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Former Florida Democratic star Alex Penelas makes a comeback

Once the golden boy of the Democratic Party in Florida, Alex Penelas fell out of favor and left the public eye 16 years ago. Now he’s running for his old job as mayor in the state’s biggest county.

In 2004, Alex Penelas was wrapping up his eighth year as Miami-Dade County mayor and running for U.S. Senate, seeking to replace Bob Graham, who was retiring.

Penelas, who had never lost a campaign since entering politics nearly two decades earlier, seemed a shoo-in. The son of Cuban refugees, he appealed to Hispanic voters and donors. He had charisma and good looks — People magazine named him sexiest politician in 1999 — and he could point to key accomplishments, including universal prekindergarten education and more money for local transit.

But Penelas, a Democrat, also was dogged by allegations of corruption and concerns that he was too close to lobbyists and special interests. Some party loyalists hadn’t forgiven him for his criticism of the Clinton administration’s handling of Elian Gonzalez, the shipwrecked Cuban boy caught in a tug-of-war between Miami’s exile community and Fidel Castro, and for what they perceived as Penelas’ tepid support of Al Gore during the 2000 presidential campaign.

That August, Penelas failed to advance beyond the Democratic primary for the 2004 Senate race. Penelas, then 43, threw himself into fatherhood, launched a new career as a real estate investor and generally stayed out of the political spotlight for 15 years until he announced in October he would run again for his old job as Miami-Dade mayor.

“The best thing that ever happened to me was losing that election,” he says. “I was burned out. I was ready for a break, and my family really needed me at home.”

Penelas, now 58, is the son of a Cuban labor leader who was anti-communist and condemned to death by Castro. The elder Penelas sought sanctuary at the Costa Rican embassy in Havana as Penelas’ mother and two older brothers fled to Miami. In 1961, his father joined them in Miami, where Penelas was born later that year.

“I was actually a promise because they didn’t think they’d see each other again — if in fact they did, they’d have another child,” he says.

Penelas grew up in Hialeah in a house his parents purchased for $17,000. “It was $100 down and $100 a month. I remember my father telling me that if he’d had $1,000 at the time and bought 10 homes, he would’ve been set for life,” Penelas says.

His father worked various jobs, including as a tomato picker and hotel waiter. His mother worked as a seamstress and hotel housekeeper. Penelas, who speaks both English and Spanish, studied political science at Biscayne College, now St. Thomas University, and got his law degree from the University of Miami in 1985.

By his 30th birthday, he’d become a rising star in the local Democratic Party. At 25, he was the youngest person ever elected to the Hialeah City Council. Three years later, he won election to the Miami-Dade County Commission, also as the youngest ever.

In 1996, Miami-Dade voters decided to create a new position of executive mayor and elected Penelas to the first of two four-year terms. “When you’re that young, everyone says, ‘No, no, no. Wait your turn.’ I always pooh-poohed that,” Penelas says.

His most difficult test came in November 1999, after a boy, Elian Gonzalez, was found clinging to an inner tube off the coast of South Florida. A small boat carrying Gonzalez and a dozen other Cuban refugees had capsized, drowning most on board, including his mother and stepfather.

The boy’s father, who remained in Cuba, and the Castro government demanded that the U.S. return Gonzalez, claiming he’d been taken from the country illegally, but his relatives in Miami refused to give him up. Meanwhile, U.S. immigration policy dictated that Gonzalez should be repatriated unless he went to court and received political asylum.

As anti-Castro protesters gathered in Little Havana to oppose the boy’s repatriation, Penelas announced that local police would have nothing to do with the child’s removal and said he’d hold the Clinton administration responsible “if blood is shed on the streets,” though he later backtracked to say local police would “maintain order” regardless of the administration’s decision.

The seven-month saga ended with federal agents taking Gonzalez at gunpoint from the home of his Miami relatives and sending him back to Cuba. Penelas says he was right — and even prescient — in breaking with the Clinton administration over local support for federal immigration enforcement.

“In many ways, I think Elian was the first example of a sanctuary cities case,” he says. “I was raked over the coals for saying Miami-Dade County police would not pull the child out of the house, that they’re not going to serve as enforcement officials. Today, when a local elected official says something like that, they are widely applauded.”

