Welcome to Fabulous Tallahassee

A giddy chaos swirls through downtown Tallahassee as the legislative session approaches its midpoint, April Fool's Day. Gusts of energy and appetite move people through the cool marble rotunda of the old capitol. At lunchtime in the plaza outside, a stiff breeze blows tiny bits of leaves into a giant paella simmering over gas burners. "We all kept stirring it in, figuring it wouldn't do much harm," admits Bob Levy, a lobbyist and coordinator of Miami-Dade Days, an annual party now in its sixteenth year. A savvy fellow, Levy knows that none of the 4000 or so small-town officials, bureaucrats, union organizers, PTA moms, state legislators, or even Billy the Marlin are here for the food. Rather no one wants to miss out on what the Guinness Book of World Records should classify as the world's largest edible photo-op.

Nearly everyone who can lay hands on a big spoon is packed behind the serving line, dropping globs of rice with its treasures of chicken and seafood onto plastic plates, grinning for the cameras, then moving off to schmooze. The paella line is one of the few public spaces in Tallahassee where political affiliation matters less than the ability to bend an elbow. Thus the otherwise unusual sight of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate, going scoop for scoop next to Jeb Bush, the Republican governor who will support his party's leading candidate in that race. Bush, however, loses a few style points when he looks down at his official Miami-Dade Days tie and, after a brief examination, pronounces it the ugliest he's seen yet. Unfortunately he neglects to wait until its young designer, New World School of the Arts student Gabriela Corea, is out of earshot.

Besides the tasty arroz con arbol, the afternoon's delights include lots of speeches and awards presided over by former restaurateur and convicted tax cheat Monty Trainer, chairman of the event, which this year is partially combined with Broward Days. The awards are fetching glass rectangles etched with the name of a local notable (generally deceased) for whom the given award is christened, and the name of the living person on whom it is bestowed. These plaques additionally feature the artwork of ubiquitous Miami artist Romero Britto, also very handy with a paella spoon. Britto later gets his own honor, the "Nestor Torres Cultural Ambassador Award," presumably because his slick commercial appeal is the perfect metaphor for our fair county.

Miami-Dade County Days comes across as a kind of spring fling for small-town officials. Some folks had flown into Tallahassee the night before, transforming the sedate Southern plantation town into Miami North for a couple of days. It is noticeable as the air in the clubby bars across the street from the capitol fills with cigar smoke and the sounds of Spanish, melding with the cool breezes of a Tallahassee spring. "¡Oye! ¡Que rica!" calls out one contingent that includes Latin Builders Association head William Delgado as two female friends walk by the outdoor tables at Andrew's.

The spring-break sensation increases as darkness falls and stiff drinks served by lithe college students begin to flow. Black, white, Latino, and Haitian folks mix freely, more easily with each other in this alien place than at home. Spanish and English become interchangeable, subject to subject, sometimes even midsentence. What's going on with the Marlins stadium, healthcare, the school district, the courts funding? Did you see who else is here?

Taxi-industry lobbyist Diego Feliciano chats up a zoning board member from the City of Miami, then moves on to catch up with a friend at Clyde's, a watering hole next door. Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and manager Joe Arriola arrive with their entourages. Placido "Paul" Debesa, an octogenarian Republican executive-committeeman from Little Havana, slowly drinks Scotch and watches the crowd, frequently popping to his feet to snap a photo of some local personage. He then sits down and resumes a conversation about all the Dade Days he's seen over the years. "The way you look and the way you talk is like Kissinger," a friend tells him. Debesa ignores the comment and stands up for another picture.

This year is different from most in that the large and boisterous fraternity of Miami's legislative delegation seems to have moved beyond political hazing rituals and has closed ranks in a remarkable fashion. At the heart of the twenty-five-member delegation are the eleven Hispanic Republicans in the House, and (sometimes) their three counterparts in the Senate. The delegation also includes six House Democrats (three African Americans, two Haitian Americans, and one Jew), four Senate Democrats (two blacks and two Jews), and one Anglo-Catholic House Republican from Monroe County. With the exception of Miami Beach's Dan Gelber, however, the Democrats are largely out of the circle of influence.

