The Fidel Factor

Since taking office as our new county mayor on November 16, Carlos Alvarez has played principal for a day at two elementary schools, addressed an assembly of high school students, and attended the opening of a Burger King with Magic Johnson. For a tough-talking former police chief who now heads one of the biggest municipal governments in the nation, an agenda like that looks more like a Mister Rogers road show.

Behind the benign façade, though, Alvarez has been plotting to reshape county government in a way that would vastly expand his own power. The radical changes he is pursuing amount to nothing less than a lunge at the throats of the thirteen county commissioners.

It's widely known that Alvarez wants to strip the commission of its authority to award contracts and shift it to the county manager. Less well known is his ambition to eliminate the manager's position altogether by creating a strong-mayor form of government. Under a strong-mayor system, all the manager's powers, including hiring and firing department directors and shaping the county's six-billion-dollar budget, would be transferred to the mayor. In order for these two initiatives to become reality, voters would have to approve amendments to the county charter in a referendum that could take place a mere eleven months from now.

Already Alvarez is attempting to form a political action committee that would solicit the substantial money needed to collect 100,000 signatures so the measures could appear on the ballot. The PAC would also launch a complicated and expensive campaign to build voter support.

In sprawling Miami-Dade County, an undertaking like that can succeed only with the enthusiastic support (financial and otherwise) of high-profile business leaders and experienced political operatives alike. Those are precisely the people Alvarez's camp has been approaching, but by many accounts the recruitment drive is not going well. In fact some of the individuals who've been contacted will not discuss the matter, not even privately. Why? Because many consider Alvarez's scheme a political third rail -- touch it and you die. The thinking goes like this: No matter what happens, the thirteen commissioners will remain in place.

"Anybody who does business in front of the commission is going to stay ten miles from this," says one person with extensive knowledge of county hall's inner workings. "The commission has made it very clear: There will be consequences for anybody caught raising money for this. This is war. Carlos has a lot of momentum right now, but if he fails, the rest of his term will be miserable."

Alvarez needs to raise a lot of money -- an estimated one million dollars for signature-gathering alone. That task would be difficult in the best of circumstances, but if the county's top political players and well-connected lobbyists duck and run, it could be virtually impossible.

"He can't mount this campaign and then go raise money from vendors, lobbyists, or anybody with business ties to the county," warns one political veteran. "That's a recipe for trouble."

Still the mayor has little choice but to try. After a season of campaign promises, he must act. Alvarez was one of several mayoral candidates who vowed to reform the procurement process. His lust to become a Mayor on Steroids, however, is something new, emerging (publicly at least) only after his election.

"The mayor came in with a mandate to clean things up," says Dario Moreno, director of Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. "He got 55 percent of the vote, the majority in the Hispanic community, but also the white community. The only community he didn't win is among African Americans. I think if a year goes by and people don't see any significant changes, people will view him as just another politician. And if he doesn't couch the move toward a strong mayor as part of the larger reform package, such as changing procurement, he's going to be accused of making a power grab. I really think he has a year to do this. If not, his mandate will dissipate."

Alvarez's political offensive swiftly accomplished one thing: It made him the common enemy of most commissioners. Their opposition will be formidable. With political machines embedded throughout the county, commissioners can raise money and wage campaigns against the mayor's plans.

Commissioners sent a strong signal they were ready to rumble with the mayor when they elected District 11 Commissioner Joe Martinez as their chairman, a position that in many respects is more powerful than that of mayor. Martinez is a retired Miami-Dade police lieutenant who has a contentious history with Alvarez.

Martinez wasted no time in making his first move: He announced the creation of a "task force" to study procurement reform, and he invited the mayor to join it. "I welcome the opportunity to discuss any issue with our new mayor, but I firmly believe that any önegotiations' regarding structural changes to our citizens' government should not be conducted behind closed doors," Martinez wrote pointedly in a December 10 memo to his fellow commissioners.

"The mayor said he would come to the commission on this, and if that didn't work he would go to the voters," Martinez told me recently. "That's why I'm inviting him to join the task force. Of course, I can't force the mayor to be on this committee, but I really hope he would join." (No word yet from Alvarez, and no comment for this column either.)

On the campaign trail, Alvarez repeatedly said he would first try to parley with commissioners on procurement reform, and only if they resisted would he go to the voters. If he ignores that pledge now, count on his opponents to portray him as an aspiring tyrant who cynically used the contract issue as cover for achieving the goal he truly covets: becoming the county's first strong mayor, a position that would instantly make him one of the most powerful politicians in the entire state.

"I think it would be very, very dangerous to put all that power in one person's hands, no matter who it is," Martinez says. "This county has a lot of people who have fled oppressive regimes. I think a corollary could be made here."

Martinez's veiled threat resonates with other knowledgeable observers. "It's not a slam dunk in the Hispanic community," notes one political insider. "They left one dictator in Cuba, and the opposition is going to say, öLook, you got representation now [with thirteen commissioners]. What happens when the wrong guy gets in office?'"