Florida tourism officials rarely make headlines, but they once did with the slogan, “Florida. The Rules are Different Here.” Talk about truth in advertising — especially for the state’s southern tip. I grew up in Miami, so I read with great interest Jay D. Homnick’s newcomer’s take on the local politics there. As he notes, it can be confusing, so I offer here a blunt explanation.
Quite simply, South Florida is corrupt and weird — and it is these things to such an extent that its residents are cynical about local politics and politicians. South Floridians know full well how corrupt and opportunistic their politicians are; but trying to uproot them is like whacking moles — swat one, and another pops up elsewhere. In such an environment, a healthy dose of cynicism is only rational.
That may be a discouraging explanation for why it’s so hard to conduct clean politics there, but it’s closer to the truth than Homnick’s thesis of the county being “the Invisible Man of the American political pyramid.” Dade County (I refuse to call it “Miami-Dade,” but more on that later) is not only one of the most subdivided counties in the nation — it currently includes 35 municipalities — but a lot of its development has gone on in its incorporated areas. For residents of unincorporated Dade, the county is the local government; there is no other.
And it’s not like county officials try to make themselves invisible. Remember Alex Penelas? He was the Dade County mayor who made global headlines when he announced that he would not help the Clinton administration in sending Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba, and then refused to campaign for Al Gore in Florida in retaliation for the raid that seized Elian. But this was only Penelas’s best-known grandstanding episode. As mayor, he went on a jihad against “assault weapons,” hoping to ride gun control as an issue into the Florida governor’s mansion — revealing an abysmal ignorance of the northern part of the state, where I’ve lived and where, as the locals say, “Even the hippies have guns.”
It was also under Penelas’s watch that Dade County — named after U.S. Army Major Francis Langhorne Dade, killed in 1835 during the Second Seminole War — officially changed its name to the hackneyed, corporate-sounding “Miami-Dade.” (Confusion about Miami and Dade having fused city-county government like Jacksonville could only help Penelas’s political aspirations by allowing him to pass as a big-city mayor.) So if the county is hardly invisible, what explains South Florida’s dysfunctional politics?
Quite simply, it’s the corruption, and the public cynicism it engenders. Sure, Penelas may have been a grandstanding blowhard as mayor (and an annoying one at that, as anyone who has ever flown into Miami to be greeted by his recorded voice in the airport terminal can tell you), not a crook — but it’s when you dig deeper into South Florida’s political landscape that you find the real dirt.
Few events embody South Florida political sleaze like the career of Raul Martinez, the former long-time mayor of Hialeah, Dade’s second largest city, after Miami. In 1991, he was convicted of racketeering and extortion for selling his influence. In most places, that would sound the death knell for a political career, but not in South Florida. Martinez ran again — and won.
Exhibiting similar resiliency is former judge Alcee Hastings, who, almost immediately after being impeached by the U.S. Senate in 1989, announced plans to run for governor, an effort that got nowhere. That year, the Miami Herald dubbed him politically “extinct,” but the paper spoke too soon — Hastings is now a U.S. congressman.
Then there’s Miriam Alonso a former Miami city commissioner, who was removed from the a county commission ballot in 1988 after it was revealed that she did not live at the address listed on her oath of candidacy (a year later, she won a Miami City commission race). In the early 1990s, some of her former supporters, disillusioned with her tactics, alleged that Alonso and her husband, Leonel Alonso, ordered them to steal newspapers that criticized Miriam. And the Alonsos once publicly accused a rival city commissioner’s father of plotting to kill them.
More tragic is the story of Arthur Teele, Jr., a former Miami city commission chairman, who committed suicide in the lobby of the Miami Herald building in July 2005, five days after being arraigned on 26 counts of federal mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. Teele’s death brought an outpouring of public sympathy, but even then no one was under any illusion about his having been a Boy Scout.
Just plain bizarre is the story of Joe Gersten, a former county commissioner, who in 1992 reported his Mercedes-Benz stolen from his house. Police found the car being driven by a drug dealer, who then led them to a prostitute who alleged to have helped rob Gersten, at a crack house, while he had sex and smoked crack with another prostitute. Gersten refused to answer questions about the car’s theft from the State Attorney’s office, then headed by one Janet Reno, claiming that he was being framed to derail his investigation into corruption at the Port of Miami. He disappeared, and turned up in Australia, where he now lives and practices law.
Xavier Suarez — dubbed “Mayor Loco” by Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen — was removed from office in 1998 after serving as mayor of Miami for only 111 days (he was first mayor from 1985 to 1993); his election was overturned for fraud, which included absentee ballots cast by dead persons (Suarez himself was never implicated in the fraud case). Yet he still managed to pull off some memorable antics during that short tenure. In December 1997, he showed up late at night at the home of a constituent who had written him a letter complaining to him about the city’s situation. And on a trip to Tallahassee, he referred to one state senator as “Senator Cabbage” and another as “Santa Claus.”
The 1998 overturning of Suarez’s election installed at city hall story Joe Carollo, who once staged what one Miami Herald reporter aptly called “the most spectacular double-cross in Miami politics.” During the 1983 mayoral campaign, Carollo, then a popular city commissioner, told incumbent mayor Maurice Ferre he would endorse him against then-challenger Suarez. But at the press conference, Carollo turned on Ferre — who, according to the Herald, “turned pale” — denouncing the mayor’s “racist campaign of hate.” Years later, Carollo accused Suarez of hiring an agent of Fidel Castro as a campaign advisor.
This litany could go on, but these examples should drive home the point: Miami and Dade County politics are dysfunctional and corrupt, they have been so for a long time, and South Floridians are inured to it all by now — they expect their local politicos to be kooks, crooks, liars, and cheats.
I wish I could tell Jay D. Homnick that he faces sanity in South Florida politics. He doesn’t — though as a writer, he may find its political rogues’ gallery a mother lode of material. When the rules are different, so are ways of breaking them.