Solidarity is either really good or not so great, depending on the angle from which this new development is observed. Eleven bodies with one head produces a dearth of independent thought. But unity in the Hispanic delegation will be a major ingredient in House majority leader Marco Rubio's bid to become Speaker of the House in 2006. A House speaker from Miami for the first time in 30-odd years would mean extra pork for South Florida. Then again, nothing is guaranteed. Just ask former Opa-locka state Rep. Willie Logan, a Democrat, who was Speaker of the House-designate until his mostly white colleagues pulled a last-minute switch in 1998. Logan retaliated by throwing his support to the gubernatorial campaign of Jeb Bush, thus continuing a tradition of uneasy alliances between blacks and Republicans in Florida that, through redistricting battles, eventually broke the Democrats' century-plus domination of the legislature.

Two recent incidents illustrate the new cohesion among Miami's Hispanic delegation. Both were highly orchestrated responses to delegation members being pressured by lobbyists. First came Miccosukee chairman Billy Cypress, stalking the capitol's hallways in search of legislative support for a bill that would keep state and local law enforcement out of tribal lands. Cypress had in tow Frank Artiles, who ran against Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata in 2002. (Zapata is the first Colombian-American elected to the Florida legislature.) Artiles may run against him again this year, and if he does he doubtless will have the Miccosukee's casino fortune behind him. Zapata had used an obscure parliamentary rule to derail the bill in last year's session and Cypress's message couldn't have been more apparent: Fuck with us, we take you out.

As a reporter from New Times sits in Zapata's office after the paella fest, he gets a call from Marco Rubio, fresh from a chat with Cypress. "Man, he's arrogant," Zapata says to Rubio, referring to Cypress. To the reporter in front of him, he points out the irony of a tribe that wants to be both a sovereign nation and a player in state elections. "They're gunning for me," he acknowledges. A few days later the St. Petersburg Times and the Miami Herald publish stories filled with quotes from Rubio and other Cuban legislators decrying the Cypress maneuver and backing Zapata.

That same day the Herald runs another article detailing events on the House floor that had occurred before the paella was served on March 31. This time the "who's your daddy?" treatment came from Miami-based BellSouth lobbyist Tito Gomez and was directed at freshman Rep. Julio Robaina, a long-time service technician for the company. The House was in the midst of considering legislation designed to undo a massive $350 million telephone rate increase it had pushed through last year following a particularly unseemly lobbying blitz. Gomez called Robaina while he was on the floor. It was a long talk that caused a visibly shaken Robaina to miss the original vote and then change his own vote three times after the fact. Robaina's Miami-Dade colleagues rallied around him, with much rhetorical wrist-slapping of Gomez.

The message from the delegation in both these incidents? Shoot at one of us, we all shoot back. "We have a 'You come after one of us, you come after all of us' mentality," says Rep. Gus Barreiro. This is a big change from a few years ago, when it was more likely for Miami legislators to fire at each other than a common enemy. The new harmony is a refreshing change from the days when the rivalries between Miami politicians frequently degenerated into all-out assaults, largely taking the form of bills killed in committees or members refusing to attend the same events, but occasionally erupting in more spectacular fashion.

In 1998, for example, Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat and Carlos Valdes scuffled on the House floor during a debate over tuition vouchers. As video cameras rolled, the two men grappled awkwardly, red-faced, until security guards and fellow legislators pulled them apart. In 2000 the warfare between Carlos Lacasa and Diaz de la Portilla brothers Alex and Renier resulted in a well-publicized fistfight between Carlos and Renier outside the Radio Mambí studios. Lacasa's star fell when he lost a brutal 2002 campaign to oust bad-boy Alex from his Senate seat. Luis Rojas once clashed with fellow Miamian Mario Diaz-Balart after a debate on redistricting. According to a Herald account, Diaz-Balart called Rojas's mother a name and Rojas grabbed and nearly punched him. They later made up.

This sort of thing, combined with seasonal flareups of anti-Castro pontificating, resulted in Miami-Dade's Republican delegation being viewed by other Florida lawmakers as a marginal player at best. "I remember a legislator from the north came up to me once and said, 'The good thing about Dade County is it's so close to the United States of America,'" recalls Miguel de Grandy, a legislator in the early Nineties. "It was an us-versus-them mentality. It was like, 'Oh, we have to deal with the Cubans because they're in the party.' That's changed now."

"There is a huge difference," observes a former Miami legislative aide now in local government. "It's generational. There's a difference philosophically in their manner of conducting business and how seriously they are taken. Souto, Ros-Lehtinen, Diaz-Balart -- I don't think they were [taken seriously]."

Adds veteran lobbyist Bob Levy: "This is not a generation of lawmakers whose only issue is Fidel Castro. The generation before still had one foot in Havana." Levy believes the change in the delegation is also reflected in the legislature as a whole. "Florida has changed," he says. "It's more urban. The people they serve with [in Tallahassee] are younger or relatively new to the state. They don't have the ingrained resentment of South Florida."

Even old-time Floridians are learning to appreciate the new breed. Juan Carlos Zapata remembers attending a dinner for incoming freshmen after the 2002 elections. During the course of the evening, another freshman, former Citrus County Sheriff Charlie Dean, stood up and, addressing the five newcomers from Miami, delivered a typically off-color ode to changing times. Zapata recalls Dean saying, "'You know, if I had seen you five Latinos driving through my county years ago, I would have pulled you over and strip-searched you on the spot.' Then he sat down. We looked at each other like, 'Is he kidding?'" Dean, a cattle rancher in his midsixties, is now affectionately referred to by several Miami legislators as the delegation's "Cracker translator and honorary Cuban."

Juan-Carlos Planas, elected from the Westchester area in 2002, says he and his peers are less parochial than their predecessors. "The torch has been passed," the 34-year-old former prosecutor asserts. "We joke among ourselves that we're Cubans: the Next Generation."

But exile politics continues to play a role in Tallahassee. This past August the eleven Hispanic House members from Miami wrote a letter to President George W. Bush warning him to get tougher on Castro or risk losing Cuban-American support. This move was the brainchild of Rep. David Rivera, a long-time Republican Party operative who, according to a colleague, thinks "the Bush administration only understands threats." In combination with a poll of Cuban voter attitudes toward President Bush commissioned by BellSouth, plus a threat by Miami reps not to carry water for Bush's re-election campaign, it seems to have succeeded in hardening the White House's official line on Cuba.

But the danger of playing to the hometown crowd on one issue is that it becomes more difficult to appeal to a statewide audience, or to bring home the money. And the flow of state money to Miami is perennially threatened by lawmakers from north and central Florida, who want to divert it from South Florida schools and social programs and channel it to their own communities. "The good ol' boys still have something to teach them about politics," observes one Tallahassee-based education consultant. "If they lose on issues like the school district cost differential or Article Five funding, what does that say? If they were really influential, this DCD challenge wouldn't be happening."

The stone crab claws are missing! Gatecrashers are threatening to descend on the Mambo Kings party! Disgruntled calls, at least 30 of them, fly from various legislators' offices to Miami-Dade Days coordinators. Usually a business organization sends up a box of claws from Monty's with the ties and scarves and other goodies sent to each legislator before the fest. They are so popular that individuals must sign for receipt of the shipment. But this year there were no claws. "All right, but I'd better not see other legislators with stone crabs," grouses one lawmaker. Down the hall, someone from one of the offices reprints a bunch of invitations to the popular Mambo Kings party and passes them out. The party, held in Kleman Plaza, is only authorized for about 2500 people; any more than that and it could be shut down. Preventive measures are taken by party organizers to closely inspect invitations at the entrance.

