The Dullness of Being Manny Diaz

Speaking as a columnist, I can say that Manny Diaz has been an absolute disaster as mayor of Miami. As Diaz's first term in office draws to a close and he quietly raises funds for his re-election campaign -- a campaign in which he has yet to draw an opponent -- it's hardly an exaggeration for reporters to deem his administration as having presided over the worst state of affairs at city hall in three decades. In other words, Miami is finally beginning to resemble a properly functioning municipality instead of a punch line.

For folks trying to live, work, and raise families here, this turnabout is nothing short of miraculous. Our local press corps, however, has grown accustomed to a steady diet of headline-grabbing corruption indictments, dire financial crises, and incidents of bizarre personal behavior better suited to a junior-high playground than an organ of government. And so the prospect of four more years of Manny Diaz is chilling. After all, chronicling the rise of competence never won anybody a Pulitzer.

You could hear as much during a recent edition of Jason Walker's J Walkin' Wednesday-evening talk show on WMBM-AM (1490). The Miami Herald's Jim DeFede and former New Times staff writer Rebecca Wakefield settled in behind the microphones with Walker, an aide to Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, for a wide-ranging discussion of local politics, moving from Rudy Crew's stormy tenure as Miami-Dade schools superintendent to all things Art Teele; from Mayor Carlos Alvarez's clashes with the county commission to the possible return of Alex Penelas to that very dais. Yet over the course of an hour, Diaz barely merited a mention.

That's quite an accomplishment, one Diaz addressed directly in his state-of-the-city speech this past May, recalling when "city hall came to be known as silly hall, a circus famous for entertaining the many but serving the very few." As for his own accounting skills, Diaz wryly noted the "ingenious approach by our predecessors," who pursued "higher taxes, higher fees, the highest millage rate in history -- making an already poor city the poorest city in the nation." And the marked absence of Cold War rhetoric from this Cuban-exile scion of a onetime political prisoner? "I wish he'd get run over by an eighteen-wheeler tomorrow," Diaz quipped about Fidel Castro to the New York Times. "But as mayor I'm supposed to fix your streets and your parks and your potholes." Hardly Nixon-goes-to-China, but by South Florida standards, it was an idea no less radical -- or overdue.

Equally refreshing has been Diaz's attitude toward this city's other hot-button issue, gay rights. While his 2001 runoff-election opponent Maurice Ferré served up contradictory positions on the county's gay-rights law depending upon which audience he was hitting up for money (liberal Anglos or conservative exiles), Diaz declared the entire controversy settled. He matter-of-factly announced his support for the ordinance, as well as for repealing Florida's ban on allowing gay couples to adopt foster children.

There's always a danger in anointing any political figure as a white knight. The last man to wear the mantle of Miami's savior -- former city manager Donald Warshaw -- ended up serving a year in prison for embezzling $70,000 from a children's charity. But Diaz's businesslike approach has paid off for Miami, literally. February 2004 saw Wall Street's largest financial firms dramatically upgrading the city's bond ratings to A-level status, a far cry from their junk classification the year before Diaz took office, and a vote of fiduciary confidence that enables a budgetary shift of tens of millions of dollars earmarked for debt repayment to city services -- without raising taxes. True to form, though, most news editors merely shrugged. In a media landscape where actual news has to compete for front-page space with tales of orphaned puppies and sexy poker players, the Herald relegated the bond-rating announcement to 600 words in its "Metro" section. Here at New Times it's drawn only grudging notice.

To be sure, neither heightened bond ratings nor the wave of concurrent real-estate development has yet to translate into "the new destiny" Diaz envisions. Drive a few blocks west from the much-vaunted revitalization of the Biscayne Boulevard corridor and you'll pass scenes straight out of Night of the Living Dead -- scores of homeless remain splayed across the landings of boarded-up buildings, or stagger down the middle of desolate streets. And though it's easy to understand why condo developer Jorge Perez lauded Diaz in South Florida CEO magazine as "the best mayor that the City of Miami has ever had," for many residents living in the shadows of the high-rise sprawl set to remake the skyline, Diaz's "Miami 21" proposed zoning plan is too little and much too late.

Such skepticism is warranted, and given Miami's past, all too necessary. But it's also worth pondering the road not taken -- namely the one offered up by city commissioner and television commentator Tomas Regalado. Though lately he's been on his best behavior while attempting to coalesce opposition to Diaz from any corner he can find it, Regalado -- and his long-rumored designs on the mayor's seat -- stands as a grim reminder of premillennium Miami.

From his championing of a city lawsuit against Los Van Van concert promoter Debbie Ohanian, or any promoter of "an event that offends one part of the community," to what police officials considered his incitement of Elian protesters to attack officers trying to control crowds, Regalado has shown few qualms about using his influence as a commissioner to stifle voices seen as objectionable in the eyes of el exilio. And just to dispel any hopes he might have moderated his fervor, this past week he called for immediate asylum for accused exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, a position that had even hardliners like Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart diving for political cover. One can only shudder at the thought of a Mayor Regalado with expanded powers.

Regalado has been quick to highlight allegations of cronyism on Diaz's part, but he's mentioned little in the way of concrete alternatives. He countered Diaz's state-of-the-city address with nothing more than a vague one-sentence warning about Miami's "growing pains." In fact Regalado's chief complaint against the mayor's office would seem to be that it doesn't have his name on the door or his cronies holding court inside. No doubt Miami's drama-starved reporters are already practicing their chants of Run, Tomas, run!

Blatant media hype just doesn't pay off like it used to. That's the inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the promotional blitz surrounding Dish & Tell: Life, Love, and Secrets, a self-help confessional penned by "The Miami Bombshells" -- six fortysomething female professionals whose high-heeled ranks include former Miami Herald execs Sara Rosenberg and Patricia San Pedro, as well as Today show consultant Tammi Leader Fuller, all of whom were hoping to spark a best-selling phenomenon on the order of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

As previously reported by New Times ("Bombshell Blowback," June 16), the Herald's publication of no less than seven excerpts from Dish & Tell, not to mention two feature stories and a host of in-house ads plugging the book, had many of that paper's staffers fuming over a perceived ethical conflict, echoing Herald editor Tom Fiedler in wondering "Were we perhaps seduced and manipulated and used?" Or simply asking, "Why are we publishing this absolute drivel?"

Seven weeks since its May 24 release, and despite a New York Times profile by former Herald reporter Mirta Ojito, morning face time on NBC with Katie Couric, and a wealth of in-store appearances, the great bulk of Dish & Tell's first printing of 40,000 appears headed for the remainder table -- or the pulping machines. At press time a scant 3404 copies had been sold, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales in 70 to 75 percent of the nation's stores, from behemoths, Borders, and Target to local independents like Books & Books. And while Random House still has paperback and Spanish-language versions slated in hopes of recouping the losses, it's doubtful the publisher will be throwing good money after bad in ponying up for a sequel. Don't feel too bad for the Bombshells though. They still get to keep every penny of their reported "low six-figure" advance.