On a quiet Overtown corner, one barren lot sits empty but for a solitary droopy tree on a block of neatly kept houses. In 1989, the City of Miami entrusted almost $1 million to two men to redevelop apartments here. But 25 years later, the plot is still empty, the money is long gone, and taxpayers have never been repaid.
The botched deal still matters because one of those men — a gray-haired Cuban-born politico named Al Lorenzo — is arguably Miami's most important campaign guru many voters have never heard of.
To his opponents, the deal is a prime example of how the backroom power player is an opportunist willing to bilk taxpayers and candidates alike, and whose election-winning mojo is inflated. "He's a better checkers player than he is a chess player," says David Custin, a consultant who has run campaigns against him.
But to many others in power — including national superstar Sen. Marco Rubio, who credited Lorenzo with his first win, and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose race to county hall was masterminded by Lorenzo — he's the kind of canny, behind-the-scenes force who wins races.
The scrutiny on Lorenzo will only grow stronger this summer as he helps Katherine Fernandez Rundle weather a contentious fight to stay on as state attorney. It's a conflicted role considering that Lorenzo also worked for Rep. David Rivera and North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre, two of Dade's most troubled politicians and who have been targeted by Rundle's corruption office.
"Al is one of the few consultants who can engage voters in a countywide campaign," Rundle's campaign spokesman, Bob Levy, says.
Lorenzo was born in Managua, a small coastal town near Havana in 1952. Before he reached high school, two seminal moments shaped his thinking. First, when he was 11, Lorenzo's family had to flee Cuba after the Bay of Pigs invasion. "The government rounded up all my family members and put them in jail for ten days," Lorenzo recalls. "They were accused of being counterrevolutionaries."
Then, after settling in Miami's Little Haiti, Lorenzo had his first brush with incendiary American conflict. The day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, a melee broke out at his school and a black classmate protected the Latino teenager.
The experiences taught Lorenzo to reach outside his comfort zone, beyond Cuban exiles. "I've succeeded reaching out to voters in communities with large Anglo and Haitian-American populations like North Miami," he says.
After graduating from Hialeah Senior High School in 1970, he became one of the first Cubans to play for the Florida International University baseball team. In the late '70s, he married his high school sweetheart, Magda, and had a daughter. The couple divorced in 1988; a year later, he met his current wife, Margarita Martinez, with whom he has a son.
A series of disasters drove him into Dade politics. In 1989, Lorenzo, who'd been working as a banker since 1972, hooked up with Salomon Yuken, a real estate investor. The men inked a deal with the City of Miami to borrow $914,617 to buy and renovate five squalid buildings in Overtown and Wynwood. The deal almost immediately bombed. In a January 16, 1990 letter, Lorenzo asked the city to restructure the loan; a year later, he defaulted.
Lorenzo blames Yuken, who managed the properties. He let the buildings deteriorate, Lorenzo claims, until the city had to demolish them. (Yuken was unavailable for comment. In a 2001 Miami Herald article, Yuken defended his work and said the apartments simply didn't generate enough rent.)
Then, in 1992, Lorenzo's son was born prematurely and medical bills piled up, just six months before Hurricane Andrew leveled his Kendall home. "The bank that financed my mortgage went belly up," he says. "I was left with nothing."
Unable to find a job, Lorenzo took a chance the next year when Willy Gort asked him to volunteer on his run for Miami City Commission. That's when he met former Miami mayor David Kennedy, Gort's campaign manager. Kennedy became a mentor to Lorenzo, then a 41-year-old novice.
"I would spend hours with him, listening to his war stories," says Lorenzo, who did everything from planting yard signs to buying TV ads. Kennedy taught him that campaigns are won through grinding, tedious outreach.
Soon he became a regular in Dade's insular Cuban Republican club. In 1996, Xavier Suarez hired him to run his county mayoral campaign, which he lost. Lorenzo then went on a winning streak: from Alex Penelas's 1996 county mayoral run to Joe Carollo's surprise Miami mayoral victory in 1997. The next year, he hooked up with his most important candidate of all.
Rubio was then an unknown West Miami councilman running for the Florida House against former Channel 51 reporter Angel Zayon. Zayon beat Rubio in the primary despite Rubio's $50,000 fundraising edge. The pair went to a runoff, and Lorenzo made a key move: persuading Coral Gables Commissioner Bill Kerdyk to get his town's Anglo Republicans behind Rubio.