Elsewhere in downtown Tallahassee, anti-Katherine Fernandez Rundle signs mysteriously appear inside the windows of newspaper boxes. This just happens to coincide with the arrival from Miami of John Rivera, head of the Police Benevolent Association and a fierce critic of the Miami-Dade State Attorney.

County Commissioner Javier Souto, not entirely satisfied by the paella, slips off to a downtown Cuban restaurant called Gordo's for maduros and a few sips from a large plastic cup reading, "Gordo's Cuban Cuisine. Put a Cuban in your mouth."

And a bored gaggle of elected officials from Sweetwater begins tossing ripe tomatoes at one another in the hallway outside Zapata's office.

Meanwhile a quiet campaign to have Rep. David Rivera elected mayor of a town in Cuba gets under way in the offices of J.C. Planas, also world headquarters of Planas-Palooza, an unofficial Dade Days afternoon happy hour between the paella fest and Mambo Kings party. Periodically leaving the office are women holding martini glasses filled with neon-colored drinks, and young men hiding beer bottles under their coats. A karaoke machine kicks out tunes.

On the office door a poster reads, "Vote David Rivera for el Alcalde de Cienfuegos. A paid advertisement by Joe Garcia and CANF." The picture, however, shows Rowan Atkinson, the loopy British actor who plays Mr. Bean on the eponymous BBC television series, whom Rivera is said to resemble. The inside joke rests both on Rivera's comment to the Miami Herald that he wants "to be mayor of Cienfuegos in a free Cuba," and Garcia's role as executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, which Rivera worked for when it was a much more hard-line organization run by Jorge Mas Canosa. "I'm waiting for Rivera to get me back," Planas later says gleefully of his friend. "I hope it's funny."

Tallahassee has a long and well-deserved reputation as a city where the two oldest professions come together, and the great facilitator of both is the "Third House," a term not inaccurately applied by many to the robust lobbying corps, which outnumbers legislators by about twenty-to-one. This corps reported spending almost eight million dollars on wining and dining of various kinds in 2003 alone. Think about it. That's what they reported. In ousting career politicians, term limits have given Republicans what they say they want: government run more like a business. Or more precisely, government run by business.

Apparently there's just something about screwing the public that makes people horny. "There are two kinds of people who come to Tallahassee," offers one cynical lobbyist after a couple of bottles of sake at a sushi joint. "And both of them have the same mental age -- college kids and legislators. They both come here to drink and get laid, and neither one of them knows much of what happens in between."

Much has been whispered about the things that supposedly happen at private clubs and homes not accessible to the press. St. Petersburg Times reporter Lucy Morgan wrote a story last month about some of the more colorful shenanigans of legislatures past, including how Florida legalized racetracks in the Thirties after lobbyists shipped a "carload" of whores to a Senate hangout just outside the state capitol.

Not that today's legislators have such expectations. "I used to hear about these crazy parties in a barn somewhere," offers Gus Barreiro, tentatively. "I didn't see anything." He adds that he doesn't even do the bar-hopping circuit anymore: "When you first get elected, you go to all these spots. After a couple of years, though, you just go home. You don't want to see people who just want to talk to you about legislation."

One favorite meeting place on that Tallahassee circuit is Café Cabernet, from which more than one legislator, including Alex Diaz de la Portilla in his bachelor days, has reportedly been known to stagger. Another is the Silver Slipper, an expensive steak house in business since 1938. The Slipper is a veritable museum of Florida politics, filled with old photos of paunchy, grinning men in antiquated haircuts and bad suits. Legislators love the place because the food they aren't paying for is good and the long tables are divided into little rooms with heavy curtains at the front that can be pulled closed or left open.

