The D Word

It's hard to imagine another major city in America with as many closeted politicians as Miami. No, not closeted about being gay -- in the closet about being Democrats. Whatever shortcomings Alex Penelas may have had as county mayor (and as a Democrat), he had few qualms about making county hall a comfortable workplace for openly gay staffers, spinmeisters, and of course lobbyists.

Likewise Miami Mayor Manny Diaz. While his 2001 election opponent Maurice Ferré hemmed and hawed, speaking out of both sides of his mouth about the county's gay rights ordinance -- yea to audiences of liberal Anglos, nay to audiences of conservative Cubans -- Diaz simply declared the entire subject a nonissue. He matter-of-factly announced his support for the law, as well as for repealing the ban on allowing gay couples to adopt foster children. And then he sent his younger, forthrightly gay brother Jorge -- a SAVE Dade veteran -- to canvass in the same Little Havana neighborhoods whose presumably delicate sensibilities Ferré had seemed so terrified of offending.

Yet just try asking Diaz to declare his fidelity to the Democratic Party and it's back to The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. A lifelong Democrat who switched his voter registration to "unaffiliated" shortly before his mayoral bid, Diaz may have long-standing ties to -- and been a generous fundraiser for -- such well-known Democratic figures as Rep. Kendrick Meek and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, but don't even think of nailing down Diaz's identity in front of an open microphone. In fact the only guessing game that excites local gossips more than Diaz's designs on a statewide office is under which party's banner he'll make that leap.

Alex Penelas too spent much of his public career as a Democrat in name, raising funds for the party's candidates and shaking the requisite hands. But when partisan passions heated up during the 2000 presidential race and subsequent recount, he went AWOL, leading Al Gore to brand him "the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with during the campaign anywhere in America."

Even Miami Beach's Democratic Mayor David Dermer -- presiding over a burg the Democratic National Committee (DNC) deemed friendly enough to host Gore's massive Election Eve rally -- keeps his party membership card tucked firmly out of sight. Last year Dermer was quick to trumpet his support for turning the Beach's city hall into a national registry for gay and lesbian couples. And he championed an anti-discrimination measure for transsexuals. But when John Kerry rolled into town, Dermer made sure every local reporter knew he was stumping for George W. Bush, coyly hinting that his stalwart support would be rewarded with a job in the Bush administration come 2005.

You hardly need to be an expert in backroom politicking to understand this odd phenomenon. Just listen to Penelas's wife Lilliam, a Republican who crossed the line only to vote for her husband. "Democrats are viewed as Fidel Castro commie lovers," she quipped to the Herald last summer, and, syntax aside, that does indeed sum up the opinion of much of the Cuban-exile community, which sees a history of Democratic perfidy stretching from Elian Gonzalez on back to the Kennedy White House. And with el exilio remaining a decisive voting bloc in local elections, it's a legacy most aspiring pols choose to steer clear of.

Jimmy Morales, the new Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman, doesn't disagree with this assessment. But he argues that it needs to be dealt with if his party is ever going to re-establish itself as a serious force in wresting Florida out of the red-state column. He credits the ineffectiveness of the local party as one of the key factors in his own failed mayoral quest this past November.

"I grew up in the shadow of Dante Fascell, Claude Pepper, Lawton Chiles, and Ruben Askew," Morales explains, intoning the names of Florida's deceased Democratic heavyweights. "Now there's no more shadow. I think of myself as someone who has a lot to offer -- but now, without a strong party, even if I run a perfect campaign, I can't win." So feel free to label his motives in resuscitating the party as self-interested, he continues, even as downright selfish: "I want to be part of making it possible for folks like myself to bring that good old Democratic policy back to bear in Tallahassee and Washington."

The first step, he says, is focusing on younger Cuban Americans, the much-cited Generación ñ. "I'm not going to convince most Cuban Americans who are over the age of 50 to switch their votes. They're set in their ways," Morales concedes. "But there's a lot of younger Cuban Americans coming up. They're fair game. They don't hate Democrats because of John F. Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs. They're interested in economic issues."

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol