That Old Familiar Face

Miami has been feeling cheap. Seduced for years by political sweet-talkers, the city knows it has a reputation. The recent past has been particularly shameful. A city commissioner sent to prison. A city manager sent to prison. A financial meltdown. An election subverted by fraud. One mayor gone loco. Another gone to jail. Other cities laugh at Miami. Newspapers around the world have been gasping and pointing.

What Miami could use is a man of class. A big-ideas guy. A leader with his own money who won't need to dip into the city's purse. Perhaps an old flame whose imperfections the city has forgotten but whose appealing personality lingers in memory. A politician who will let Miami, for once, respect itself the morning after an election.

Some time ago there was a man like that. Campaigning for office in 1983, he stood at water's edge, handsome and tanned as a telenovela star, his linen suit rippling in the breeze. Behind him pleasure boats played on Biscayne Bay. Before him the city's skyline glimmered. He looked out across the city while cameras rolled. "I want to be the mayor for all the people," he intoned earnestly.

Oh, Maurice Ferré, where have you gone?

"I may have left," he answers, "but I didn't go far. I never said goodbye."

That much is clear as Ferré and wife Mercedes pull into the parking lot at Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho. As they enter the Little Havana landmark, diners rush them, eager to shake Ferré's hand, pat his back, exchange a few words. Some, mostly women, embrace him in matronly hugs. While he and Mercedes share their lunch of arroz con pollo and plantains, he grins, nodding at people he knows. Numerous times he rises from his chair to speak at eye level with admirers.

"I always like to get close to people," he says between bites. "You've got to be accessible to people or they won't have anything to do with you."

Ferré had twelve years to learn that lesson. Miami's first Hispanic mayor, elected in 1973, his popularity peaked in the early Eighties when he became known as the Man Who Built Brickell. According to Ferré lore, he Pied-Pipered developers to the avenue, dotting it with international banks and ritzy office buildings.

Sprung from a wealthy Puerto Rican family, this aristocrat already adored by the city's upper crust was christened a visionary even by the common folk. Miami went from country to cosmopolitan thanks to him. The press referred to his administration as Camelot. No wonder Ferré once boasted, "I accelerated history in Miami."

Miami's King Arthur was booted from his roundtable in 1985. He had lost his previously strong support among black voters after firing Howard Gary, Miami's first black city manager. He also lost the editorial support of the Miami Herald. The paper lashed out at him as it endorsed challenger Raul Masvidal, a Cuban-American banker. "It is time for a change, a profound change that can come only by ousting Maurice Ferre," read the editorial. "The sad fact is that Maurice Ferre has become not one man but two. One is a charming, persuasive, urbane, occasionally visionary believer in and evangelist for Miami's potential. For all that this Maurice Ferre has achieved as mayor, grant him due credit. The other Maurice Ferre is venal, vindictive, obsessed with remaining in office at all costs. It is this persona, alas, that seeks a seventh term." Black voters fled to Masvidal, who lost in a runoff against a young, Harvard-educated technocrat named Xavier Suarez.

But people like Ferré, genetically programmed for political life, can't stay out of the limelight for long. In 1987 he attempted a comeback against Suarez and again lost. He remained largely out of the public eye until 1993, when he won a seat on a newly expanded Dade County Commission, whose members for the first time were elected by individual districts rather than countywide. Three years later Ferré and commission colleagues Alex Penelas and Art Teele faced off in a race for the county's new executive mayor. Penelas won. Ferré flirted with the idea of challenging Penelas's re-election bid last year, but he decided he didn't have the stomach for waging the sort of ethnically divisive campaign he believed was inevitable following the Elian Gonzalez controversy.

Today he's pumped up to fight for the job that brought him the greatest glory. "This year just felt right," he explains. Despite undergoing back surgery last month, Ferré insists his health is fine and his age, 66 years old, is not a factor. "I don't think my age matters. Ronald Reagan did it. [Charles] De Gaulle did it."

He'll need all the strength and stamina he can muster for the election November 6. A crowded field of eight contenders will complicate fundraising and likely result in unprecedented amounts of money being spent. As of June 30, the most recent reporting date for campaign donations, Ferré trailed well behind Manny Diaz, a 46-year-old attorney making his first run for office.