True Colors

Within political circles the buzz is almost deafening:

"What's wrong with Penelas?"

"Has Miami-Dade's boy-king lost his mind?"

"Is the mayor off his medication or what?"

All around town people are asking the same questions following a month in which every decision Alex Penelas made left even the most sophisticated devotees of local politics scratching their heads in amazement. In recent weeks the only positive thing anyone could say about him is that at least he hasn't been arrested for assaulting his wife.

Penelas's journey into never-never land began with his selection of Steve Shiver as county manager. This was followed by his clumsy handling of questions regarding his interest in becoming strong mayor, his state-of-the-county address announcing a new initiative to allow developers to police themselves, his insistence on suing the federal government over the Clinton administration's decision to prohibit construction of a major airport at Homestead Air Force Base, and perhaps most revealing, his one-man jihad against the appointment of Angela Gittens as the county's aviation director.

This erratic rush of events has left many people dumbfounded. Not only have his decisions defied logic, they have been presented for public consumption in a manner that can only be described as bush-league. For someone who is supposed to be politically savvy, Penelas has done nothing but embarrass himself. It's as if the mayor has gone politically tone-deaf.

Where are his trusted advisors, the men who whisper in the mayor's ear and tell him what to say and how to say it? Where is Herman Echevarria? Chris Korge? Rodney Barreto? Brian May? Are the mayor's cronies so busy counting the money they're sucking out of the county they don't have time to offer him advice on how to avoid looking like a two-bit political whore?

Apparently not.

Eventually the mayor's supporters will awaken from their greed-induced stupor and rally around their meal ticket, straightening the seams on his stockings, wiping the dirt from his knees, applying several new layers of makeup to his battered façade -- all in hopes of turning him into a beauty again. In fact that process began on Monday, with several Penelas supporters coming to his defense in a front-page Miami Herald story. Penelas isn't pandering to a few special interests, we're told; he's merely "taking a strong stance on issues." The mayor isn't betraying the public's trust; he's showing signs of vitality. "It's energy," lobbyist Jorge Lopez declared.

A different image comes to my mind. It's Frank Sinatra singing "That's why the lady is a tramp."

Alex Penelas is in trouble. His world grows smaller by the day, his political options continue to narrow, and his aspirations for greatness fade like a distant memory. The recent spate of decisions reflects this new reality. They have about them an air of desperation. Not panic quite yet, but clear desperation.

There is no great mystery to Penelas. He has always been driven by one thing: political ambition. Not money. Not sex. Not even power. Ambition defines every aspect of his life; it is at the core of his soul. And in relentless pursuit of its fulfillment he surrounds himself with men whose avarice forms a perfectly symbiotic whole: They help him get elected; he helps them get rich.

Understanding this impulse elucidates the mayor's motive in hiring Shiver as county manager. Penelas offered the manager's job to several government insiders before handing it to Shiver. None of them wanted it because they knew Penelas wasn't looking for a manager; he was looking for a puppet.

Is there anyone in Miami-Dade County who actually believes Steve Shiver is the best person in the nation to oversee a $4.4 billion budget and 28,000 employees? Shiver is a bright, articulate, likable fellow, but it will take him two years of on-the-job training before he truly understands how the county operates. Which is exactly why, from Penelas's standpoint, he was the best candidate for the job.

As Shiver treads water in a complicated new job, Penelas plans his own future. As it stands now, he will be out of work and out of politics when his term expires in 2004. In order to avoid that, he'll need to run for Congress or change the county charter to create a strong-mayor form of government, which would allow him to run again.

Shiver's appointment could serve Penelas either way. By installing a weak manager, he subliminally begins to make the case for the county requiring a strong mayor. Shiver can also aid him in building support among the manager's constituency in South Miami-Dade, a part of the county where Penelas clearly needs help. In his last mayoral election, he was crushed in South Miami-Dade by businessman Jay Love.

Should Penelas decide to run for Congress, Shiver could play a helpful role as well. Soon there will be three congressional seats in South Florida largely composed of Cuban-American voters. One is now occupied by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, another is represented by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and the third -- a new seat -- hasn't been created yet but likely will encompass Hialeah and Southwest Broward County.

The presumption has been that if Penelas runs for Congress, he would do so in this newly created district. But it's also possible, depending on the new district's boundary lines, that Penelas might be tempted to challenge Ros-Lehtinen in South Miami-Dade.

Consider the following: Despite belonging to different political parties, Penelas and the Diaz-Balart clan have always formed allegiances. As a result Penelas would never run against Lincoln Diaz-Balart. More important, though, Penelas and state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (who chairs the legislative committee redrawing the congressional districts) are close allies. They're working together on a number of projects, including building a new baseball stadium for the Marlins.

