Trouble at Home

All right, progressives. You want a real reason to cry? Enough with the voting machines already. Please shut up about an Ohio recount. And forget the much-vaunted Republican turnout in Florida's I-4 suburban corridor. Instead look to our own backyard, right here on South Beach.

In the 72 hours preceding election day, Kulchur had three separate John Kerry campaign volunteers knock on his front door, each one a Miami Beach resident and each one supposedly so well versed on the pressing issues affecting this community he was burning to fill in Kulchur on all the reasons it was important to trot on down to his polling place and vote for their man.

There was much fevered talk of the "Christian right," its hold over a faith-besotted president, and how its Bible-thumping maneuverings were leading us into disaster both at home and abroad. But not one of these local Kerry boosters could tell Kulchur who the two Miami-Dade mayoral candidates were, let alone that one of them -- Carlos Alvarez -- seemed hell-bent on rolling back the calendar to the days of Anita Bryant. After all, there was Alvarez on a Telemundo-sponsored mayoral debate, referring to Miami's gays and lesbians as folks with "sexual problems," and calling the county's gay-rights law unnecessary: "I don't think it has been demonstrated where such discrimination has existed in this community." And lest there be any lingering ambiguity regarding his feelings, Alvarez sent a letter to the Miami-Dade Christian Family Coalition in which he pledged to ban not only gay marriage but also civil unions and same-sex domestic partnerships.

Of course, turning back a fresh set of reactionary "moral values" was but one of the reasons Kulchur was nearly dragged out of his home by Kerry's impassioned supporters. Wasn't he aware of how corrupt the Bush administration was? How about those grossly inflated no-bid contracts doled out to Halliburton?

But you hardly had to trek off to Washington, D.C., to discover blatant bid-rigging on government contracts. Just look to Miami International Airport, where county-hall-enabled graft has become legendary. Yet here was a mayoral candidate -- you guessed it, Carlos Alvarez -- announcing his intention to retain George Burgess, the very county manager who'd been ineffectually presiding over that mess. Once again the young Miami activists trooping around Lincoln Road on behalf of and America Coming Together seemed much more concerned with quashing sweetheart deals in Baghdad than targeting billion-dollar boondoggles you could actually spot from the Dolphin Expressway.

Thanks in no small part to this White House-focused tunnel vision, it took less than a week for the other shoe to drop on Alvarez's campaign promises. Following his November 2 victory over Jimmy Morales, Alvarez quickly gave the thumbs up to Burgess's ouster of Miami-Dade Aviation Director Angela Gittens, a woman whose mandate had been to pry the airport from the clutches of what she once termed "lobby heaven." Launching into spin mode, Burgess assured the public that Gittens's forced resignation was a result of her prickliness and insubordination, not her refusal to approve $66 million in taxpayer funds for a new American Airlines terminal. Alvarez dutifully hit the media to reinforce that message.

Days later Alvarez announced the formation of his nine-member transition team, a crew that included outgoing Mayor Alex Penelas's chief of staff, Javier Soto, as well as Penelas's senior adviser Alfredo Mesa. It may be true, as Miami Herald columnist Jim DeFede opined, that "Carlos Alvarez isn't so much a person anymore as he is a prayer," but the blessings were being counted by Miami's lobbyists: Not only was it going to be business as usual at county hall, they didn't even need to reprogram the speed dials on their cell phones.

But it was another member of the transition team that caught Kulchur's eye, an apparent out-of-towner: Keith Butler, head of a Detroit-area African American "mega church," the 21,000-member Southfield, Michigan, Word of Faith International Christian Center. Reporters at the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel received the same press release as Kulchur, and unquestioningly printed Butler's affiliation in stories the next day, never pausing to scratch their heads over why a Detroit preacher would be winging into town to help Alvarez plot his new administration's course.

In many Republican circles, however, Butler's name immediately induces plenty of cringing, particularly among those who've spent years trying to chart a philosophical course away from the Christian Coalition. Back in Detroit, Butler has led the charge on the Michigan legislature to ban abortion, fight the "homosexual agenda," and issue new science textbooks that enshrine creationism right alongside evolution. Or as Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey quipped of a similar schoolbook dispute in Georgia: "The word 'dinosaur' will be replaced by 'Jesus horse.'"

With the Bush administration stepping up its efforts to make electoral inroads in the black community, Butler found himself tapped to deliver the closing-night invocation at September's Republican National Convention in New York. Letting his voice soar out over the assembled delegates, Butler aimed his words toward heaven and piously offered, "We give thanks to you because more families in America are enjoying the benefits of this national economic recovery." Left unanswered: Does God think it's safe to get back into the bond market?

After a flurry of phone calls among Alvarez's transition-team members, and some subsequently embarrassed apologias from Hizzoner's fumbling new staffers, it now appears that the Keith Butler in question is not the Detroit crusader. Instead it's a lesser-known Keith Butler, the one who heads Liberty City's New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church and whose chief claim to political fame is that he was one of the few black reverends Alvarez could cajole into endorsing him on the campaign trail.

It was quite a case of mistaken identity ("No, no, I'm Idi Amin the certified public accountant"), one that Alvarez's assistants were blithely chalking up to "computer error." Ah, yes, a computer glitch. Perhaps John Kerry's erstwhile backers, so up in arms over those errant electronic votes, have finally found a local issue to get fired up about.

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Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol

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