Meet Miami's Next Mayor

On those days when passions flare, when Miami cannot help revealing its more ominous shadings, half the city seems determined to have Miriam Alonso canonized. And the other half to have her eliminated. There is no middle ground when it comes to the woman who would be Miami's next mayor. She is savior or demagogue, invisible outside extremes, and impossible to ignore. Even during a riot.

Art Teele found that out on a drizzly night this past May. A jury in Orlando had, hours earlier, acquitted Miami police officer William Lozano of manslaughter in a 1989 shooting that left two black men dead. The verdict sent Miami scurrying into full alert. Downtown workers raced home early. Police mobilized. Politicians, acutely aware of the visibility demanded at such times, combed nearly deserted streets.

In Overtown the most notable violence erupted at the site of Lozano's fateful shot, where a mob ransacked the nearby police mini-station and tossed a computer onto the sidewalk, presumably in the absence of an actual employee. The crowd then set a Dumpster afire and raided half a dozen neighboring shops. Police dispersed the crowd before looting could commence, but the line between order and chaos had blurred. Glass littered the ground. Cops fanned out everywhere. The air stank of burning trash. And as is so often the case in Miami, the real action was taking place off-stage, in a quiet corner of a parking lot, away from the lights and sirens and reporters.

Here Teele, the imposing chairman of the Dade County Commission, and Victor De Yurre, Miami's diminutive vice mayor, huddled in conference. Given the magnitude of the crisis -- a riot in the offing -- the official tate-a-tete was to be expected. But the topic raised by De Yurre nearly floored Teele. In the midst of this uprising, he had seized Teele's arm and impressed upon him a frantic message: Miriam must be stopped. Specifically, Teele had to come out now in support of Steve Clark, Alonso's principal opponent in the city's upcoming mayoral election.

De Yurre's obsessive loathing of Alonso had reached mythic proportions since her election to the city commission in 1989. The pair had skirmished regularly in the press, as they vied for bragging rights as Miami's "Cuban" commissioner. Their staffs harassed one another. In 1991 Alonso led a dogged campaign to derail her rival's re-election. De Yurre, having retreated from the mayor's race himself, was now determined to play the spoiler in Alonso's bid.

Teele, however, was still undecided about Alonso's candidacy. Endorsing her, he knew, would rankle Clark's cronies throughout the county. But Teele, like Alonso, was a shrewd politician. In less than eight years, he had risen from a little-known black Republican to Dade's de facto mayor. He understood the mechanics of power. He didn't bet against winners. And Alonso looked nearly impossible to beat. The numbers showed that.

Back in 1989, Teele had helped Alonso win by gauging those same numbers. Since then he had watched the 52-year-old activist become the driving force in city politics, a tireless and ferocious worker whose startling ascent had bred a common sentiment among her prominent early boosters. "We've created a monster," they would comment, only half-jokingly.

There was a grain of truth to the quip. ly their aid had helped Alonso take office. But there also was a dangerous implication in the monster wisecrack -- that Miriam Alonso was somehow the Frankenstein of more skilled politicians. That she was an aberration, in other words, rather than an inevitability. And this, as a panicky Victor De Yurre knew, was patently untrue. Miriam Alonso was no fluke. She was, and is, the political incarnation of el exilio.

"We are forever looking for the leader with all the solutions," observes historian Miguel Bretos, author of Cuban Florida. "Machado. Batista. Castro. That's the danger about the Cuban psyche, the dark side to it. We are too ready to surrender our will, to grab for something that promises our providential role in history."

To those exiles she calls her "army," an Alonso victory on November 2 holds just such a promise: an end to the era of feeble leadership, to the watery rhetoric of crossover candidates. For Alonso is a Cuban politician in the grand tradition. A woman of action. A servant of the people. An emancipator bent on rescuing her immigrant constituents from official neglect.

But her backers rarely acknowledge the less flattering aspects of her political machinations: Alonso tailoring her values to suit the common will, for instance. Or thriving on divisive politics. Or holding herself above the law. Or the fact that she and her husband Leonel refuse to discuss their mysterious past and the source of their considerable fortune.

Nor does Alonso's conduct as a private citizen appear to matter to her most committed followers. After all, the Alonsos' reputation as landlords of dubious repute, and as monumental deadbeats, is not only well-worn rumor but a matter of public record. Less widely circulated is the testimony of former staff members and campaign workers, many of whom are fearful of what the Alonsos would do to them if they spoke publicly. They describe the couple as power-hungry tyrants who promote thuggery, abuse city employees, goad supporters to spout racist drivel on radio call-in shows, and dispatch minions to steal newspapers critical of Miriam.

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Steven Almond