Everyone knows that Mario Diaz-Balart has his eye on the new congressional seat. But suppose that, in order to avoid a head-to-head race against Penelas, Diaz-Balart redraws Ros-Lehtinen's district in a way that leaves her vulnerable. Most observers expect that during redistricting, Democratic Rep. Peter Deutsch will lose the Monroe County part of his gerrymandered district. The most likely person to represent that stretch of Florida -- which votes overwhelmingly Democratic -- would be Ros-Lehtinen, since it is adjacent to her current district. A few more twists and turns like that and Ros-Lehtinen could find herself in trouble.

If Penelas were to run against her in a redrawn southern district, having Shiver by his side could make a difference. Do I think Penelas will run against Ros-Lehtinen? Right now, I don't. Nor do I think the mayor is investing much energy in it. The important thing for Penelas is to keep alive what few options he has left, no matter how bizarre and remote they might seem.

Last year Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell hosted a fundraiser for his good friend Alex Penelas. Atlanta-area businessmen turned out, checks in hand, to donate to Penelas's re-election campaign.

Francois Illas, Penelas's deputy treasurer during the campaign, traveled with the mayor to Atlanta for the event. He recalls it took place in either late February or early March and that between 50 and 60 people attended. "A lot of people in suits," says Illas, who works for Herman Echevarria's media firm, BVK Meka.

Illas says he doesn't remember how much money was collected. "There were all sorts of checks, all sorts of amounts," he reports. Nor does he recall what businesses the various individuals represented. "I didn't bother asking for occupations," he says. "The campaign treasurer would follow up and collect that information."

According to two knowledgeable sources, the relationship between Penelas and Campbell runs deeper than two Democratic mayors supporting each others' fundraising efforts. The two men also have endeavored to open business opportunities for their friends and supporters in each other's town.

Such alliances are not without precedent. In 1990 then-county Commissioner Joe Gersten, who at the time was the most powerful politician in Miami-Dade County and the man everyone assumed would be the county's first executive mayor, brokered a deal with equally influential Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. Under their secret agreement, Jackson helped Gersten pal Howard Gary receive bond work in Atlanta. In return Gersten helped the Atlanta mayor line up bond work in South Florida.

If Campbell and Penelas also forged pacts, an obvious area of mutual interest would be their respective airports. With their massive capital-improvement projects, retail stores, concessions, baggage-handling contracts, and food service facilities, airports are the fattest cash cows available to local governments. Which is why it's no coincidence Penelas's biggest financial supporters are also the people who control the most lucrative contracts at Miami International Airport.

But then along comes Angela Gittens. The stories in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Gittens during her tenure as Atlanta's aviation director are glowing tributes to her intelligence, honesty, and experience. She developed a reputation as someone who refuses to play political games and steadfastly maintains her independence.

No wonder Penelas did everything in his power to prevent her from becoming our county's aviation director. She was so good, so clean, so honest that Penelas's Atlanta buddy Bill Campbell (himself now under federal investigation) made it a priority to fire her soon after taking office.

Assume for a moment that my sources are right -- that Penelas and Campbell were working together to help their cronies. (Think about it: Why would an Atlanta businessman donate to Penelas's mayoral campaign unless he believed it would open doors for him later?) The one person who could blow that apart is Angela Gittens. She knows the players in Atlanta and their relationships to Campbell. If Gittens made it difficult for Atlanta folks to obtain sweetheart contracts in Miami, then Miami folks certainly couldn't expect to be included in similar Atlanta deals.

Even more troubling for Penelas is the prospect of Gittens instigating wholesale changes at MIA, including the introduction of what locally is a novel concept: ethical government. Any sort of change makes Penelas's cohorts nervous, but the thought of ethical government really gives them the willies.

Hoping to stop Gittens, Penelas manipulated the black community in Miami by announcing he would rather see Cynthia Curry named aviation director. Both Curry and Gittens are black, but for some reason elements within the local black community swallowed Penelas's bait and rallied around Curry.

County Commissioners Betty Ferguson and Dorrin Rolle, as well as Rev. Victor Curry, were played for fools by Penelas. They are dupes. Rather than siding with Penelas, they should have attacked him. Cynthia Curry is not qualified to be aviation director. She has no aviation experience. Gittens has been in the aviation industry and running major airports for eighteen years.

On the other hand, Curry is qualified for the post of county manager. She spent years as an assistant county manager. But Penelas didn't make her county manager because she actually would have known what she was doing. Instead he sought to place her in a job completely foreign to her. The most regrettable part of the story is that Curry allowed herself to be used by the mayor in his efforts to professionally demolish another black woman. Those efforts have failed so far: The commission approved Gittens's hiring on Tuesday.

Penelas had wanted the two most important jobs in the county -- manager and aviation director -- to go to people who have no experience in those areas. And for all this good judgment he deserves a 60-percent pay raise? Now that his asking price is so high, I guess I should stop describing him as a two-bit political whore.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede