True Colors

Within political circles the buzz is almost deafening:

"What's wrong with Penelas?"

"Has Miami-Dade's boy-king lost his mind?"

"Is the mayor off his medication or what?"

All around town people are asking the same questions following a month in which every decision Alex Penelas made left even the most sophisticated devotees of local politics scratching their heads in amazement. In recent weeks the only positive thing anyone could say about him is that at least he hasn't been arrested for assaulting his wife.

Penelas's journey into never-never land began with his selection of Steve Shiver as county manager. This was followed by his clumsy handling of questions regarding his interest in becoming strong mayor, his state-of-the-county address announcing a new initiative to allow developers to police themselves, his insistence on suing the federal government over the Clinton administration's decision to prohibit construction of a major airport at Homestead Air Force Base, and perhaps most revealing, his one-man jihad against the appointment of Angela Gittens as the county's aviation director.

This erratic rush of events has left many people dumbfounded. Not only have his decisions defied logic, they have been presented for public consumption in a manner that can only be described as bush-league. For someone who is supposed to be politically savvy, Penelas has done nothing but embarrass himself. It's as if the mayor has gone politically tone-deaf.

Where are his trusted advisors, the men who whisper in the mayor's ear and tell him what to say and how to say it? Where is Herman Echevarria? Chris Korge? Rodney Barreto? Brian May? Are the mayor's cronies so busy counting the money they're sucking out of the county they don't have time to offer him advice on how to avoid looking like a two-bit political whore?

Apparently not.

Eventually the mayor's supporters will awaken from their greed-induced stupor and rally around their meal ticket, straightening the seams on his stockings, wiping the dirt from his knees, applying several new layers of makeup to his battered façade -- all in hopes of turning him into a beauty again. In fact that process began on Monday, with several Penelas supporters coming to his defense in a front-page Miami Herald story. Penelas isn't pandering to a few special interests, we're told; he's merely "taking a strong stance on issues." The mayor isn't betraying the public's trust; he's showing signs of vitality. "It's energy," lobbyist Jorge Lopez declared.

A different image comes to my mind. It's Frank Sinatra singing "That's why the lady is a tramp."

Alex Penelas is in trouble. His world grows smaller by the day, his political options continue to narrow, and his aspirations for greatness fade like a distant memory. The recent spate of decisions reflects this new reality. They have about them an air of desperation. Not panic quite yet, but clear desperation.

There is no great mystery to Penelas. He has always been driven by one thing: political ambition. Not money. Not sex. Not even power. Ambition defines every aspect of his life; it is at the core of his soul. And in relentless pursuit of its fulfillment he surrounds himself with men whose avarice forms a perfectly symbiotic whole: They help him get elected; he helps them get rich.

Understanding this impulse elucidates the mayor's motive in hiring Shiver as county manager. Penelas offered the manager's job to several government insiders before handing it to Shiver. None of them wanted it because they knew Penelas wasn't looking for a manager; he was looking for a puppet.

Is there anyone in Miami-Dade County who actually believes Steve Shiver is the best person in the nation to oversee a $4.4 billion budget and 28,000 employees? Shiver is a bright, articulate, likable fellow, but it will take him two years of on-the-job training before he truly understands how the county operates. Which is exactly why, from Penelas's standpoint, he was the best candidate for the job.

As Shiver treads water in a complicated new job, Penelas plans his own future. As it stands now, he will be out of work and out of politics when his term expires in 2004. In order to avoid that, he'll need to run for Congress or change the county charter to create a strong-mayor form of government, which would allow him to run again.

Shiver's appointment could serve Penelas either way. By installing a weak manager, he subliminally begins to make the case for the county requiring a strong mayor. Shiver can also aid him in building support among the manager's constituency in South Miami-Dade, a part of the county where Penelas clearly needs help. In his last mayoral election, he was crushed in South Miami-Dade by businessman Jay Love.