For decades, from the time Hispanic builders began to profit from construction of low cost housing in Miami Dade farmland, the Latin Builders Association has been the de facto political arm of south Florida construction and development interests. They gained hundreds of millions in profit by manipulating zoning codes and permitting; using local legislatures and appointed boards to direct public tax dollars for infrastructure servicing new platted subdivisions in the hinterlands.
The results required circumventing regulations protecting the environment, under the lazy eye of mainstream environmental organizations; if not by hacking from outside, then gutting from within. Regulations are only as stiff as the backbone of regulators; few in Miami Dade have been able to resist the pressure of building industry lobbyists, elected officials in their back pockets, or the revolving door between government and private industry engineering and consulting firms who stick close to their LBA affiliations.
Courting LBA political money by presidential candidates requires a willful disregard of the systemic degradation of representative democracy. This is not exactly how it was reported in The Miami Herald last Friday, “GOP Hopefuls perform for Hispanic Builders”.
“The wooing was at full force at the Latin Builders Association, which managed to score all four candidates in a single day”, reports the Herald. Of course it did. While Democrats certainly have their four score and twenty contributors from the champions of sprawl, the Republicans did it more better.
From their Hialeah political fortress (although the wealthiest live in gated estates in Coral Gables, South Miami and Pinecrest), the LBA ensures political orthodoxy in the Cuban American voting bloc.
The LBA exerts its influence through a well-lubricated campaign fundraising apparatus, wringing maximum contributions not just from its members but the entire supply chain–from suppliers of urinal biscuits to rebar, investing in election day street operations, and also through members’ payments to Spanish language AM radio hosts-whose conservative, anti-Castro fury obscures any criticism that could emerge from public disaffection with the underlying political structure that serves LBA interests.
The organization links home grown production homebuilders to large national corporations, like Lennar, that prefer not to dirty their hands in local politics. The most successful, Sergio Pino, grew a plumbing supply business into a major production home developer and a bank with more than a billion in deposits, all branded under the name “Century”.
None of this, of course, will ever appear in a Herald story. (Interesting how the NE 15th access Miami Herald is named Alvah Chapman Way-and intersects at the stretch of Biscayne Boulevard named for Jorge Mas Canosa. The Cuban American National Foundation, that Mas Canosa founded, was the foreign policy analogue to the LBA.)Long ago, Anglo public officials in Florida with roots farming and development, like the family of former Senator Bob Graham, ceded political control of South Florida to the Latin builders. (This was the appropriate view-finder through which to witness in 2005, Graham family interests attach several hundred acres of property to a LBA backed application by developers to move the Miami Dade urban growth boundary in Hialeah, that required a major zoning change by a super majority of the county commission. The county commission allowed the Graham family development corporation to latch onto the LBA project, but not before a strong measure of condescension from the dais.)
According to the Herald, “In his bid to court the builders, Romney painted their industry in patriotic terms. ‘What you are doing in creating jobs is not just putting money in your pocket, as important as that it is. It also, perhaps unbeknownst to you, keeps America a strong land.” How the LBA chieftains in the audience must have smiled; “unbeknowst”, is that a joke?
The LBA is a gifted special interest, wrapping up the political fortunes of African American leaders like Carrie Meek, Barbara Carey Shuler, and others like James Burke and Barbara Jordan. (The one African American leader to resist the LBA, Arthur Teele, paid the price while he lived.)
In the Herald report, Rudy Giuliani “talked about declining home sales and pledged help, citing what he said was his turnaround of New York City. ‘I know how to fix this problem. I’ve seen it before, I fixed it before, and with your help, I will go to Washington and fix it together,” he said.”
In fact, Giuliani is dead wrong. There is no simple fix for the massively overbuilt markets that benefited LBA members in the past decade.
The Latin Builders Association and its lobbyists here and in Washington, DC played a historic role in the inflation of the housing boom, allied as they were with Governor Jeb Bush, who principal goals as governor were to secure infrastructure planning and investments to accommodate more growth and more campaign contributions from the Republican faithful.
Miami Dade, more so than California’s Central Valley, claims title as the epicenter of the national housing bust.
Miami is the epicenter, heaving under the weight of mortgage fraud, foreclosures, and billions in debt spun from derivative confections, because LBA interests perfected the formulas to push suburbia into farmland, wetlands, mangroves at Biscayne Bay, through control of local zoning councils, state and national politics that fit with new forms of structured finance and mortgages like an iron hand in a velvet glove.
If the LBA runs Miami Dade county until sea level rise, and it would serve the place, right.
But the softening core of the national economy spells trouble for the status quo.
Presidential candidates who have beaten their way to the LBA door should be wary collecting fairy dust from those who bear much responsibility for the economic distress afflicting the national economy. It is a whole new ball game.
ALAN FARAGO of Coral Gables, who writes about the environment and the politics of South Florida, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.