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In the midst of the closest presidential election in U.S. history, at a time when the eyes of the world are riveted on South Florida, our sexy little mayor is nowhere to be found. And I'm concerned. I fear that Alex Penelas may be thinking about ending it all. Certainly if I were in his diminutive loafers and had just wrecked my career, I'd be looking for a tall tree and a short rope.
After all, as mayor of Miami-Dade County, Penelas is one of the highest-ranking Democrats in Florida and presumably one of the most powerful. As such he was supposed to be the man who would deliver the Cuban-American community to Al Gore on Nov. 7.
Instead Penelas abandoned Gore months ago and then jettisoned the Democratic Party after he won re-election in September. Under different circumstances that type of selfish arrogance might have gone unnoticed in the commotion of a national election. But with the presidency of the United States now being determined by a handful of votes in South Florida, Penelas' absence in the concluding weeks of the presidential campaign takes on colossal significance.
Penelas had a chance to be the hero of the Democratic Party. If he had set aside his bruised ego following the Elian Gonzalez fiasco and honored his pledge to vigorously support Gore, he could have helped the vice president secure more votes in the Cuban-American community. And as we now know, a few more votes would have made the difference. But rather than being hailed as a savior, now Penelas is viewed by some within his party as an abject traitor. Even those less hostile consider him to be nothing more than a fair-weather Democrat whose loyalty is expressed only when it suits his own agenda. Because of that he will never rise to a position higher than county mayor.
"Alex Penelas is a fucking asshole," one state Democratic Party official says angrily. "Whether we win or lose, we'll never forget that he sat on the sidelines. I guess once his own national ambitions fizzled because of his jackass comments on the Elian Gonzalez case, there was no reason for him to get involved in helping Al Gore win the White House. I guess he decided that since he was screwed, screw everyone else in the party."
A longtime local Democratic Party activist adds, "I can't tell you how many people stopped me on Election Day saying, "Where is Alex Penelas now?' When he was running for re-election, he went to the condos, to the precincts that were heavily Democratic, and he told them that he was a Democrat just like them and that they should vote for him. Now everyone wants to know what happened to him after he won his race in September and why he didn't try to help other Democrats like Gore and [congressional candidate Elaine] Bloom in November."
So where was Penelas in the final weeks of the campaign? After winning his own election, the People magazine dreamboat flew off to Spain for an extended vacation.
Veteran Miami political strategist Bob Levy offers a blunt assessment of Penelas' future. "His career is probably over as a Democrat," Levy ventures. "The fact that he is absent during this crisis, when Democrats need every hand on deck, is something people are not going to forget."
Pollster Rob Schroth (who runs the respected Schroth and Associates of Washington, D.C.) says he wouldn't be surprised if Penelas switches parties and becomes either a Republican or independent. "If he aspires to move up the ladder in the Democratic Party, it was ill advised for him to go to Spain," Schroth notes. "However, if Alex is contemplating changing his party registration, then his soft approach to this election was a good idea, and his behavior conveys a purposeful distancing of himself from the Democratic Party."
A few years ago, the notion of Penelas distancing himself from Gore and the Democrats was unthinkable. Through the first seven years of the Clinton-Gore administration, Penelas never missed an opportunity to be seen with the president and vice president. When Gore began his campaign for the presidency, Penelas hung so tightly to the vice president's coattails he could have been arrested for stalking.
In 1998, at the height of the impeachment scandal surrounding Clinton, Penelas unexpectedly met with Gore in Washington, leading some to speculate that Gore was preparing to tap Penelas for a Cabinet post in the event Clinton was forced to resign. The mayor relished such rumors. "I've heard it on Spanish radio, from people in the street," he told the Miami Herald at the time. "I'm very flattered by it."
A year later he was no less flattered when Newsweek claimed he was included on a list of possible running mates being considered by the Gore campaign, a rumor Penelas' own minions had been eagerly spreading for weeks before the magazine's article appeared. In response to the story, Penelas proudly declared he was ready to serve "in any capacity." At the very least it seemed certain that if Gore were elected president, Penelas would be in line for a Cabinet position. Conjecture leaned toward a post as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Penelas' chief fund-raiser, lobbyist Chris Korge, also has been among Gore's main moneymen. During one event in Miami last year, Korge vowed that during Gore's presidential campaign, Penelas would play a highly visible role in Florida and across the nation in "major metropolitan areas with a significant Hispanic population."
As 1999 drew to a close, Penelas' political career seemed to be unfolding exactly as planned. He was moving up in the Democratic Party, laying the groundwork for his own advancement to higher office -- governor, senator, and, yes, president. Driven by his mother's ambitions for him, Penelas always believed he'd one day be president. Serving as mayor of Miami-Dade County was only supposed to be a way station on that journey. Now it looks as though it will be his final stop.