While his stance played well with Miami’s Cuban exile community, Democrat loyalists accused Penelas of not being a team player, and the 2000 presidential election and re-count only widened the rift.

After securing his second mayoral term in September 2000, Penelas took a trade mission trip to Spain and made no campaign appearances for Gore in the run-up to the general election. When the Miami-Dade canvassing board decided to stop manually counting ballots amid protests from Republicans, Penelas did not intervene.

George W. Bush ultimately was declared the winner in Florida, and four years later, as Penelas ran for the U.S. Senate, Gore told the Miami Herald that Penelas was the “single most treacherous and dishonest person” he’d dealt with in 2000. Penelas maintained that he was “proud to support” Gore’s campaign and did not have the authority to keep the re-count going.

He says he’s on good terms with the Democratic Party these days, adding, “They’ve tried to recruit me at least four times to run for Congress, and they always call for money.”

Alex Penelas, 58

Occupation: Real estate investor and attorney

Hometown: Miami Lakes

Education: Law degree from the University of Miami, 1985; bachelor’s in political science from St. Thomas University (then Biscayne College), 1981

Family: Married to Lilliam for 26 years. Three children: William, 25; Christopher, 22; and Alexandra, 8

Political Offices: Hialeah City Council, 1987-90; Miami-Dade County Commission, 1990-96; Miami-Dade mayor, 1996-2004

Occupation: Real estate investor and attorney

Hometown: Miami Lakes

Education: Law degree from the University of Miami, 1985; bachelor’s in political science from St. Thomas University (then Biscayne College), 1981

Family: Married to Lilliam for 26 years. Three children: William, 25; Christopher, 22; and Alexandra, 8

Political Offices: Hialeah City Council, 1987-90; Miami-Dade County Commission, 1990-96; Miami-Dade mayor, 1996-2004

Refocusing

In 2002, as mayor, Penelas scored two major victories: One when Miami-Dade voters approved an additional half-cent sales tax to fund transit projects, and the other when Floridians in favor of an amendment to the state constitution that required publicly funded pre-K education for all 4-year-olds.

Former Miami Herald Publisher Dave Lawrence, who retired from the news business in 1999 to advocate for early childhood education, says universal pre-K would not have happened without Penelas. He says Penelas raised nearly $2 million for the petition drive to get the measure on the ballot and traveled across the state to raise public support. “When it came to the subject of children, he was totally on board,” Lawrence says.

In 2004, having reached his term limit as mayor, Penelas joined the race to succeed Graham, a Miami Democrat, as senator. Penelas struggled to distance himself from public corruption scandals. South Florida Sun-Sentinel columnist Buddy Nevins dubbed Penelas “Teflon Alex” because “scandal has swirled around him, but nothing has stuck. Inside deals, payoffs and political kickbacks are a way of life in Miami- Dade County government,” Nevins wrote.

Penelas finished a distant third in the Democratic primary to then-U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor, who ultimately lost in the general election to Republican Mel Martinez.

“I think most of us on the team took it harder than he did,” says Javier Alberto Soto, Penelas’ chief of staff from 2000-04. “His attitude was very much like, ‘It’s OK; it wasn’t meant to be.’ ”

Soto, who now heads the non-profit Denver Foundation, Colorado’s oldest and largest community foundation, says Penelas had struggled with how much time his career was taking away from his wife, Lilliam, and their two young sons. “He had a sense he was missing out on some really special moments.”

After leaving office, Penelas retreated from public life and began investing in apartment buildings in Little Havana and Hialeah. He also became a paid TV pundit for Univision, taught a class in public policy at St. Thomas University and consulted occasionally on government issues for businesses. But he says his priority was always his family. “I spent every night with them on some baseball field, soccer field or basketball court,” he says. “I would not trade that for the world.”

His strategy as a real estate investor was to buy and hold rental properties. He says he sought apartment buildings in inexpensive neighborhoods to keep financing costs low and ensure that rents remained affordable for middle- and working-class renters.

He says he’s gained a new perspective on how government can help or hurt businesses and exacerbate the affordable housing crisis with regulations that drive up costs. He says there’s no reason why apartment buildings near bus and rail lines should have to provide two parking spaces per unit — one space for every two units would make more sense, he says — and he believes the county should consider offering a subsidy to investors who buy modest apartment buildings in an up market. Such a subsidy could be tied to a requirement that the new owners not raise rents, he says.

