Former Miami Mayor Wages Longshot Senate Bid
Twenty-five years ago, near the end of his 12-year reign as mayor of Miami, Maurice Ferre compared himself to a surfer, a politician skilled enough to navigate a continually shifting wave. “You’ve got to shift your weight at the right time or you get wiped out,” he said back then.
Vastly outspent and trailing badly in the polls, the flamboyant 75-year-old former mayor is now finding the mere act of standing up on the board and paddling against his two major rivals in his bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate the trickiest part of all.
From the time he declared his candidacy last October, it seemed like a monster wave would knock him off his board and out of the race at any moment.
But the longest-serving mayor in Miami history is still standing, paddling ferociously in an attempt to be taken seriously and turn the hotly-contested battle between billionaire Jeff Greene and U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek into a genuine three-way race.
When the uninspiring Meek, who inherited his congressional seat from his 76-year-old mother, Carrie Meek, a five-term congresswoman and granddaughter of a slave who waited until almost the last minute to announce her retirement in 2002 — leaving aspiring Democrats in her district precious little time to get into the race — was expected to waltz to his party’s nomination, the former mayor of Miami was the only person who initially stepped forward to give Florida Democrats a choice in the August 24 U.S. Senate primary.
“As far as I am concerned, this is a wide open race,“ Ferre told the Miami Herald shortly before announcing his candidacy.
In jumping into the race, Ferre intimated that Meek, bereft of new ideas, was too liberal for Florida and would have limited appeal in a general election. He also chastised then-GOP frontrunner Charlie Crist, who's now running as an independent, for his cozy relationship with Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein.
Relying heavily on his appeal in the state’s fast-growing Hispanic community, the Puerto Rican-born Ferre said that it was time for new and bold leadership in Washington. “It’s Time To Be Bold,” screamed the banner on his campaign web site.
“Florida is in trouble, and we are not getting our fair share from Washington,” he said in a news release announcing his candidacy. “Although Gov. Crist embraced President Obama’s stimulus package, Florida is dead last in the allocation of stimulus funds, receiving only about $610 per person,” he said. “Florida also ranks 45th in education related stimulus dollars so far, and 32nd for health care-related spending. We are also dead last again in infrastructure dollars for transportation, energy and other construction projects. That is outrageous and unacceptable.”
He knows it won’t be easy, but he says he’s up to the challenge.
“I have led during moments of turmoil before and I am ready to be the strong voice for Florida in Washington to pull us out of the crisis that we are living right now,” said Ferre, whose rocky tenure as mayor of Miami certainly experienced its share of challenges and adversity, including thousands of refugees from the Mariel boatlift — half of whom decided to permanently reside in Miami — and the infamous Liberty City riots that left eighteen people dead, both of which occurred in 1980.
It was one of the most tumultuous periods in the city’s history.
“Maurice Ferre was a great mayor who governed during a very difficult period in the late '70s and early '80s,” said gubernatorial candidate Farid Khavari, a longtime resident of the city. “He's clearly the best Democrat in the race and he's running for all of the right reasons — to share his experience and wisdom while leaving a positive and lasting legacy. The Democrats should rally around his candidacy.”
When announcing his candidacy on October 7, the aging ex-mayor, who narrowly missed a runoff election in his bid for an unprecedented seventh term in 1985, was already millions of dollars behind his party’s front-runner U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, supported by the Democratic establishment.
Meek, who enjoys the support of most of the Florida and national Democratic establishment, had already raised more than $1.5 million by the time Ferre entered the contest and — aided immensely by the fundraising efforts of former President Bill Clinton — more than doubled that amount shortly thereafter, amassing $3.4 million by the end of 2009.
While struggling to raise $150,000 — mostly from friends and supporters in Orlando and Puerto Rico — during the first six months following his declaration of candidacy last October, Ferre still lags far behind Rep. Meek in fundraising, but now also has to contend with the deep pockets of Jeff Greene, the West Palm Beach “meltdown mogul” who made a fortune betting against the sub-prime real estate market and who once ran for Congress in California as a Republican.
Greene, who’s running in a state among the hardest hit by mortgage foreclosures — the very thing he was betting would happen to middle-class homeowners — has reportedly spent millions saturating Florida’s airwaves with radio and television spots.