"There was a lot of hope for him, and his future once seemed very bright," a Democratic official in Washington explains. "He was American-born, he was articulate, he was a Democrat. Whenever the president or the vice president went to South Florida, we always made sure Alex was the person to introduce them. We made sure that Alex was seen as someone who had access. This administration has been very good to him and very good to Miami-Dade County. And now he has turned his back on us."
This Washington official recounts that party stalwarts once before felt betrayed by Penelas. In 1996, when Clinton was running for re-election, the mayor made the mistake of being photographed in New Hampshire as part of a Florida delegation campaigning for Bob Dole during the Republican primaries. Penelas blamed the embarrassing episode on his Republican wife; he was just accompanying her on the trip. "Everyone forgave him for that," the official says. "But not this time. We are not going to forgive him this time."
Penelas' political future began unraveling with the arrival of little Elian Gonzalez. Even before the April 22 raid on the home of the boy's Miami relatives, Penelas believed the administration's handling of the Elian affair had hindered him. The mayor's now-infamous statement that he would not use the county's resources to help federal officials seize Elian and he would hold them responsible for Elian-related bloodshed was a measure of his personal frustration with a Washington bureaucracy that didn't seem appropriately sensitive to his local political needs.
After Penelas personally attacked Clinton and threatened to hold the president and Attorney General Janet Reno responsible for any violent civil unrest in Miami, the president responded in kind: He froze out the mayor. According to one source close to Penelas, in the weeks following that defiant statement, Clinton refused to meet or talk with Penelas, despite repeated requests by the mayor.
Politically speaking, the president essentially sent Penelas to bed without supper. He didn't publicly humiliate the mayor or retaliate by trying to hold up federal funds intended for Miami-Dade. He simply spanked him.
Penelas' response, however, was stunning. Like a petulant child, he grew angrier and angrier with the Clinton administration. Then, inexplicably, he decided to exact revenge on Al Gore, the one member of the administration who had publicly argued that the boy should be allowed to stay in the United States.
In the weeks following the raid that removed Elian, Penelas' own mayoral re-election campaign began moving into high gear. Perhaps not surprisingly he figured it was best for him to steer clear of Gore, and so he refused to attend any functions with the vice president. Although members of the Gore campaign had hoped Penelas would have shown more loyalty to the vice president, they understood he was in a tough election battle of his own.
But there was an expectation among Democrats that after Penelas won his election, he would be free to help the vice president. Penelas supporters argue there really was nothing the mayor could have done to aid Gore, because Cuban-Americans were still seething over the raid. Other Democrats, such as Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, point out that Gore needed surrogates like Penelas to vouch for him and make clear to Cuban-Americans that the vice president had broken with Clinton and Reno in arguing that Elian's future should be decided by a family-court judge in Florida.
Martinez recalls that he and Penelas were supposed to host a joint press conference in support of Gore on Oct. 18. Both the date and the time had been selected to accommodate Penelas' schedule. Yet Penelas failed to show. Later that day he boarded a plane for his vacation in Spain. "When the going gets tough, he just hides," Martinez says derisively. "Alex is weak; he doesn't have a backbone. He is just a wimp. He only cares for Alex Penelas and doesn't care for anyone else."
Penelas campaign adviser Ric Katz claims the mayor never committed to attending that press conference. Martinez disagrees. Lobbyist Korge floats this comical excuse: Penelas was unable to attend the Oct. 18 event because he had to get home and pack for his vacation. Katz, however, did promise that when Penelas returned from Spain at the end of October he would actively barnstorm for the vice president and be "visible" in the crucial closing days. Despite that promise Penelas remained virtually invisible. Even during last week's star-studded midnight rally on the sands of Miami Beach -- the very last day of the campaign -- Penelas was a no-show. "It was just very late at night," sputters Penelas spokesman Juan Mendieta.
According to pollster Schroth, Gore ended up receiving only 22 percent of the Cuban-American vote, about half of what Clinton garnered in 1996. In retrospect, Schroth says, it's obvious Penelas could have played a key role in expanding those numbers for Gore: "I think any popular politician with his kind of appeal had a good chance to make a difference."
According to the Democratic official in Washington, Gore is said to be disheartened by Penelas' actions. "The vice president likes Alex and has spent a lot of time with him," says this source. "I think he is more hurt than shocked by the way Alex has distanced himself. When people make comments critical of Alex in front of the vice president, he doesn't say anything. He just looks hurt."
"I think changing parties is only a matter of time for Alex," the Washington official continues. "He's dead now within the Democratic Party. But even if he changes over to the Republican Party, he's not going to go anywhere. What's he going to be, another Cuban Republican? He's just going to be one of many. As a Democrat he stood out. He has absolutely shot himself in the foot with this election. He's not going to be welcome any longer in the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party doesn't need him."
Jim DeFede is a staff columnist forMiami New Times.