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Political Crises Plague Miami

Flap leaves city without mayor

[Originally published in Newsday; not in online archive.]

Miami—Miami remains mayorless and chaotic after a judge cast out the November election last week due to massive voter fraud, city commissioners failed to choose a temporary leader, and both former candidates went to court to fight for the seat.

“Who’s the Mayor of Miami?” blared the banner headline of the Miami Herald.

As if that weren’t trouble enough, growing corruption scandals in surrounding Miami-Dade County, which makes up most of the metropolitan area, led to the ouster of a key administrator there, extending the uncertainty and political animosity throughout south Florida.

The ruling voiding the election of Mayor Xavier Suarez came after extensive testimony about voter fraud.

Until Wednesday, when the City Commission meets to choose an interim leader, there is no mayor. Another election will be held in May.

One choice for the interim would be Suarez, who served as the city’s mayor from 1985 to 1993 before he began his second term in November. But Suarez’ leadership ability has been called into question. One of his first acts this term was to try to have all city department heads fired, a move the state attorney deemed illegal. He made a brief foray into Wall Street, but failed to improve bond dealers’ confidence, and other quirky moves have led to claims he is an unstable personality.

Then there is the challenger Joe Carollo, who served as a commissioner from 1979 to 1987 and was elected mayor in 1996. Carollo seemed a calm, rational presence during his 18-month stint as mayor but was considered fiery and mercurial back in his commission days.

He once agreed to face a political enemy in a duel, but it never took place.

Both Suarez and Carollo claim the interim mayoral seat, and both went to court Friday to demand it. Miami-Dade County, which governs 2.5 million people to Miami’s 360,000 and dwarfs the city in its financial clout as well, tried to portray itself as a model of stability during the political crisis, but that ended Thursday, when Mayor Alex Penelas abruptly fired county manager Armando Vidal, a 15-year county veteran.

Penelas holds Vidal responsible for running a county government that Penelas said has become a “hall of shame.” A series of corruption scandals has erupted over the past year, including a port director who bilked the county of millions of dollars, building inspectors who took bribes, and a politically connected firm that overcharged the county for paving jobs, some of which may never have been performed.

“Public confidence in our government has been steadily eroding, and I will simply not allow that to continue,” Penelas said. As of Friday, an interim manager had not been appointed.

Meanwhile, Miami faces a $30 million deficit that could throw it into bankruptcy if the commission doesn’t resolve the situation soon. Suarez has denied that the city has serious financial problems, despite the governor’s appointment in December, 1996, of an oversight board to pull it out of what others called a crisis.

The city could have stanched the flow of red ink by imposing a fire-rescue fee, but chose instead to slash certain employee salaries and benefits, notable that of Suarez’ arch-foe, Police Chief Donald Warshaw. The oversight board rejected the city’s proposed budget leas week, and the interim administration will have to start from scratch.

In addition, both City Commissioner and Suarez ally Humberto Hernandez and ousted County Commissioner James Burke are under indictment. Hernandez, whose district was the epicenter of voter fraud in the November election, faces bank fraud and money-laundering charges, while Burke is accused of having taken a $25,000 bribe.

In a real Miami twist, Hernandez was re-elected after his indictment, and Burke will run for re-election after a court ruling Friday in his favor, even though the governor barred him from fulfilling the remainder of his term. In charges related to Burke’s Miami’s city manager, finance director, and a commissioner were all convicted last year for participating in an extortion scheme.

What in the world is happening in Miami? Can the region survive its complex political and financial problems? And why, under such dire circumstances, do voters elect such schemers to lead them?

The answers may lie in the area’s history. A vacation playground to many but home to few, Miami from the 1920s to the ‘50s was the center of illegal but highly conspicuous and profitable gambling operations. Residents, police and politicians were all in on it.

“The general feeling was, anything to please the tourists,” said Miami historical expert Arva Parks McCabe.

U.S. Senate intervention shut down the gambling in 1951, but Miami had become used to colorful, corrupt leaders and shady backroom deals. At one point during the 1950s the entire County Commission was removed from office.

In addition, immigration beginning with Cubans in the 1960s has turned south Florida into a fractious, multi-ethnic community. Though a majority of voters in both city and county are Hispanic, each sector—Latin, Anglo, and African-American—is expert at playing the ethnic card.

But most people believe the region’s natural treasures and its business connections to Latin America far outweigh its problems. Some even say the current wave of scandals will help.

“Even though in the short term it adds to the image of chaos, in the long term it’s going to be positive,” said Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno.

“There’s a real anger out there, and I think it’s healthy. People are beginning to realize they can’t continue business as usual.”