For the past three years Moss has represented South Dade with a record of achievement that has been neither stellar nor dismal. He consistently votes on the "right" side of most major issues, though he rarely takes a leadership role on any. Dennis Moss is the average commissioner.
Steady. Unassuming. In his own words, good enough.
Voters, however, tend to be a disagreeable lot, and simply being "good enough" is rarely what it takes to win the public's favor. This is especially true in the district Moss represents. Despite the advantages of both incumbency and campaign contributions, Moss may well be the underdog in this year's election: He's being aggressively challenged by a charismatic newcomer, Henry Marinello, a Cuban-born Mormon with widespread appeal in the Anglo community. Marinello is therefore the perfect candidate for District 9, where 62 percent of the voters are either Anglo or Hispanic, and only 38 percent are black.
Moss, who is black, is also facing challenges from two other candidates, Wilbur Bell, a convenience store owner from Perrine, and Thomas Harrington, Sr., a BellSouth cable splicer from Richmond Heights. Both Bell and Harrington are black, and though neither has much hope of winning, every vote they pull from Moss in the black community further erodes his chances for re-election.
District 9 is the largest in the county, stretching from the Florida Everglades to Biscayne Bay, and snaking north from the Monroe County line through Cutler Ridge and into Kendall. Properties in the district are largely undeveloped, with much of the land still zoned for agriculture. "It really is the last frontier for developers," notes Moss. "That is why they want me out of here. You've got a few greedy influence peddlers who want to control District 9 and South Dade. I won't play the political games. I won't sell the people out. And they want to put someone in here that they can control."
The problem for Moss is proving that Marinello would be the greedy influence- peddlers' stooge. Marinello certainly does not fit the profile of a developer-friendly candidate. Indeed, Marinello defies any attempts at typecasting, and his life story seems more the work of a slightly warped Hollywood screenwriter than that of a commission candidate.
Marinello, who turns 40 this month, left Havana for Miami with his family in 1961 when he was five years old. His father, he says, was a CIA agent who was captured during a covert mission in Cuba in 1966 and executed by a firing squad the following year. Marinello and his nine brothers and sisters were then raised by their mother, who ran her own accounting business.
Although he was brought up Catholic, when he was 22 he was approached by a pair of Mormon missionaries and eventually decided to convert, saying he was attracted to the church's commitment to both God and country. At the age of 23 he was sent by the church to the jungles of Paraguay, where he spent the next two years converting Guarani Indians and setting up medical and agricultural programs. Upon his return to the United States, he attended Brigham Young University, obtaining a bachelor's in microbiology, followed by a law degree.
In South Florida he became a sales representative for the WordPerfect software company, then left the firm in 1993 to form his own company, Envision Software, with two friends. He sold his share of the business a year ago for $200,000. Since then he has begun a law practice and specializes primarily in corporate law, but in the past few months he has also handled several zoning-related cases. He represented, pro bono, more than 600 homeowners in their protest to the commission of the development of a shopping center in a residential neighborhood.
He decided to run, he says, because Moss has been too passive in addressing the community's needs. "You'd call down to his office and talk to someone who would say they'd get get back to you, but they never would," claims Marinello.
In addition to his brothers and sisters who pledged their time and support (including his oldest sister, Circuit Court Judge Maria Korvick), Marinello has been helped by the extended network of the Mormon Church. Although there are only 9000 Mormons in Dade County, they are among the county's most close-knit and affluent citizens. Included is Tony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems. Burns, a long-time friend of Marinello, held the candidate's first fundraiser, which collected more than $40,000.
Marinello, who is married and has three kids and holds the title of bishop in the Mormon Church, stresses that he is not running to promote a religious agenda. He is pushing quality of life issues -- making sure there are enough police on the streets, preventing the type of urban sprawl that has made Kendall a suburban wasteland, and developing a much stronger commitment to the county's park system.
Marinello faults Moss for not leading the charge against Homestead Air Base Developers, Inc. (HABDI). Moss initially voted in favor of awarding the no-bid development rights of the air base, which falls within his district, to Carlos Herrera, president of the politically well-connected Latin Builders Association. Eventually Moss decided the deal did not make sense and voted to reject the agreement, but the most outspoken critic of the plan was Commissioner Katy Sorenson. "We need someone who will take a leadership approach on such important issues," says Marinello, who opposes the pact with HABDI. "Dennis sort of stumbles into issues, and even then he rides on the coattails of other commissioners."
Moss says he finds Marinello's attacks interesting, especially since Marinello has never been active in South Dade affairs. "I keep talking to people and nobody in South Dade knows him," Moss says, adding that Marinello moved into District 9 only five years ago. "Obviously he hasn't been a part of anything in South Dade, and yet he feels free to criticize the work of others." Moss also notes that since 1978, Marinello has voted only once in any county commission election.
Moss denies that he hasn't been assertive enough. "I take an aggressive role when there are issues that I feel strongly about," he says, citing as examples his support for building a new arena for the Miami Heat, developing 200 acres of Homestead Air Force Base into a regional park, and, most important of all, his efforts to speed along the recovery of South Dade following Hurricane Andrew.
On the first Wednesday of every month Moss convenes a daytime roundtable discussion with community leaders, and in the evening he holds a town hall meeting, open to any member of the public. "No other commissioner in the history of South Dade has been more open and accessible than I have," Moss boasts.
Moss and his campaign consultant, Phil Hamersmith, question Marinello's ties to lobbyists Rodney Barreto and Chris Korge and to developer Sergio Pino, who have all contributed to his campaign. "Rodney has said to me that he is the chief fundraiser for the Marinello campaign," says Hamersmith. "His statement to me was, 'Dennis Moss isn't my guy. I'd do better with a different guy up there.'" Hamersmith claims Barreto has raised more than $15,000 for Marinello. Barreto was out of town last week and could not be reached for comment.
Marinello laughs at Hamersmith's assertion, saying he met Barreto for the first time after he decided to run. "I don't need Rodney Barreto to raise money," he says. "Rodney, Chris, and Sergio have all contributed to my campaign, but that doesn't mean anything to me. They will have no better access to me than anybody else in this community." He also says he finds it odd that Moss and Hamersmith would attack him for being too close to lobbyists, when Hamersmith himself is a lobbyist and is running Moss's campaign.
A bit of political intrigue surrounding the District 9 race involves Wilbur Bell, who is supposedly an LBA plant designed to draw votes away from Moss. This would be the LBA's payback against Moss, the theory goes, for switching his vote on the HABDI deal. "I keep hearing these rumors that I was put in the race by [former county commissioner] Larry Hawkins and the LBA," says Bell. "But it is just not true." Hawkins's name surfaced because he has acted as an unofficial adviser to HABDI and Herrera. "Before I filed I talked to Larry and he gave me a few pointers, but that's it," Bell continues. "And I don't know nobody at the LBA. That is the truth."
On election day, Dennis Moss's chances will probably have little to do with the machinations of lobbyists or special interest groups. Instead, they will depend on whether voters will go with what they know or with the unknown. In that regard, this election is reminiscent of the old television show Let's Make a Deal, in which the contestants have already won a lovely and dependable Maytag washer and dryer. But here comes Monty Hall, asking if they are willing to trade it all for what's behind door number two. It could be a new car or a fancy European vacation. Or it could be 500 pounds of kitty litter.
Are they willing to settle for the washer and dryer?
Is good enough enough