That Old Familiar Face

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There are three penalties for willfully withholding information from state-mandated financial-disclosure forms: disqualification, censure, or a fine not exceeding $10,000. "Disqualification is rare," Claypool says. "That's happened once in the commission's history."

Controversy over Ferré's financial affairs hasn't been limited to disclosure forms. During his mayoral battle in 1985, a court ordered him to pay $70,000 in fines for accepting illegal campaign contributions four years earlier. (Ferré managed to avoid paying that fine until June 1996, when he was running for county mayor.) In 1989 another court found that he tried to hide $1.4 million in consulting fees by transferring them to his wife. Mercedes was ordered to pay that amount plus attorneys' fees to City National Bank of Florida, a Maule Industries creditor.

Marie Petit, Ferré's political advisor and a close friend for many years, blames the media for exaggerating the candidate's financial quagmires: "The press [in the Eighties] didn't see that right before their eyes Maurice was changing. [After the collapse of Maule Industries] he had to look for another way to butter his bread. He never really had to do that before." Petit concedes she knows little about Ferré's personal business. "He puts deals together," she replies, unable to elaborate.

Manny Alfonso, Ferré's 33-year-old campaign manager, doesn't know much more. "He's a businessman," Alfonso says. "I don't know what that entails. He works with a lot of people in Puerto Rico, I think."

Even Ferré's wife claims she doesn't know details of her husband's business arrangements. Veteran political consultant Ric Katz has known Ferré for almost two decades but he too is unsure how the politician makes a living. Katz, though, believes voters won't be thinking about such things come this fall. Like many others, he speaks dreamily of Ferré's long-ago administration. "Our city is ready for uplifting," he muses. "The next mayor needs to excite people's imagination. They're tired of this city living on the edge of bankruptcy. We want something special that's not about getting by, but getting ahead. And I have to say that Maurice has a reputation for focusing on great ideas."

Ferré says that's exactly what he wants to do. He doesn't intend to dwell on his private life or divulge any more details about his livelihood. And he won't identify the individuals with whom he does business. "All of it is legal and carefully thought through," he says. "I learned my father's lesson. As far as conflicts of interest, I don't have any and won't have any."

The Culmer-Overtown Neighborhood Center is a boxy, concrete building at 1600 NW Third Ave., just north of downtown in the heart of Overtown. Paint is chipping from its walls. Sixty or so neighborhood residents have gathered here on a Saturday morning eager to listen to a promised lively mayoral debate. But it will be neither lively nor a debate. Only four of the eight candidates bothered to show: Ferré, Xavier Suarez, Emiliano Antunez, and Danny Couch. Instead of engaging his fellow candidates, each man makes a speech.

When it's Ferré's turn, he locks his brown eyes on the crowd. "The city needs a mayor who will represent it with dignity!" he nearly shouts. "This city needs a mayor who will not embarrass it!"

Punching the air with his fist, he continues: "When I was mayor, it was a progressive city." Fist. "We had $38 million in the bank." Fist. "We had more minority directors in city departments than we have ever had before or ever since." Fist with emphasizing thumb.

The crowd is quiet. Only a few random claps.

When the four candidates finish, the forum opens to questions. An elderly black woman in the back of the room asks when any of the men, if elected, would install air conditioning in this public building. Looking slightly annoyed, Ferré explains that the building isn't owned by the city, but he'd do what he could. Each candidate gives her a perfunctory "I'll do my best" response. But none of them capitalizes on the larger significance of such a question.

"We need someone to pay attention to our neighborhoods," explains prominent black attorney H.T. Smith. "We see how Brickell looks and we see how Overtown and other black sections still look."

Because six of the mayoral contenders are Cuban, that community's influential vote, often concentrated enough to boost a candidate to victory without a runoff election, will be diluted. Which means the city's black voters (31,000 out of 133,000 total registered voters) will play a critical role in determining which candidates make it to a runoff. Attorney Smith assures that the city's black community will flock to the polls in record numbers. "We'll prove that the presidential election wasn't an aberration," he says, referring to last year's unprecedented high black voter turnout, locally and statewide. "And people want to pass the [police] citizen-review panel referendum. They'll vote for mayor while they're doing that."

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Ashley Fantz
Contact: Ashley Fantz