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Miami Voters Cast Ballots Against Politics of Ethnicity

A TIDAL wave has rocked Miami's ethnic politics out of its moorings. Felix Perez is part of that wave.

Mr. Perez stands chatting with a friend in front of a Cuban coffee shop on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) in the heart of Little Havana. Like many other Hispanics here, he rejected the call for ethnic solidarity and helped to elect Steve Clark, a white politician, as Miami's new mayor this week.

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``I don't worry about Latin or not,'' Perez says. ``If one of our own in mediocre, we can vote for someone who is Anglo.''

That kind of sentiment helped send Miriam Alonso, a Cuban-born Republican, to a solid defeat in Tuesday's election. Her campaign emphasized calls for ethnic unity. Ms. Alonso flatly declared during the race that the 800,000 Cubans who had arrived in Dade Country since Fidel Castro took power in Cuba deserved to hold the mayor's office. Mr. Castro, she added, would be encouraged if she lost the mayor's race.

Alonso's strategy appeared grounded in the racial polarization of politics in Miami, where blacks and Anglos have lost power to Hispanics during the past two decades. Maurice Ferre, born in Puerto Rico, was mayor from 1973 to 1985. He was replaced by Cuban-born and Harvard-educated Xavier Suarez, who decided to step down this year.

The split between southern Florida's old residents and the new reached its apex in the 1989 election for the 18th District congressional seat once held by the late Claude Pepper. Cuban-American Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, won virtually all of the Hispanic vote - and the election - while Jewish-American Gerald Richman, a Democrat, carried most of the Anglo and black votes.

This week's election returns represented a turn away from that kind of bloc voting.

Richard Hunter, an analyst with the political consulting firm of Bendixen Associates, conducted exit polls which showed that Hispanics 50-and-older went for Alonso but that younger Latinos backed Clark. Alonso got 41 percent of the total vote to Clark's 59 percent.

``Older Hispanics still see themselves as a minority even though they are the majority,'' Mr. Hunter explains. But ``calling for a Hispanic seat was a tactical mistake - you need some support from blacks and Anglos to win.''

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Part of the reason Clark fared so well among Hispanics was that he was endorsed by outgoing Mayor Suarez. In an interview in his law office, Mr. Suarez notes that Cuban Americans hold many powerful positions in southern Florida. The Dade County Commission, which has more power than the largely figurehead position of Miami mayor, is now half Hispanic after a court ordered a voting system based on districts rather than at-large voting.

Given their degree of political power and rising affluence, holding onto the mayor's office simply wasn't a top priority for Cuban Americans. ``If you are an ethnic group and you have got representation, there is less need to support one of your own group and you become more objective,'' Suarez says. ``There is less need to have a familiar face.''

While not familiar to many Cuban Americans who arrived in Miami in the 1970s and '80s, Clark has been around the city's politics for a long time. He was Miami mayor from 1967 to 1970 - in the days before Hispanics were a major political force - and then went on to become mayor of Metro Dade for 20 years. During his three decades in politics, he has become known as ``the marshmallow mayor'' for his devotion to ribbon-cuttings, parades, and proclamations.

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