It's a Wonderful Decision

As the final vote was announced, Katy Sorenson let loose an emphatic "Yes!"

For seven years the county commissioner for South Miami-Dade had been fighting plans to build a commercial airport on the site of the former Homestead Air Force Base. For many of those years, Sorenson was the lone voice on the commission, railing against the lunacy of developing a major airport squeezed between two national parks.

Her colleagues on the dais thought she was tilting at windmills. They viewed her idealism as quaint and Capra-esque, as if she were a female Jimmy Stewart starring in a picture of her own making: Ms. Sorenson Goes to County Hall.

But as politically naive as her colleagues may have found her, they also knew that Sorenson's quixotic battle could never succeed. Look at who she was up against. The people who wanted the airport built were powerful, the kind who hire lobbyists and donate to campaigns. The kind of people who are used to getting what they want from politicians.

Sorenson never worried about the improbability of success. Rather she concentrated on her own notions of right and wrong. In addition to the environmental arguments against the proposed airport, she knew the county commission had made a dreadful mistake in awarding the rights to the base in a no-bid deal to a politically connected group of developers known as HABDI.

Over time, though, Sorenson won converts to her cause. Commissioner Dennis Moss eventually realized the airport was a mistake, as did former commissioners Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Art Teele. But through it all Sorenson was the one leading the charge against the airport. She kept asking questions and extracting information that illustrated the folly of the county's policy. Eventually her position gained the notice of environmentalists, and together they chiseled away at the airport proposal with all the patience of nature. "I really do try and take the long view on these sorts of issues," Sorenson says.

Last January the Clinton administration, as one of its last acts, agreed that an airport in Homestead was a mistake and ordered that the county could take over only a portion of the former air base if it pledged to drop its plans for an airport. The county commission -- despite Sorenson's objections -- decided to sue the federal government. At the time Mayor Alex Penelas and County Manager Steve Shiver privately began telling commissioners they were confident President George W. Bush would reverse the Clinton administration decision and give the base to the county for use as an airport.

All year commissioners have waited for the Bush administration to act. And during that time the county's lawsuit against the federal government hit one brick wall after another. Even the county's own attorneys told commissioners the suit was hopeless. Yet time and again Sorenson failed in her efforts to have the county drop the lawsuit.

That changed last week. After several hours of contentious debate stretching over two days, the commission, by an 8-5 vote, dropped the lawsuit and asked the federal government to convey the land so the county could develop it into an environmentally friendly tourist attraction.

After the vote was taken, Sorenson gleefully squealed, "Yes!" She then took members of her staff, along with several environmentalists who have stayed by her side for the last few years, to a nearby restaurant, where they celebrated with a bottle of champagne. "It felt really good," she says of the victory. "This was an issue I campaigned on. Stopping this development was something important I wanted to accomplish."

The next day there was even more cause to celebrate when the Bush administration, after a ten-month review of the Clinton no-airport policy, not only refused to reverse or even modify that decision but declared that Bush was basically in agreement with it.

HABDI's lawyers were left dumbfounded. After all, the family of the late exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, which is one of the major shareholders in HABDI, was also a major contributor to George W. Bush. Perhaps the president's people were taking that relationship for granted.

A review of lobbyist disclosure forms on file in Washington reveals that between July 1, 1999, and December 31, 1999, HABDI spent $560,000 on the powerhouse Washington, D.C., lobbying firm of Verner Liipfert. In 2000 HABDI spent an additional $700,000. But through the first six months of 2001, the group spent a paltry $20,000 for Verner Liipfert's services.

For months I'd been getting phone calls from people telling me the Bush administration was going to reverse or alter the Clinton decision. But that never made sense to me, even with all the money HABDI and the Mas Canosa family may have spent. Why would Bush want to reopen an issue that was as divisive and contentious as a commercial airport in Homestead? His brother would have killed him. It would have handed Janet Reno an issue with which to attack Jeb Bush during next year's race for governor.

Throughout all these years of controversy, Jeb Bush has managed to avoid being drawn into the battle over Homestead. If George W. had reopened the issue, brother Jeb wouldn't have been able to avoid it any longer.

Sorenson believes that another possible reason the Bush administration refused to reverse the Clinton decision is the political clout of the wealthy folks who live at Ocean Reef in North Key Largo. They did not want an airport in their back yard.

And so in the end it may not have been completely Capra-esque. Politics undoubtedly played a role. But none of it would have been possible without Sorenson's determination. Sometimes even the good guys catch a break.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede