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Backed by Cuban Americans, Diaz Wins Miami Mayor's Race

Vote: The challenge now facing the city's new leader, one pollster says, will be to bridge exile bloc, other ethnic groups.

November 14, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The bumptious, six-year reign of Mayor Joe Carollo--"Crazy Joe" to many who live in this diverse, divided city--came to an end Tuesday as Miamians elected Cuban American lawyer Manny Diaz to be the new mayor of Florida's biggest metropolis.

With 94% of the votes counted, Diaz had 53.9%, handily defeating former six-term Mayor Maurice Ferre in a runoff election.

"I hope people judge me as a candidate for mayor with a long ambition for the city," Diaz said earlier in the day. The 47-year-old, who had never before run for elective office, gained prominence during the dispute over young Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez.

In a first round of voting last week, Carollo came in third, losing to Diaz by just 227 votes. Thus voters showed the door to the mayor who had roused Miami from its gravest financial crisis--taking the city from a budget deficit of $68 million to a reserve kitty of $80 million--but who reveled in brinkmanship.

"People might have approved of his actions, but he was always in the middle of controversy with the City Council, city manager, the chief of police, the Miami Herald," said Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University who also served as Diaz's pollster.

The mayor-elect, Moreno said, is smoother and more mainstream. Diaz's challenge, Moreno added, will be to serve as a bridge between his own Cuban American community, which dominates Miami politics, and the city's other ethnic groups.

Carl Hiaasen, a columnist for the Miami Herald, once called Carollo "ruthless, paranoid, demagogic, divisive and unabashedly bankrupt of conscience."

"We love him," Hiaasen wrote. "If journalists alone were allowed to vote, Carollo would win in a landslide, because he makes our jobs so easy."

Since becoming mayor, Carollo, 46, presided over a decline in a crime rate once so spectacularly high that it spawned the popular TV show "Miami Vice." He helped root out government corruption and toiled successfully to attract hotels, luxury condominiums and other businesses that helped fuel a local economic turnaround.

But Carollo arguably left Miami's multiethnic and multiracial electorate as starkly polarized as it's ever been. His actions last year during the Elian affair--when he saw it as his duty to side with the young boy's Cuban American relatives in their unsuccessful bid to keep him in the United States--alienated many of the city's African American and white voters.

Likewise, Carollo in September insisted on Cuban American exiles' right to stage in-your-face demonstrations over a planned Latin Grammys ceremony. Organizers canceled the show, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue to Miami businesses, and moved it to Los Angeles.

"I don't think the Cubans are going to get better representation than Joe Carollo," he said after his election defeat last week. After a pause, he added, "or for that matter, anyone else."

The numbers indicate that the end for Carollo came because Cuban Americans--this city's most important voter bloc--also had started to become weary of him. Polls showed that the outgoing mayor had a 40%-to-45% disapproval rating among all voters, and negatives of 25% to 30% with Cuban Americans. That was enough to allow Diaz to squeeze by.

The controversy swirling around Carollo even reached inside his own household in February, when he was arrested on domestic violence charges for hurling a cardboard tea container at his wife, Mari, during a spat. The two were living together even though they were legally separated. In August, misdemeanor battery charges were dropped after Carollo completed a family counseling program.

But the soap opera of his upcoming divorce trial did nothing to boost his chances for reelection. "People knew that, as long as Carollo was in power, there would be these 'Miami moments,' " Moreno said.

"Unfortunately, because of a lot of my personal problems, I was not as focused as I should have been," Carollo said in an election post-mortem.

On Monday, he issued a public endorsement for Diaz. The political clout wielded by this city's Cuban Americans was demonstrated by the Nov. 6 balloting. There were 10 candidates, and only one of the top six vote-getters, Ferre, was not a native of Cuba.

Diaz, who was born in Havana, thrust himself into the spotlight last year by serving as the lawyer for Elian's Miami relatives. Diaz, the first son in a relatively poor family, moved to the U.S. with his mother when he was 6. His father, who was a political prisoner, joined them when he was released from Cuban President Fidel Castro's jails. Diaz's first job in Florida was as a janitor.

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