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.
Rubio won. If not for Lorenzo, the guy many are tapping as Mitt Romney's vice presidential candidate might never have gotten out of West Miami. Rubio acknowledged as much after becoming Florida's first Cuban-American House speaker in 2007; he thanked just two political mentors during his inauguration: Jeb Bush and Al Lorenzo.
Lorenzo's wins kept coming. In 2001, he guided Manny Diaz to Miami's mayoral seat. But his debt over the failed Overtown apartments never disappeared, and soon came back to haunt him.
The same year as Diaz's win, the city rejected Yuken's attempt to swap property to erase the debt. By 2005, Lorenzo's tab was $1.1 million. That's when Diaz's administration stepped in, conveniently transferred the debt to Yuken, who received another $1.2 million loan to build townhouses. (His pledge to repay the money remains unfulfilled today.)
Did Lorenzo use his political clout to eliminate his debt? That's exactly what the Herald charged in its award-winning 2007 "House of Lies" series, which slammed Lorenzo and Diaz in multiple stories and editorials. "I acted in good faith," Lorenzo insists.
The consultant has had other points of contention. Some opponents accuse him of dirty tactics — such as former Miami mayor Maurice Ferre, who claimed in 2001, when running against Diaz, that Lorenzo bombed voters with calls linking Ferre to hated Attorney General Janet Reno.
Other candidates blame him for expensive losses. In 2004, Joe Cancela paid Lorenzo $166,750 to get out the vote in a county mayoral race — only to finish fifth. Then, in the runoff, Lorenzo received $65,000 from ex-commissioner Jimmy Morales, who also lost. Lorenzo disappeared in the last week of the race, claims one consultant who worked for Morales and asked not to be identified. "No one could find Al," he says. "There was not much Jimmy could do about it either."
A similar tale was repeated in 2007, when Linda Haskins, who was running against Marc Sarnoff for a Miami commission seat, paid Lorenzo $152,297. Haskins lost, and one associate close to the race, who asked to remain anonymous, says the candidate wasn't happy with the investment. "He didn't do shit," the source claims. (Haskins declined to comment.)
Lorenzo scoffs at claims that he has run away from losing efforts. "I've been on many Titanics," he says, "and I've always stayed, even after we hit the iceberg." Haskins, he says, lacked the charisma to win: "She is a very good lady and extremely bright, but she was more of an administrator."
In recent years, Lorenzo has been tied to two of the most unseemly politicians in Dade.
In 2002, he was hired by David Rivera to win a hotly contested state House seat against venture capitalist Rainier Gonzalez. Four days before the election, Rivera slammed his car into a truck delivering flyers accusing him of domestic violence; he claims it was an accident, and Lorenzo denies knowing anything about the incident. But Gonzalez also accused Lorenzo of trying to sway the election through illegal absentee ballots, a charge Lorenzo denies.
Lorenzo was also involved in Rivera's most recent scandal. In 2007, he was hired to consult on an effort to legalize slot machines at parimutuels. That campaign sparked an investigation by the FDLE and Rundle's office into $500,000 paid by the owners of Magic City Casino to a company controlled by Rivera's mother. (Rundle and the FDLE announced last month they wouldn't press charges, though Rivera remains under investigation by the FBI and IRS.) Lorenzo, whose firm was paid $725,185 by the parimutuels' PAC, hasn't been investigated in the case.
In 2011, he consulted on North Miami Mayor Andre Pierre's re-election run, despite the fact that Pierre was perhaps the most indictable man in Miami-Dade County. During his first term, Pierre had attempted to give away the city's most valuable land, Biscayne Landing, to a firm owned by his former law partner; cruised around the city in a borrowed $100,000 Porsche without reporting the gift; given fake police badges to friends; and watched his nephew and campaign manager get arrested for allegedly accepting bribes.
Lorenzo still stands by Pierre, even comparing him to Rubio. "That's all nitpicky stuff," he says of the claims. "Andre could be a national figure one day."
This summer, Lorenzo's past — from Pierre and Rivera to the Overtown deal — could put Rundle in a sticky wicket as she looks to the consultant to guide her to victory in what could be her toughest race since becoming Dade's top prosecutor in 1993.
Over the past year, she's been under fire for botched public corruption efforts — including muffed chances to indict Pierre and Rivera, and a dropped charge against Miami Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones. For the first time, Rundle faces an August primary closed to Republican voters, who have traditionally been a base.
Her campaign spokesman says Lorenzo's experience is too valuable to ignore. "He's particularly involved in 'Get out the vote,'" Levy says. "In a primary election where Republicans and independents have been denied the right to vote... every vote counts."
Lorenzo says his ties to Rivera and Pierre won't taint his work for Rundle. Just as with every other campaign, the backroom guru's job is getting in the trenches to convince voters that Rundle is the right choice.
"This is about the office that she holds," he says. "There is a certain respect that position holds, and she is the one who has it."