The struggle to keep little Elian Gonzalez from the clutches of his communist father has galvanized Miami's Cuban-American community like no other issue. Spanish-language radio buzzes with us-versus-them propaganda, political figures on both sides of the ethnic divide pander, and street-corner conversation focuses on exacting revenge from those who would send the boy back to the island. Exile leaders casting themselves as the boy's advocates have received the kind of publicity that could only be topped by a full-scale assault on Havana's Malecón.
Some politicos, such as Miami Mayor Joe Carollo and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, have roiled the political waters by calling for Cubans to stand together. With a county populace that is approximately 40 percent Cuban American, and more like 50 percent at the polls on election day, the Elian aftereffect will likely be strong. Among those who stand to gain the most (should they choose to run for office) are members of a dream team of lawyers handpicked by political consultant Armando Gutierrez to represent the aggrieved Gonzalez family: Spencer Eig, José Garcia-Pedrosa, and Kendall Coffey. There's also Robert Curbelo, Jr., the West Kendall Community Council chairman who aided the family after the boy was plucked from the sea. Curbelo announced April 7 he is running for county commission.
Perhaps sensing that any eagerness to capitalize on the case might appear unseemly, all but Curbelo publicly demur, saying political office is the last thing on their minds right now. But you don't have to read tea leaves to see the future. "Elian's legal team has been catapulted to heroic status by Cuban Americans, especially in the City of Miami," says veteran pollster Rob Schroth.
Curbelo jumped into the Elian fray early, and often was seen giving the child piggyback rides. "I got caught up in it and fell in love with the kid," he admits. Curbelo, who is running for the District 11 county commission seat being vacated by county mayoral candidate Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, insists he wanted to be a commissioner long before Elian arrived. He says he tried to keep a low profile during the episode, avoiding the frequent television interviews the family's lawyers favored. "I didn't want anyone to say that I was doing it for [the commission seat]."
Curbelo's association with the family should help him make a splash in District 11, which is 66 percent Hispanic (and perhaps 60 percent Cuban American), according to Schroth. But many residents are young and culturally assimilated, so association with Elian won't help as much as it might in neighborhoods populated by hard-line seniors.
Garcia-Pedrosa is widely discussed as a candidate to run against State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. And he admits he lusts for public office, although he's not sure which one. Garcia-Pedrosa has not only been city manager in both Miami Beach and briefly in Miami, he also mounted a failed 1995 campaign against Janet Reno for state attorney. "Actually I'm leaning against running," he offers. "The timing's not right." For one thing, he says, he knows he would be attacked for using Elian for political gain. "I wouldn't feel good about that.
"But I have been contacted by an incredible number of people," Garcia-Pedrosa continues. "In fact I'm meeting soon with a group of prominent people who want to outline why I should run against Katherine Fernandez Rundle, and I promised them I would listen very carefully to what they have to say. I plan to keep that promise."
Another problem is that he moved from Miami Beach to Miami last year. "That opens the door to run for mayor," he explains. "If I run for state attorney, I can't run for mayor." Garcia-Pedrosa has strong incentive to seek the city's top job. The current mayor, Joe Carollo, fired him as city manager in 1999.
If he runs for state attorney the Elian factor will permeate the campaign, says political consultant Bob Levy. "Unfortunately that race will become a referendum on Janet Reno," observes Levy, who did campaign work for Reno in Miami-Dade. "Janet Reno gave us Kathy Rundle and took Elian. I think, unfortunately, it will become a tremendous ethnic divide for the community."
According to Rob Schroth, who has Fernandez Rundle as a client this year: "Garcia-Pedrosa would be expected to do well among Cuban Americans, but he might find a chilly reception among the county's non-Cuban voters."
Eig, meanwhile, ran as part of Miami Beach Unity '97, which aimed to combine the Hispanic and Jewish votes on the Beach. Interestingly that group was Gutierrez's brainchild. Eig lost against Hispanic candidate José Smith. Like Garcia-Pedrosa, Eig waxes reluctant. "Actually I'm a little exhausted from being involved in intense and unpaid activities," he says. "I'm not planning in getting involved in another. Not right now. In the future maybe."
Eig doesn't have to announce anything yet: Miami Beach's next round of general elections is scheduled in 2001. If he can make the Elian-inspired goodwill last a year, he'll appear attractive to two of the most active voting populations, the Cubans and the Orthodox Jews, pundits say. Miami Beach has had a dramatic increase in Hispanic residents over the past few years. Four Hispanics were elected to the commission in 1997. "If the trend line remains the same, they will be even more powerful next election," says Schroth. Notes Levy: "You ain't getting elected anywhere but on the Beach wearing a yarmulke."
Coffey, who was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District from 1993 to 1996 and also campaigned unsuccessfully for state Senate in 1992, laughs when asked about his political future. "I have absolutely no intention of running again for public office," he declares. Most politicos don't foresee a Coffey candidacy; his image still suffers from the episode that caused him to resign as U.S. Attorney, when he allegedly bit a topless dancer at a strip club. But Coffey has collected political chits, having worked on Carollo's vote-fraud campaign two years ago; represented the mayor in a dispute with the city commission during last year's recall effort; and most recently tried to mediate the dispute between Carollo and fired City Manager Donald Warshaw.
He has emerged less as a potential candidate than an insider with political clout; his services clearly will be in demand by high-profile types during and after campaigns. "It kind of makes him the go-to guy, like an F. Lee Bailey or Roy Black," Levy says.
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It remains to be seen just how much of a sure thing Elian involvement is for vote-seekers. Some non-Cubans are enraged in the aftermath of the postraid riots and the ensuing shakeups at Dinner Key and within the Miami Police Department. Voter registration drives in the Anglo and black communities are under way. "I'm not so sure [the dream team's] political fortunes have risen significantly outside a narrow demographic," Schroth comments. "This is the most polarizing political issue I've seen in Dade County politics in fourteen years of polling. As a result for every vote you win from a Cuban American, you would be likely to lose among Anglos and blacks. In other words Kendall Coffey could probably be elected mayor of Little Havana, but he would have trouble expanding his base outside those borders."
"This was a cozy little campfire that everybody got around to get warm," adds lawyer Richard Sharpstein, who was briefly part of the legal team. "Then it turned into a forest fire and a lot of people got burned."