked out by mid-March, the legislature won't even hear the issue. "I don't see where we will have time to make this happen," he admits. "We are waiting for the city and the county to get their act together."

Barreiro says he still is open to building a new stadium, though he has problems with some of the financing schemes he's heard discussed so far, particularly the idea of using convention development tax -- the so-called bed tax charged to tourists who stay in area hotels -- since that money is supposed to be used to promote the county's tourism and convention industry.

As for another controversial topic, Barreiro says he will support Rep. Carlos Lacasa's plan to reorganize Miami-Dade County government, creating what is being called a "strong mayor" position. His main concern is to "make sure it is not a vehicle for the current mayor to run again for mayor." Under term limits Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas is unable to run for another term in office as the county's executive mayor. But under a strong mayor form of government, Penelas would be free to run again in 2004.

"I know there will be amendments to that bill to deal with that issue," says Barreiro.


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