A lot of Democrats looked at the Wunderkind mayor of Miami-Dade, Alex Penelas, as a rising superstar. Ambitious, smart and Hispanic, People magazine's "sexiest politician" of 1999 looked like a young man destined for the national spotlight.
That changed after a little boy named Elian was plucked from the water off Fort Lauderdale and the national spotlight landed on Penelas and his hometown.
The explosive custody case opened a rift between the Democratic establishment and a defiant Penelas that would only grow during the 2000 election. Some Democrats called Penelas a traitor clearly on the verge of switching to the GOP.
It didn't happen. Not only has Penelas stuck with the Democratic Party, but today he's a strong contender to win the Democratic nomination to replace presidential candidate Bob Graham in the U.S. Senate.
The Miami-Dade mayor now spends much of his time traveling the state trying to drum up Democratic support. And seeking redemption.
He offers a simple assessment for how he handled the Elian controversy: He blew it.
"The Alex Penelas of today would have treated that situation a lot differently," Penelas told me the other day, between touring Tampa's port and schmoozing with diners at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.
"I recognize today that my responsibility when I was standing there was not to express my personal feelings about the issue, but I should have expressed the position as the mayor of Miami-Dade County. That's where I went wrong."
What he did express in March 2000 was a public and angry vow that Miami-Dade authorities would do nothing to help federal authorities return six-year-old Elian Gonzalez to his father in Cuba. He lambasted federal authorities for provoking Cuban-Americans. He promised to hold Attorney General Janet Reno and President Clinton responsible for "civil unrest and violence" that might result.
Time magazine said Penelas "all but tossed a match into the city's powderkeg." Others likened him to a Southern leader of another era, defying federal desegregation orders.
The moderate, consensus-building mayor no longer looked so much like an up-and-comer with broad appeal.
"Look, I was elected mayor of one of the most diverse communities in America at the age of 34 and I've learned and I've grown," Penelas told me. "As a result of certain things that happened in Elian I've been a better mayor and that experience will make me a better U.S. senator."
Then there's his Al Gore problem. When the presidential election started heating up in Florida, Penelas, an early and vocal Al Gore supporter, disappeared from Gore's side during South Florida campaign trips (though the vice president had sought to distance himself from President Clinton's Elian position).
Stunning many Democrats, Penelas remained mute when Miami-Dade's canvassing board halted its manual ballot recount during the bitterly contested presidential recount.
"After the Elian issue early in 2000 I faced a very, very difficult re-election," he said last week. "I had to attend to business at home."
In other words, as a Democratic mayor whose base of support is largely made up of Republican Cuban-Americans, he could not be tied too closely to the Clinton administration after Elian. As it was, he was attacked during his re-election campaign as an ally of Gore and the Clinton administration.
Probably less persuasive to party activists is Penelas' explanation for how he handled the recount, which occurred after Penelas won re-election.
A Gore campaign official told the New York Times in 2000 that the county mayor had assured them he would publicly urge the recount to resume, but he never did. Penelas says county attorneys made it clear he could not in any way try to influence the canvassing board.
"I very much favored the recount continuing. They made the decision independent of me," says Penelas, who estimates he helped raise $1-million for Gore and several million for Clinton. "I worked very, very hard for Al Gore early on. I was proud to support him, and I think he would have made a great president. At the end of the day, Al Gore won Miami-Dade by more than 30,000 votes."
Penelas, whose mayoral term ends in 2004, faces at least four other Democrats also looking to replace Graham in the U.S. Senate: U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello; former Education Commissioner Betty Castor of Tampa; U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch of Pembroke Pines; and U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings of Miramar. Deutsch is savaging the Miami-Dade mayor, apparently convinced that the fellow South Floridian is his strongest rival for the nomination.
Deutsch has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging illegal campaign contributions were funnelled to Penelas. He calls the county mayor a "pathological liar" about his recount role, and accusing him of "single-handedly doing as much as anyone to help George W. Bush become president."
But where Deutsch's appeal outside of South Florida's Democratic strongholds is widely doubted, Penelas' has long been touted. It's partly why some top Democratic fundraisers are helping him, including attorneys Fred Levin of Pensacola, Steve Pajcic of Jacksonville and businessman Richard Swann of Orlando.
With Hispanics the fastest growing group in Florida and the nation, Democrats have pined for a candidate able to peel off Cuban-American Republicans in South Florida and tap the fast-growing population of non-Cuban Hispanics in Central Florida.
"The bridge needs to be built, and this is the guy to do that," said Tampa lawyer Ralph Fernandez, who is helping Penelas raise money in Castor's backyard.
Democratic state Rep. Bob Henriquez of Tampa is neutral in the race, but said Penelas is a candidate Democrats can embrace: "He's a young, vibrant guy and a new face. . . . It's very exciting to have a candidate that can go into the I-4 corridor and some other parts of the state that have large Hispanic populations and tap into that."
Looking nationally, others note that Democratic Hispanic candidates now have a shot at statewide offices in two diverse megastates. Penelas could become the only Hispanic U.S. senator. In California, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is a strong contender for governor in the state's recall race.
"It's very significant, and I think it's just the start of a new trend," said Lorraine Quiroga of the Washington-based League of United Latin American Citizens, the country's largest Hispanic organization.
Still uncertain is whether Graham might run for another Senate term should his presidential bid fizzle. If Graham does keep out of the race, the question in Florida is whether Penelas can revive his Democratic appeal. He has little patience for those questioning his fidelity to the party.
"Let me tell you, it is not easy being a Cuban-American Democrat. It has been very, very difficult for me to remain a Democrat because of the incredible pressure I've gotten from the Cuban-American community that's predominantly Republican," Penelas said, his voice rising as he drove down Armenia Avenue. "When people question my loyalty to the party, they don't understand. I think Democrats want people like Alex Penelas, who have had to fight an uphill battle to remain as a Democrat and to live by the principles of the party.
"I don't have to prove my Democratic credentials to anybody."
But that is exactly what Penelas has to do if his star is to rise again among Democrats.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or firstname.lastname@example.org