Diverse Dade County Elects Its First Mayor

In one of the most ethnically diverse parts of America, race probably won't be the deciding factor when Dade County voters elect their first "executive mayor." Rather, this south Florida contest is more likely to turn on land-development issues - including protection for the Everglades.

Two county commissioners - a black Republican and a Cuban-American Democrat - are vying for the newly created post in tomorrow's runoff election. The winner will become the first elected chief executive of the Metro-Dade government, a regional political body that, until now, has been run by a chamber of county commissioners.

The Republican, Arthur Teele, is a lawyer and former Army ranger who headed the national Urban Mass Transit Administration under President Reagan. His opponent is Democrat Alex Penelas, a lawyer who began his political career in the Cuban-American-dominated city of Hialeah, just north of Miami. President Clinton has praised Mr. Penelas's work to alleviate homelessness.

Dade County's population is half Latino, the majority of whom are Cuban-American; 30 percent white; and 20 percent black, making it necessary for the mayoral candidates to draw significantly from outside their own ethnic groups to win tomorrow's election.

"There's still no one ethnic group that can by itself be decisive, even if it votes very much as a bloc," says Chris Warren, a political scientist at Florida International University and a specialist on urban politics. "Cuban-Americans, although they have become ... a very substantial portion of the registered voters, cannot by themselves determine the outcome of a countywide race. There's still the need to forge some kind of coalition that brings in at least some percentage of voters from other ethnic groups."

Both candidates have done so previously. Each won his seat on the Metro-Dade Commission several years ago by defeating candidates who tried to play the ethnic card, Mr. Warren says.

Although ethnic identity is likely to play some role in the election, it has been largely supplanted during the campaign by another issue: commercial development vs. conservation. One reason is that this sprawling metropolitan area is as environmentally diverse as it is ethnically varied - more than half of Dade County lies in the vast marsh and swampland known as the Everglades.

Both candidates have pledged to keep commercial and residential sprawl from creeping west and south into the Everglades. But on other land-development issues, including plans for a multimillion-dollar project in south Dade, they are on opposing sides.

Mr. Teele has hammered Penelas for supporting a no-bid contract the county commission awarded last year to a group of developers to turn the Homestead Air Force Base south of Miami into a huge industrial park, commercial center, and residential area. The base was demolished by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. One of Penelas's biggest campaign contributors, the Latin Builders Association, is a partner in the air base development project. Teele's opposition to the project won him endorsements from the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action.

Front-runner Penelas, in turn, has blasted Teele for voting in favor of a controversial decision by the county commission to use tax dollars to help build a new waterfront arena in downtown Miami for the Miami Heat basketball team. A Nov. 5 referendum will give voters an opportunity to voice their opinion on the arena deal. In the closing days of the mayoral campaign, Teele has suggested moving the arena site away from the harbor.

To the dismay of many prospective voters, the campaign deteriorated into hyperbole and insult in the final week. In a series of televised debates, the candidates accused each other of lying about their positions and voting records.

Dade County voters decided last March to create the post of executive mayor, hoping to end the often-contentious governance by 13 commissioners. Many here hope the new mayor will more effectively address crime and transportation problems, which are viewed as harmful to the region's lucrative tourism industry.

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