Whichever Way the Wind Blows

Alex Penelas is obsessed with opinion polls. So much so that he just spent $110,000 of taxpayers' money to learn that registered voters oppose a sales tax increase -- a fact most politicians could have figured out by simply holding aloft a moistened finger.

But the poll served another purpose. It allowed Penelas to hire Frederick Schneiders Research, the Washington, D.C.-based firm that conducted all his polling during the 1996 mayoral campaign. (The firm's president, Keith Frederick, has since become one of Penelas's closest advisers.) Last summer, at the urging of the mayor's office, Frederick's firm was given a $25,000, no-bid contract to act as a consultant on the sales tax poll. Frederick himself confirms he was hired for that particular survey "through my contacts with Brian May," the mayor's chief of staff.

The cost of the poll was absorbed by Dade County's transit department, whose director, Danny Alvarez, says the survey was undertaken to determine if voters would support a one-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation-related projects. Alvarez explains that when a poll was first broached, he met with then-County Manager Armando Vidal, who expressed some reservations and told him to consult with Penelas's office. "I spoke to the mayor's office and asked them what I should do," Alvarez recalls. He believes he spoke with May about the issue, but isn't certain. May denies he played any role in Frederick's hiring. "I did not recommend Keith," he says.

Alvarez had expected to use the Coral Gables firm Behavioral Science Research to conduct the poll. "The mayor's office suggested that we should hire Keith [Frederick] to help Behavioral Science Research develop the questions," says Alvarez, who took the advice to heart and hired Frederick's firm as a subcontractor to Behavioral Science Research.

Robert Ladner, president of Behavioral Science Research, says he hadn't asked for any assistance in conducting this poll, but when Frederick's name was suggested, he didn't object. "I know he has the mayor's confidence," Ladner explains. "I can't remember who told me that exactly -- it could have been Danny Alvarez, it could have been someone from the mayor's office. I know he does a lot of work for the mayor. So when his name came up, I said sure."

Here are a few of the questions Frederick developed for the transit survey on a penny sales-tax increase:

Question 1: A lot has been written in the newspapers about our mayor, Alex Penelas. How would you rate the job Alex Penelas is doing as mayor of Dade County -- excellent, good, not so good, or poor?

Question 2: Given the recent news about the mayor's budget recommendations, do you consider Mayor Penelas to be very trustworthy, somewhat trustworthy, somewhat untrustworthy, or very untrustworthy with the county budget money?

Question 3: How would you rate the job that the Dade County Commission is doing -- excellent, good, not so good, or poor?

Question 4: And how would you rate the job that the Dade County School Board is doing -- excellent, good, not so good, or poor?

Both Frederick and Alvarez deny that taxpayers' money was spent on a survey designed to provide Penelas with information about his popularity. The vast majority of the questions, they argue, dealt with transit issues and the sales tax. "My understanding is that the mayor's office has its own people who keep tabs with the community," Alvarez says, "and they don't need something like this to tell them where they stand."

Last December Frederick prepared a report using information from the poll. Some of the data appear to be strictly political. For instance, Frederick carefully detailed Penelas's popularity among specific groups of people, noting that 56 percent of Cuban women 50 years of age or older believe he is doing an excellent job. Frederick also broke down by commission district those voters who found the mayor to be "very trustworthy." Frederick also analyzed Penelas's popularity in relation to that of the county commission and the school board.

This information was necessary, Frederick argues, because whenever you conduct a poll relating to possible tax increases, it is essential to gauge the public's feelings about their elected officials. Frederick also defends the decision to hire him to prepare the questions, noting that his firm has conducted similar polls regarding transportation issues in Orange and Hillsborough counties. "I felt like I was the perfect match for this project," he says.

This is the second time (at least) a member of Penelas's kitchen cabinet has quietly been included in a county deal. Last year Raul Masvidal was hired as a subcontractor to a consulting firm investigating the viability of Dade's plans to expand its seaport. Earlier this year Masvidal's name came up again when Armando Vidal accused Brian May of ordering him to include the former Miami banker in the $1.34 million contract to oversee construction of the Miami Heat's new basketball arena. Masvidal is slated to be paid $120,000 as a consultant to the project. "The mayor's office wanted me to put Masvidal on the arena contract," Vidal told the Miami Herald after his firing last month. "I received the direction from Brian May." May and Masvidal both deny the allegation. Masvidal, in fact, claims it was Vidal's idea to place him in the lucrative deal.

Frederick acknowledges he has received a great deal of work in Dade County thanks to his close ties with the mayor. At Penelas's urging, Frederick was hired to conduct polling for the election campaigns of Herman Echevarria in Hialeah, David Pearlson in Miami Beach, and Dorrin Rolle's race last month for county commission. He was also recently retained by County Commissioner Katy Sorenson for her re-election campaign, and has worked on at least one countywide measure for a business group, probing the public's attitudes about privatizing the water and sewer department.

By encouraging others to hire Frederick, Penelas is able to keep his own personal pollster busy compiling politically useful information. Frederick readily admits that in each of his Dade polls, he includes questions about Penelas, the results of which, with his client's permission, he then shares with the mayor. "There is nothing unusual with this," he asserts. "You always ask questions about the leading political figures. If I were doing a poll in a congressional race, I would include questions about the president of the United States."

People who work with Penelas say he often talks about these various polls, and seems particularly interested in numbers that might show an increase in his support among black voters. A likely explanation for this fascination: Penelas knows that if he wants to run for statewide office as a Democrat, he must improve his image among blacks.

One source I spoke to claims that Penelas was especially heartened by and bragged about his numbers in Frederick's transit survey. The poll showed wide-ranging support for the mayor among most voting groups.

The most interesting aspect of this survey, however, is not a question it asked, but a question it raises: What does this say about Alex Penelas's character? Both Frederick and the transit department's Danny Alvarez believe that finding a dedicated source of revenue for transportation issues is in the best interests of Dade County. Both men point out that federal matching funds are available for communities that show a willingness to tax themselves in order to improve their infrastructures. And Alvarez notes that Dade currently has nearly four billion dollars in unmet transportation needs. Increasing the sales tax by a penny -- and thus raising more than $200 million each year -- would go a long way toward meeting those needs.

But simply put, the public is loath to increase taxes. Frederick's poll found that 63 percent of registered voters surveyed opposed a sales tax increase for transportation needs. On the other hand, Alvarez thinks it's possible to convince the public that a tax increase is necessary. It's been done before. It's a matter of presentation.

Which brings us back to that question about Penelas. Last week I asked Frederick if the mayor would be speaking in favor of a sales tax increase. "You already know the answer to that," he huffed. Translation: No.

But why should it automatically be no? If such a tax increase makes sense as public policy, why isn't Penelas willing to support it? What's the purpose of gauging the mayor's popularity if he's not willing to expend some of that political capital embracing and promoting an unpopular but worthy cause? In short, why waste money on the survey?

Penelas, it appears, only wants to be on the side of winning issues. For this mayor, politics isn't about tough choices; it's a popularity contest.

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