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Shirt, shoes but no service

A Miami restaurant bars Colorado congressman after he labels the city 'a Third World country' where many residents can't speak English.

December 14, 2006|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — Immigrants in multicultural Miami had the final word Wednesday in a monthlong battle with Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo: Adios.

A speech by Tancredo to the Rotary Club of Miami scheduled for today was canceled after the Key Biscayne restaurant that hosts the group's weekly lunch meetings announced that the congressman critical of immigration was not welcome there.

Tancredo insulted Floridians from kitchen help to the governor's mansion when he deemed Miami "a Third World country" where many residents can't speak English. The congressman's comments came last month in an interview during a meeting of conservative activists in nearby Palm Beach.

Miami, he said, is an example of what happens to a city when immigrants cling to their culture and language, creating foreign enclaves.

Peter Knezevic, general manager of the Rusty Pelican seafood restaurant, explained his decision to bar Tancredo. "There was pressure from the community and from our employees," he said. "We are a business dependent on the community, and they were upset."

"We had a lot of concerns, safety concerns for guests and employees," added Randy Palmer, regional manager for the restaurant chain.

Patrons had threatened a boycott if Tancredo was allowed to deliver his speech titled "Renewing America: The Need for Assimilation."

A woman who answered the Rotary Club telephone said she wasn't authorized to say more than that Tancredo had been informed about the restaurant's decision.

Rotary Club organizers did not return calls for comment on whether they plan to seek another venue.

In a posting on his congressional website, Tancredo said he was "obviously disappointed that a radical element in Miami was able to intimidate the hosts."

He went on to lament what he described as an infringement on free speech.

"I knew speaking your mind could be dangerous in Havana -- I guess it's equally dangerous to do so in Miami," Tancredo said. "Apparently there isn't much of a difference between the two anymore."

He said the incident "may, indeed, prove the point I was coming to Miami to make."

Tancredo ignited the war of words with Florida immigrants when he launched into a harsh critique of Miami in an interview with online news site WorldNetDaily last month.

"Look at what has happened to Miami -- it has become a Third World country," Tancredo said, contending a growing number of residents are incapable of speaking English. "You would never know you're in the United States of America."

The comments hit nerves throughout the political and economic power structures in Florida, dominated by prosperous Latin American immigrants, most notably Cuban exiles.

Miami was a depressed, crime-ridden backwater in the 1960s, but the city has quintupled its population to 2.5 million and transformed a once-decaying urban center into a sleek metropolis with an ever-expanding skyline.

Business leaders largely derided Tancredo's characterization of the city, pointing out the booming local job market and crime rates that have fallen for eight successive years.

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who plans to make Miami his home when he leaves office in January, jumped to the defense of his state's leading city, describing it as "filled with diversity and heritage that we choose to celebrate, not insult."

Tancredo fired back that the governor was obliged "to create the illusion of Miami as a multiethnic All-American city" and that "Indeed, sir, one of us is naive."

Bush spokesman Kristy Campbell said Wednesday that the governor was disappointed by the provocative comments made by Tancredo but also "disappointed that this dialogue on the city of Miami didn't take place."

The Rotary speech might have been an opportunity for the congressman to get a more accurate view of the city and its people, Campbell quoted the governor as saying

Tancredo's spokesman, Carlos Espinosa, told reporters Monday that the congressman accepted the Rotary Club invitation to speak here because its members largely agree with his views on immigration.

Espinosa didn't return phone calls or an e-mailed request for comment on the canceled appearance. But he told a Denver CBS affiliate that Tancredo's office had received death threats -- a prospect of violence he said validated the congressman's criticism of this city.

"What is more 'Third World country' than threatening to bomb the place?" Espinosa was quoted as saying.

*

carol.williams@latimes.com

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