According to Politico, the cash-soaked real estate executive, who didn’t officially enter race until late April, has already spent $5 million of his own money in his bid for the Democratic nomination.
While the Meek-Greene contest receives the lion’s share of attention in the Democratic primary, Maurice Ferre continues surfing out of the limelight, ignored almost entirely by a somnolent media which barely acknowledges his candidacy.
Even his principled opposition to President Obama's troop escalation in Afghanistan — an issue that clearly sets him apart from every other major candidate in the race — has gone largely unreported.
Not surprisingly, the longtime Miami mayor was excluded from last week’s Palm Beach Post debate between Greene and Meek — a particularly nasty exchange that left viewers wondering which of the two candidates was more ethically challenged, and whether either of them was truly prepared to address the troubling issues confronting recession-ravaged and oil-slicked Floridians.
Real estate investor Jeff Greene reportedly spent $5 million of his own money during first two months of the campaign.
That’s really a shame since neither candidate possesses Ferre’s unique understanding of history or his almost encyclopedic grasp of the issues, especially his ability to rattle off relevant statistics. Fascinated by numbers, it’s not unusual for the ex-mayor to launch into an issue — any issue — with a dizzying array of statistics. It’s an old trademark dating back to his days as mayor.
“I don't know why, but all my life, I always count,” he once told a reporter. “Every time we go to New York to the theater, I count people in the theater. That's just the way my mind is.”
Though a self-described political centrist — one who can appeal to a cross-section of Floridians — Ferre believes the country has shifted too far in one direction.
“We've had a slide going on for the last 30 years led by Republican ideology,” he recently told a meeting of the Palm Bay Democratic Club. “If we do not have a strong candidate in November then a lot of people will end up voting for Charlie Crist, and he will end up voting with Republicans.”
Neither Greene or Meek can win in November, argued Ferre.
The problem in Washington, contends the former six-term mayor, isn’t one of too much government, but rather one of poor, ineffective government.
It’s hard to argue with him. Many people on the Gulf Coast and elsewhere would probably agree that the federal government has been rendered largely ineffective, as painfully evidenced by its tepid response in the wake of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, an unfolding catastrophe that Floridians increasingly witness in the giant blobs of tar balls, oil patches and sheen covering up to 30 percent of the beaches in the Panhandle from Perdido Key to Pensacola.
“As I watch the Gulf oil spill unfold and descend upon our beautiful Florida beaches, I think seriously about Florida's future and that of the United States,” wrote Ferre in a recent e-mail to supporters explaining that he is strongly opposed to offshore drilling while promising to fight in the U.S. Senate against lifting the 125-mile federal ban on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We recognize that this is an opportunity for our country to embrace bold solutions and vigorously create an energy policy that provides the foundation of a new economy,” he said.
“This new economy,” he continued “can shift us from the past to the present, from an emphasis on oil and coal to a focus on renewable energy. Let us implement viable solutions to safeguarding our future in a competitive international market. This new economy would solve the current problems in our nation by creating jobs, addressing climate-change issues, protecting the environment, and launching new forms of ground transportation.”
Dubbed the “Mayor of the Miami skyline” for his role in elevating his city to international prominence as a result of Miami’s downtown development boom of the 1980s, Ferre polled only three percent of the vote in the latest Quinnipiac survey released last month, compared to 29 percent for Meek and 27 percent for Greene — both of whom remain largely unknown to a majority of Florida voters, including a substantial number of Democrats.
Forty percent of Florida Democrats remain undecided about the U.S. Senate contest and sixty percent say they could still change their minds.
That’s enough for a self-described “surfer” like Ferre, a political survivor whose quick reactions and sense of balance have enabled him to avoid a wipeout in what others were quick to dismiss as a hopeless undertaking. It also gives him plenty of hope that he might yet be able to find the one big wave to ride to victory on August 24.
If and when a wave breaks, one gets the feeling Maurice Ferre, carefully shifting his feet on the board, will be ready.
Darcy G. Richardson is an author, historian and co-founder of UncoveredPolitics.com. Many of his books, including A Nation Divided: The 1968 Presidential Campaign are available from retailers nationwide and online at Amazon.com.