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.