New perspective

He and Lilliam live in Miami Lakes, a suburb in northwest Miami-Dade, and now have a daughter, Alexandra, a second- grader in public school. Their older son, William, was a finance manager for Miami-Dade’s Super Bowl host committee, and their younger son, Christopher, is a law student at the University of Miami.

Lilliam, known for being direct and candid, says she’d prefer her husband not return to politics. “We were at a place in our lives where we had peace and happiness,” she says. “We could go where we wanted, no questions asked.” Giving up that privacy “is not something I do without reservation,” she adds.

A return to public office also would mean a pay cut for Penelas, who says he’s doesn’t need the money from the job but declines to disclose his annual income or net worth. The current mayor’s salary is $250,000.

“Trust me, I’d make less money as mayor,” he says. “I’m doing this because I feel I should give back. I think that liberates me to tackle challenges without the concern of ‘Oh, is this going to hurt my political career?’”

He says he was motivated to run for mayor again after the county commission voted in 2018 to fund a $243-million rapid-transit bus line rather than a $1.3-billion rail extension in South Dade — a decision he opposed. The half-cent sales tax that passed under Penelas in 2002 carried a promise of extending Metrorail service into south Dade (among other things), but the money mostly has gone to subsidizing existing transit operations and balancing the budget, he says.

In addition to funding rail for south Dade, he’s calling on the county to stop using transit tax dollars to balance the budget and to begin paying back the money that was diverted from rail and bus projects.

“The transit mess we have today I predicted 20 years ago. I told the community we were going to have this problem,” he says. “I had the courage to do something about it, only to see how that money has been grossly misspent over the last 15 years.”

His opponents for mayor include four sitting county commissioners, all of whom are running to succeed the term-limited Carlos Gimenez, who hopes to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in Florida’s 26th district.

So far, Penelas has raised about $3.1 million — at least 30% more than his closest competitor, County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava. His biggest donor is Miami billionaire Mike Fernandez, who heads the private equity firm MBF Healthcare Partners.

The Cuba-born Fernandez, a prominent backer of Jeb Bush, broke with the Republican Party in 2016 over President Trump’s immigration rhetoric and policies and has given more than $300,000 to Penelas’ campaign.

“Some people say he left politics because of conflict with the Democratic Party. Whatever the reason, I believe it works out for the best,” Fernandez says. “Lifelong politicians tend to do things because they’ve been established, not necessarily because they work. You change your perspective once you get into the private sector. The greatest benefit Alex has is his private-sector experience.”

In a county where people often make small talk about traffic congestion, mass transit is shaping up to be a major issue. During a debate at a firefighters’ union hall last October, Penelas’ oppo nents accused him of misleading voters to believe the half-cent sales tax would solve their transportation problems. “Let’s not lie to people once again,” Levine Cava said.

Penelas acknowledged that the taxes — a total of $3.4 billion since 2002 — had underdelivered, but not because of any overzealous promises he made, he said. “I find it very interesting that some of the very same individuals who have been consistently voting to misspend that money for the last eight, nine or 10 years now have this very convenient political narrative,” he said.

No drama

In 2018, Penelas quit his job at Univision to campaign for then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum. Penelas’ appearance on Univision’s news programs several times a week made him a familiar face to viewers. “For Spanish speakers, I never left their living room, and the polling shows that,” he says.

This time around, Penelas says he has no bigger ambitions than the mayor’s office. “I love dealing with complex problems in challenging communities like this. That’s what I enjoy. Some would even suggest I’m good at it,” he says. “This may sound corny, but I think it’s a calling. It’s the time and place for me to return. The kind of leadership I can provide is the kind of leadership we need. We don’t need someone who’s just going to do this because it’s the next step on the ladder.”

In 2007, Miami-Dade adopted a strong-mayor system, giving today’s mayor more control over the county bureaucracy, he says. If elected again, he says, he wouldn’t let himself get dragged into “the drama and soap operas that come with politics.”

At a recent event for the Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Penelas chatted with local real estate developer Stuart Wylie, president and CEO of the Graham Cos. “I heard you’re killing it,” Wylie said, referring to Penelas’ campaign. Penelas, saying little about how things were going, replied, “If it happens, it happens.”