The Mambo Kings party is no match for the Slipper, even on a slow day -- just a lot of tipsy folks from Miami wandering around Kleman Plaza on a chilly night, Miami Commissioner Joe Sanchez's raspy tenor leading a bunch of people in an off-key rendition of "Guantanamera," and legislator Ralph Arza enthusiastically spinning a young lady on the dance floor to the disco hit "I Will Survive." One attendee later offered this judgment: "Last year there was such debauchery that people were on their guard. This year was a bit boring."

Bill Cotterell, political editor for the Tallahassee Democrat (and a native Miamian), once asked a retiring sergeant of arms what the hardest part of his job had been. "He said, 'Keeping the session wives from meeting the real wives,'" he recalls with a laugh. "What happens in Tallahassee does pretty much stay in Tallahassee."

Not all legislators are boozing, whoring party animals. Some of them do have other interests. Basketball, for instance. Many Wednesday nights, several of the Miami-Dade crew -- regularly including Dan Gelber, Gaston Cantens, Marcelo Llorente, and Manny Prieguez -- play pickup games with legislators from other parts of the state, a few lobbyists, Florida Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, and a writer from the St. Petersburg Times.

The ability to just hang together outside the capitol building is one of the things several delegation members cite as an example of the new unity of the Hispanic delegation. "You don't have family up here, so we become each other's family," says J.C. Planas. "Sometimes we go over to Rene Garcia's house and I cook for everybody. My specialty is Italian. I make a good risotto." Gus Barreiro and state Sen. Rudy Garcia ride their motorcycles up to Tallahassee from Miami before each session.

Barreiro and Prieguez share a rented house while in session, which they've done since they were elected in 1998. Cantens used to room with them but now has accommodations with his son Michael, who is attending Florida State University. Last year Julio Robaina moved in, showing up on their doorstep with "a suitcase with one sheet and one pillowcase," Barreiro chuckles. "He'd never been away from home. I had to educate him on what a bed-in-a-bag is."

Barreiro continues: "It's like going back to college almost. I became the housewife, making sure people pick things up. I warned them not to use too much hot water because we all have to share. One day I walk by the bathroom and steam is coming out of the walls. In the kitchen there's Manny eating Cocoa Puffs and Julio's eating cereal. I asked Julio if there was someone in the shower. He said, 'No, I'm doing my laundry.' He was putting his shirts on hangers and steaming them so the wrinkles would come out. I had to explain to him why that wasn't a good idea."

The Florida Legislature presents only the illusion of equal representation. In reality a small leadership cadre in the House and Senate tightly controls the vast majority of processes. This has become even more apparent in recent years, with the advent of term limits. Now that lawmakers are held to eight years, they have much less time to learn the procedures and rise through the ranks. Thus they are more dependent on party leadership and lobbyists for both information and political support. This dependence comes at a price.

The easiest way for the public to understand the phenomenon is to watch the House in session. As most bills are brought to the floor for debate, only a handful of legislators appear to be paying attention. Why should they? Most issues have already been worked out in committees, where the influence of lobbyists is most evident. For the majority members, party leaders dictate how they should vote, and most of the time they follow orders. Members of the Democratic minority are more often able to "vote their conscience" because it usually doesn't matter how they vote. "This talking [on the floor] is just what they do for the public," cracks one of the security guards manning the observation area above the House floor. "The funny thing is when a group of kindergartners or first-graders comes in and asks their teacher, 'How come when someone's talking they aren't paying attention?' The teacher never has a good answer."

Because power is now concentrated in the hands of so few, the Miami delegation faces a somewhat new challenge: Hold itself together sufficiently to a) make Marco Rubio speaker and b) push current leadership into making concessions on local issues. No matter how it may look from the outside, the effort requires constant maintenance; the group of ten Cubans and one Colombian spans an array of personalities, ideologies, and ambitions.

