Submarine Politics

On July 29, 1999, Miami-Dade County residents dealt Alex Penelas a political ass-whuppin' he would never forget. An angry 234,309 people, a resounding 30 percent of registered voters, turned out on a special election day to overwhelmingly defeat, by a 2-1 margin, the Penelas-led "Transit Not Tolls" campaign to raise the county sales tax by one percent.

Despite a $1.8 million campaign war chest financed by county contractors and various special interest groups like the Florida International University Foundation, and an army of heavy-hitting political strategists such as Keith Fredericks, voters flatly rejected the tax increase because of their mistrust of county government. Or more to the point, the face of county government: Penelas.

The whole thing went down in flames -- the fourth time in the past three decades voters killed a transit tax that would have created a dedicated funding source for Miami-Dade's woefully inadequate mass transit system, and in turn, helped the county qualify for hundreds of millions in matching state and federal tax dollars. Money that could have been used to put more buses on the roads and significantly expand Metrorail, the linchpins of the county's mass transit system. So, learning from his mistakes in '99, Penelas is leading another, considerably more subdued, campaign to convince residents to vote "yes" to a sales tax increase, this time a half-penny, on November 5.

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But the stakes are much higher. County transportation planners recently reported that a weakening demand for gas and diesel products nationwide has cut into federal fuel-tax collections, lowering allocations for road and highway development to local government. Thus, less money for the county's transportation projects. If the half-penny is approved, the county would collect as much as $150 million alone next year for mass transit. (The countywide sales tax currently stands at 6.5 percent.)

Forsaking the power of his political machine, Penelas is betting on a strategy of educating voters through grassroots communication, and guaranteeing citizen oversight for transit-tax coffers. Since the campaign started in September through October 19, Penelas and his pro-tax forces have held 254 meetings with local chambers, condo and homeowner associations, and various other groups. There are plans to hold another 107 meetings before Election Day. Hell, the campaign even touts a citizens' safety group that will make sure the sales tax proceeds are used on transportation projects and nothing else. And, Penelas emphasizes, the trust will exclude anyone with direct or even indirect business connections to the county.

Unlike 1999, this year's half-penny campaign lacks a multimillion-dollar war chest, political action committees, and the usual suspects from county hall. The only money allocated for this campaign: $150,000 in county funds to finance a radio campaign during the last days before the election.

Allen Harper, a real estate broker who raised more than a million dollars in the 1999 campaign, put it bluntly about this campaign's strategy: "[Penelas] doesn't want anyone to get the perception that there are special interests involved. I think that is a wise move based on what happened last time."

And in Miami-Dade County, sometimes perception is reality -- a fact not lost on Penelas when he presented his plan to the Miami-Dade Council chambers two weeks ago: "The number-one issue you are going to face is: 'We don't trust those people and we don't want to give them any more money,' including me," Penelas informed the small assembly. "Quite frankly, I would be saying the same thing."

The controversies swirling around 1999, Penelas continued, became the issue for voters, who were incensed at the obscene $1.8 million raised by county contractors and prominent county hall lobbyists, such as Chris Korge and Eric "Ric" Sisser, for a "stealth" election on a hot, muggy July day. Voters were even more appalled when they learned Penelas insiders like advertising executive Herman Echevarria and lobbyists Brian May and Dewey Knight III made money on the campaign as election consultants. Then there was the old bait-and-switch; Penelas's plan called for the county's existing pot of money for mass transit to be redirected to fund university grants, economic development, tourism advertising, and other special interest programs. It was a political piñata for everyone from Miami-Dade Community College to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. (State prosecutors later conducted a criminal investigation into whether May and Sisser improperly funneled some donations to the 1999 campaign through an educational foundation. Last year state prosecutors declared the 1999 fundraising effort illegal, but no charges were filed because they could not prove campaign workers knowingly violated campaign finance laws.)

The campaign was particularly brutal on Penelas, whose national political aspirations crashed shortly thereafter in the aftermath of Elian Gonzalez and the 2000 presidential election. His enemies missed no opportunity to attack the mayor's credibility, pointing out connections between the campaign contributors and mayor's fundraisers. So rather than relive another bruising campaign, Penelas changed his approach, and, along the way, silenced some of his critics.

Norman Braman, the auto-sales magnate who led the anti-tax campaign in 1999, has no plans to fight Penelas this time around. "I don't see the level of opposition and disgust that there was three years ago," Braman said. "Number one, it is coming during a general election where there will be a heavy turnout. Secondly, the lobbyists are not involved. I think the mayor has been much more forthcoming. I think he learned a lot from the last time."

The half-penny campaign, Penelas explained, is modeled after the campaign that convinced voters in 1996 to approve a $200 million bond issue to repair old parks and build new ones throughout the county: The Safe Neighborhood Parks bond referendum was an eighteen-month grassroots effort that relied on local chambers, homeowner associations, and environmental organizations like the Zoological Society of South Florida and the Tropical Audubon Society, as well as dozens of other community groups. Brenda Marshall, a chief architect of the parks campaign, said they were successful despite very little money for TV and radio advertising. "We relied on a lot of free publicity," Marshall said.

However, she said, a key component in selling the bond referendum was establishing the citizens' trust that oversees the funding for the Safe Neighborhood Parks program. The half-penny plan calls for a similar trust to oversee transit-tax funds to make sure the money is spent correctly. Still some people are wondering if Penelas is miscalculating again by his insistence on not raising money for a mass-media campaign to educate voters. Earlier this year, Penelas put the kibosh on a million-dollar marketing contract for the Miami-Dade Transit Agency out of fear that voters would get the wrong impression.

County Commissioner Katy Sorenson disagreed with the mayor's decision and is now concerned that the transit-tax campaign is attracting little media attention. "We need to get the message out that this is a community priority," she said. "That is hard to do in a general election without any publicity."

Miami-based pollster Sergio Bendixen said 80 to 90 percent of voters who turn out get their information from mass media and not from grassroots efforts. "It is an ineffective way to reach voters," Bendixen said. "I imagine it will be a very difficult sell considering the history of sales tax increases in Miami-Dade and the credibility problems of county government."

For his part, Penelas dismisses the need for a mass-media campaign as being a counterproductive exercise in futility. "I know a media campaign would be good for you people in the media," Penelas sarcastically told New Times. "But we don't have the money. And what happens when I do raise the money? You all start criticizing: 'Here goes Penelas again, raising money for the people that are more likely to benefit if these things happen.'"

Kendall-based attorney Richard N. Friedman, a mass transit foe for the past 22 years, wasn't sure what to make of the half-penny campaign. "It's highly unusual for the county," Friedman offered. "It is a below-the-radar, submarine approach, which means we have to work harder to get the message out to vote against the tax. Luckily this is a general election, which would generally favor those who are opposed, such as myself. But it all boils down to one substantive issue: Do people in Miami-Dade County want to pay a seven percent sales tax after November 5?"

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