Falling out of Favor

Penelas took a hit from the Democratic Party for his criticism of the Clinton administration’s handling of the Elian Gonzalez case and for what many saw as his lukewarm support of 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore, who called Penelas “the single most treacherous and dishonest person” he’d dealt with.

Miami-Dade County

Population: 2.8 million

Foreign-Born: 53%

Spanish-Speaking: 66%

College Degree: 29%

Median Household Income: $52,205

Poverty Rate: 19%

Median age: 40

Average Commute: 32.2 minutes

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Data USA

The Contenders

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a former firefighter and fire chief for the city of Miami, has reached his term limit and is running for Congress against Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell. Gimenez, a Republican, became county mayor in 2011 after winning a special election triggered by the recall of former mayor Carlos Alvarez, whose decision to raise property taxes during the Great Recession sparked public outrage. Six people, including Alex Penelas, are running to succeed Gimenez in the county’s non-partisan mayoral race.

  • Monique Nicole Barley: The Democrat from north Miami-Dade is a first-time candidate for local office and lives in a county public housing complex with her mother and three children. She’s the daughter of former state Rep. Roy Hardemon.
  • Steve Bovo: The Republican from Hialeah is on the Miami-Dade County Commission and was a member of the Florida House from 2009-11. He’s said to be close to U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
  • Daniella Levine Cava: The South Dade Democrat is on the Miami-Dade County Commission and is a former social worker.
  • Jean Monestime: The Democrat from North Miami is the first Haitian-American member of the Miami-Dade County Commission and works as a real estate broker.
  • Xavier Suarez: An Independent candidate from Miami, he is also on the Miami-Dade County Commission. He is the father of Republican Miami Mayor Francis Suarez. The elder Suarez was Miami mayor himself from 1985-93 and again from 1997-98.

A Brother’s Struggle

While giving a speech at a lunch event for the Miami Lakes Chamber of Commerce, Alex Penelas opened up about his late brother Pedro’s lifelong struggles with mental illness and substance abuse.

“I remember how when I was a teenager, Pedro would barricade himself in our home with severe paranoia,” Penelas told attendees. “At first, the crises were sporadic, but eventually, they presented themselves every two years or so. As his condition worsened, stabilization took longer and longer — in some cases, close to a year.”

Penelas says his parents struggled to find appropriate care for Pedro and resorted many times to the Baker Act, which allows families to petition a court to involuntarily commit a mentally ill person to inpatient treatment for up to 72 hours. When Penelas was Miami-Dade County mayor, Pedro occasionally showed up, unannounced, to his public events, sending his staff scrambling to intervene and prevent any disruption. “It was horrible. When Pedro was in a crisis, he could be very aggressive, especially toward me,” Penelas said.

About 10 years ago, after his mother’s death and father’s stroke, Penelas became Pedro’s primary caregiver. In 2018, Pedro died of leukemia at 63. “Pedro lived nothing that resembled a normal life — no spouse, no children, no meaningful employment,” Penelas says.

The February event marked one of the few times that Penelas has spoken publicly about his experience with his brother. He kept quiet about it during his eight years as mayor — something he now regrets — and surprised even himself when he opened up about it for the first time at an event last year in Hialeah. An attendee asked him a broad question about mental illness, and as he told his story, impromptu, the room went silent. “Everybody put their phone down and paid attention,” he says. “I’m telling you, it’s a major issue. I thought, ‘maybe I need to talk about this more.’ ”

Penelas now aims to make mental health a county priority. He supports reforming the Baker Act to allow people with chronic and severe mental issues to be held involuntarily for longer than 72 hours, to end the cycle of “admissions, discharges and readmissions,” he says. He also wants to reduce reimbursement barriers to mental health services and is pushing for an electronic mental health record system that makes it easier for doctors, emergency rooms and treatment centers to share patient files.

“Families are the best line of support, and we must do more to support them,” he says. “When I was mayor, there were times when, quite frankly, I did not know what was the best option for Pedro. Sometimes I didn’t even know where he was. If, as a mayor, I wasn’t sure what to do or where to go, what is the public at large going to do?”

 

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