At one end is smooth, intellectual insider Marco Rubio; at the other is pugnacious charmer Ralph Arza. The two could not be more different and yet, after initial skirmishing, Arza played a key role in helping Rubio lock up pledges for the speakership. Rubio is often described as a talented young politician who has thus far managed to balance his larger ambitions with more parochial considerations. He can strong-arm party members into accepting a position, or he can broker a consensus, sometimes in clever ways, such as relying on the debating skills of the eloquent Dan Gelber.

Majority whip Gaston Cantens is a quiet, serious fellow, smart and well regarded even outside South Florida. His unsuccessful bid for the 2004 speaker position helped bring the delegation together and laid the groundwork for Rubio. Gus Barreiro and Manny Prieguez are leaders within the group even though they're considered mavericks who don't always vote along party lines.

Rene Garcia was initially viewed as just another Raul Martinez protégé trying to get the heck out of Hialeah, but he's become a more serious player. The friendly, eager-to-please Garcia was elected chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation two years running because he has managed to make the rambunctious, sometimes unruly, members get along with each other. Julio Robaina, former mayor of South Miami, is considered by some of his peers to be a closet Democrat with a pothole mayor's mentality.

David Rivera is the experienced back-channel strategist and loudest drumbeat on Cuba issues. Juan-Carlos Planas, a notorious practical joker, is carving a niche for himself on judicial issues. Marcelo Llorente, the youngest at age 28, is considered bright but in need of some maturing. Juan Carlos Zapata is an interesting case because as the only Colombian Republican, he is the minority within the minority. Some think that made him a little paranoid initially, but this year he's clearly on the team and his colleagues are willing to publicly support him.

Barreiro, Prieguez, and Cantens were each elected in 1998, when the Cuban delegation was divided by personal politics; other legislators didn't view them as a bloc because they were so busy fighting each other. The three newcomers saw this and made a decision to change. "We saw how things worked and how important being in leadership was and we looked at Gaston and said, 'Would you like to be speaker?'" remembers Barreiro. "Then we sat down with each Hispanic member and talked to them about how we have to stick together. We saw that we each are as strong as our strongest member."

Cantens concurs. "You're less likely to screw someone if you like them," he reasons. "Build on personal relationships rather than playing hardball. Every member of the team needs to check their ego at the door. We've hopefully learned from some of the mistakes of the past."

The future will depend on it, especially if Rubio does ascend to the speaker's post in two years. Florida may be more like Miami every year, but there is still a lot of trepidation in points north. "It's a very careful balancing act he needs to perform," Cantens allows. "We don't want the rest of the state to come back and say, 'See? This is why we don't trust South Florida.'"

Tallahassee Here We Come

This year's Miami-Dade County Days (March 31 and April 1) was quite the bonanza for airlines, hotels, and restaurants in Tallahassee. About 350 people registered through the official organization, which charged $150 a head to participate in the events, and offered package deals that ran up to $600 for airfare, hotel, meals, and events. Coordinators also gave away several packages to organizations that kicked in sponsorship money. Other attendees made different arrangements. Here's a brief look at some of the numbers, as provided by each entity.

Miami-Dade County spent $24,988 to send 39 people, including commissioners Sally Heyman, Katy Sorenson, José "Pepe" Diaz, Javier Souto, Rebeca Sosa, and Bruno Barreiro. The commissioners brought a total of fourteen aides with them, including those sent by Barbara Carey-Shuler and Dorrin Rolle. The rest were from various departments, such as transit, cultural affairs, community relations, the fire department, and county courts.

City of Miami spent about $3000 to send eight people, including Mayor Manny Diaz and his chief of staff, Manager Joe Arriola, Commissioner Joe Sanchez and an aide, two aides to Commissioner Johnny Winton, and the city's grants administrator. Some of their costs were covered by event organizers.

City of Miami Beach spent an estimated $1800 to send commissioners Luis Garcia and Richard Steinberg, and the city's economic development director. Manager Jorge Gonzalez also went along, but his trip costs were covered by event organizers.

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