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Miami mayor at center of vote suit


MIAMI - In the hours before and after Miami-Dade County's hand recount was halted last week, Democrats and Republicans believed that one man had the power to determine its fate: Alex Penelas, the 38-year-old Democratic mayor of Miami-Dade County and a rising star of South Florida politics.

Last Tuesday, as the county's hand recount racked up dozens of new votes for Vice President Al Gore, the mayor had lunch at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee with a Republican state legislator. Later he met with other Republican lawmakers, who are significant to Penelas because Florida's Legislature will draw new congressional districts in 2002, and Penelas, political observers say, has hopes of running for Congress.

The next day, the three members of the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board, one of whom works for Penelas, voted unanimously to stop the manual recount and canceled its plans to review the 10,750 ballots that voting machines said had no presidential preference.

Not long afterward, Gore called Penelas and asked for his help in reversing the board's decision, according to Mark Fabiani, the Gore campaign's communications director.

The mayor promised the vice president that he would issue a statement calling for the recount to resume, Fabiani said. But Penelas' statement said nothing supportive about the recount.

Instead, it said that he "has no jurisdiction over that board's decisions."

Penelas said he had nothing to do with the decision to halt the recount, but in the days since the county stopped the tally, Penelas and the politics of Miami in general have become the center not only of public debate but also the court case in which Gore is trying contest the results of the presidential election.

Playing both sides

The Democrats, who are using the events in Miami-Dade as a central argument in their court case, privately suggest that Penelas double-crossed them. They say he either influenced the board's decision or, through inaction, created the political room for the canvassers to stop the hand tally.

"We thought he was on our team," said a senior Democratic official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Phone records released Thursday by Penelas' office suggest that the mayor was working both sides of the political fight after the election, and especially in the days surrounding last week's canceled recount.

The records, which do not provide any indication of the content of the calls, show that Penelas spoke frequently by phone with both Republican and Democratic officials. They show that he placed calls to the House Republican cloakroom in Washington and to several advisers to Gore, including Alvin Brown, a senior adviser to the vice president, and the Washington offices of Bob Shrum and Tad Devine, both senior aides to Gore.

Penelas was a natural object of attention in the post-election struggle, since both sides thought they could enlist him to achieve their goals.

Gore desperately needed a recount in Miami-Dade County, which the vice president carried, if he was to have any hope of erasing Gov. George W. Bush's 930-vote lead.

The county election board initially voted not to have a recount, then reversed itself under the threat of a Democratic lawsuit and after Gore said in a nationally televised speech that the county should begin a recount.

But Bush's supporters wanted to see the recount stopped.

When the board reversed field again, on Nov. 22, and stopped counting at a very damaging moment for Gore, with Penelas on the sidelines, Democratic suspicions were quickly aroused.

While Democrats have made unruly Republican protests outside the board's meeting room a center of their lawsuit, those who know Miami's political stew, where ethnicity is usually more important than party affiliation, looked for other explanations and motives.

"The whole community is very suspicious of what happened surrounding the decision to close down the recount," said Rep. Carrie P. Meek, a Democrat from Miami-Dade County.

The Democrats clearly believed Penelas was an ally, and they blame his inaction at the critical moment on his ties to Republican politicians here, including Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen - who led Bush's attack on the Florida recounts.

An associate of the mayor said that Penelas is considering becoming a Republican and that he is seriously considering a run for Congress in a Hispanic-dominated district that may result from reapportionment in 2002.

Penelas declined several requests this week for an interview. But last week, he adamantly denied that he had played any role in the canvassing board's decision to halt the recount. "I can't influence their decision," he said last week.

Plenty of phone calls

As the Miami-Dade recount emerged as one of the most critical issues in the court battle over the presidential election results, it is clear that there was a flurry of activity among public officials behind the scenes. Preceding both the board's decision to do a recount and then its sudden about-face, there were numerous telephone calls between Democratic and Republican party leaders, public officials in Miami and members of the canvassing board.

Influential Republican lawmakers and lawyers, meanwhile, also called Penelas and two members of the canvassing board, Lawrence King and Myriam Lehr, both Democratic county judges, public records show.

Phone records show that Lehr was called on Nov. 15 by Alan Dimond, one of Gov. George W. Bush's lawyers. Dimond did not return phone calls to his office by the New York Times.

King was called by Rodney Barreto, a prominent Miami lobbyist and a close associate of Penelas' who has raised money for Bush. Barreto said that he called King because he needed a speaker to address the student council of his son's school.

Barreto said he left a message for King but never spoke with him.

Politicians on both sides here say Penelas was subjected to the most intensive lobbying efforts.

Raul Martinez, the mayor of Hialeah, said he spoke with Penelas shortly after the recount was halted on Nov. 22. "He sounded like he was under pressure," Martinez said Thursday. "He sounded scared."

Subpoenaing the board

Gore campaign lawyers have issued subpoenas to all three members of the canvassing board. Democratic lawyers want to know if the members had been pressured to cancel the manual recount, either by Republican leaders or the throng of Republican protesters who rushed the doors of the election supervisor's office.

Lehr and King were re-elected to county judgeships this year. Both have said they were under no pressure to halt the recount.

It is not possible to judge how much their actions might have been influenced by the politics of Miami, where non-Hispanic white politicians cannot discount the sentiments of Miami-Dade's largely Republican Cuban-American voting base.

Both judges relied on a prominent Cuban-American political consultant, Armando Gutierrez, to assist them in their campaigns for re-election. Gutierrez, a registered Republican, is known for his ability to organize Cuban-Americans to support the candidates who hire him. Gutierrez said this week that he made no attempt to influence either judge on the canvassing board.

There is no evidence that Penelas spoke to either judge. But Penelas stayed in constant contact with David Leahy, the supervisor of elections and a member of the canvassing board, speaking to him as many as three times a day. Deputy County Attorney Murray Greenberg said that at one point during the proceedings last week, he passed a note from Penelas to Leahy. Greenberg said the note contained a request from Penelas for Leahy to call him.

Leahy acknowledged receiving a note from Penelas and said it contained a message to call him. When asked for a copy of the note, Leahy said that he could not provide a copy because he could not find it.

After the Miami-Dade board voted on Nov. 22 to stop its hand count, Leahy explained the decision this way. "We simply can't get it done. There was this concern that we were not conducting an open, fair process."

But the Democrats believe that the board was under obvious political pressure. And Gore called Penelas later that day in hopes that the canvassing board could be turned around.

Not long ago, Democrats considered Penelas to be one of Gore's most enthusiastic Florida supporters. In fact, Penelas was briefly considered a potential running mate for Gore. He attended fund-raisers for Gore in 1999, but on Thanksgiving Day that year, the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez was rescued off the coast of Miami, and the Clinton administration's handling of the case enraged many of Penelas' constituents. It also altered the mayor's relationship with Gore.

Penelas was strongly opposed to the government's pre-dawn seizure of the boy on Easter weekend. In the weeks before it, Penelas warned that he would not lend any of the county's resources to support a federal raid of the home of Elian's American relatives in the Little Havana section of Miami.

After the boy's return to Cuba, Penelas lent virtually no assistance to Gore in the presidential campaign, although Gore had tried to put some distance between himself and the administration's policy.

In late October, in a sign of his detachment from the campaign, Penelas led a two-week trade trip to Spain and returned just before Election Day.

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