Political veteran Dennis Moss knows how to annoy his main opponent in his effort to secure a fifth term on the Miami-Dade County Commission.
All he has to do is insinuate that Alice Pena is beholden to Norman Braman, the billionaire auto magnate who as of last week had contributed almost one-third of the money Pena has raised in her attempt to oust Moss from an office he’s held since 1993.
“I beg your pardon, nobody owns me,” said Pena. “How can you say that? I am not for sale.”
“Beholden” has become the ugly word this election cycle, as Moss and three other commissioners fight off Braman’s attempt to oust them from commission seats they’ve occupied for years. Braman, the man responsible for the recall of former county mayor Carlos Alvarez last year, has targeted Moss and fellow commissioners Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan and Bruno Barreiro for their vote two years ago to raise property taxes and earlier votes to use public money to help build the Miami Marlins a stadium in Little Havana.
Two others are also trying to unseat the heavily favored Moss, who by the end of July had easily outdistanced his opponents in fundraising, banking $137,396. Next was Pena at $16,850, followed by Loretta Riley’s $2,608 and concert promoter Darren McGillis’ $2,005.
Pena said she’s seeking the post representing South Dade to try to eliminate waste and mismanagement in the county’s sprawling bureaucracy.
Asked to name specifics, she said she’d “have to look at what’s happened the past few years.”
Moss, meanwhile, who lists the recently completed South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center among his accomplishments, is campaigning on experience. Unlike Pena, he doesn’t favor the current charter-review task force recommendation on incorporation of municipalities and annexation, which essentially removes commissioners from the process.
“At the end of the day you need a referee on the field,” said Moss.
District 9 is the largest of Miami-Dade’s 13 districts. Its roughly 200,000 residents live as far north as Cutler Bay, south to the Monroe county line and west to the Everglades. The district includes a cluster of cities that run along U.S. 1, including Perrine, Goulds and Naranja Lakes. It’s also the by far the most agricultural of the county’s 13 districts, covering the farming communities of The Redland, Homestead and Florida City.
Pena, 71, born in the Dominican Republic, was reared in New York. Her family moved to Washington, D.C., and finally landed in Coral Gables when Pena was a teen. Her parents moved here, she said, because they had friends and relatives here from Cuba and Puerto Rico. She attended Miami-Dade College while her mother began what was to become the family farming business.
When her folks first built a home just north of The Redland in the controversial 8 1/2 square-mile area in the late 1960s, Pena and her sister would go down on weekends to help out. They had a home in Coral Gables. By the time her father Gerardo passed away in the late 1970s, Pena moved to the family property, building a new home there. She was married once briefly, and has no children.
She’s had as many as five employees on the family farm and grows lychee and tropical fruits. In 2004 Pena joined the Miami-Dade Farm Bureau, becoming president a year ago. She resigned from that post in June when she decided to run for public office.
The more she became involved in the Farm Bureau, said Pena, the more she encountered problems with the county’s Department of Environmental Resources Management, which morphed into another department during the county’s recent downsizing. Removing red tape has became a mainstay of her election quest.
“It’s just too bulky,” Pena said of the former DERM. “Instead of service and efficiency, it’s a huge bureaucracy.”
Former County Commissioner Katy Sorenson questioned Braman’s decision to support Pena, saying “she doesn’t bring much to the table.”
Sorenson said she’s backing Moss, and points to the growth of Zoo Miami and the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center while Moss has represented the district.
Moss, 60, is a Killian High graduate with a degree in economics from Grinnell College in Iowa. He’s married to Margaret Hawkins Moss, a senior aviation procurement officer with Miami-Dade County. They have three children.
After college Moss held jobs as a county lifeguard and worked with Big Brothers and Big Sisters in Overtown and Liberty City. He then worked with the Richmond Heights/Perrine Optimist Club, working his way up to the executive director post he holds today. He earns $52,000 a year there, and the club receives a little more than $200,000 a year in county backing.
It’s an issue he’s been criticized for repeatedly for over the years.
Moss says the club provides services to some of the most difficult places in South Dade.
“We provide services where others don’t,” said Moss. “If you don’t have a problem with the Boys & Girls Club, or the YMCA, you shouldn’t have a problem with us.”
Moss was first elected to represent South Dade in 1993, shortly after Hurricane Andrew devastated the area, and his plan for economic revival, which was adopted by commissioners, became known as the Moss Plan.
He has swept aside competition since. Moss lists helping save Homestead Air Force Base after Hurricane Andrew barreled through in 1992, and the construction of a public hospital, a cultural center and a winery among his credits..
About a decade ago when he chaired the committee that oversaw Miami International Airport, Moss successfully fought off an attempt by the Miami Business Forum to create an independent authority to oversee the airport. Braman was a member – and has a long memory.
“He was an obstacle,” said Braman. “Moss has been in office for 19 years and he’s part of the problem. He’s been an obstacle to charter change for years.”