True Colors

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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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede