Maurice A. Ferré, the politician and businessman from an aristocratic Puerto Rican family who is widely regarded as the father of modern-day Miami, has died. He was 84.
Ferré, who had been undergoing treatment for an aggressive spinal cancer for two years, died peacefully at his longtime home in south Coconut Grove. His wife, Mercedes, was at his side along with their children and grandchildren, the family said.
In 12 often-tumultuous years as Miami mayor, from 1973 to 1985, Ferré set in motion a new vision of Miami — then a southern burg struggling with persisting racial segregation, decimated by suburban flight and on the verge of transformation by an unprecedented influx of Cuban refugees — as an urbanized international center.
That new conception, initially met with resistance by an entrenched civic and business elite, answered to Ferré’s cosmopolitan background and an ultimately urban vision of Miami’s possibilities. It ranged widely, from integrating the city’s police and fire departments to fostering high-rise development along Brickell Avenue and the internationalization of business and trade, while making a place for the inevitable ascendancy of Cuban-American political power that eventually swept him from office.
“He changed the face of Miami,” said Dario Moreno, an expert on local politics at Florida International University.
Ferré had remained active until nearly the end, speaking and writing publicly as a relatively recent convert to the value of park space downtown. A longtime transportation wonk, Ferré had earlier this year also registered as a lobbyist, along with his son, for a company that makes magnetic-levitation trains for a bid to expand Miami-Dade’s public-transit system.
After years out of elected office, Ferré found himself again in the public spotlight earlier this year, when the Miami City Commission renamed Museum Park, the former Bicentennial Park in downtown Miami, in his honor. Ferré, the scion of a family that made its fortune on cement and construction, acknowledged with chagrin that as mayor he may have gone overboard in his enthusiasm for development.
Even lifetime political foes came to praise him during the park re-dedication, most notably current Miami Commissioner and former mayor Joe Carollo, who had denounced Ferré at a press conference where he was supposed to endorse his re-election in 1983, with Ferré standing by his side, in one of the most notorious double-crosses in city political history.
Though mayoral elections in Miami are non-partisan, Ferré made no bones about identifying as a lifelong Democrat. But he routinely struck alliances with Republican politicians and courted support from conservative Cuban exiles, at times opening himself up to charges of political opportunism.
But Ferré’s sympathy for and support of Cuban exiles was genuine, said developer Armando Codina, a longtime friend. Codina recalled how Ferré and his parents opened their doors to unaccompanied Cuban children fleeing the Communist regime of Fidel Castro.
“He was mayor when we had the worst of times of Miami, like the drug wars. And he had a vision,” Codina said in an interview earlier this year. “Maurice sees the future even clearer than he sees next week. And that’s a gift. He always saw this as a world center of trade and commerce. It turned out to be true.”
In a statement issued shortly after his passing around midday, Ferré’s family said: “Having played an integral part in policy and politics up until his passing, Mayor Ferré will be remembered for his commitment to the internationalization of Miami, social justice, mobility and transportation, education, and his love of God and humanity.”
In an address at the park dedication that reflected his restless and perennially forward-looking intellect, Ferré focused not just on longtime preoccupations, such as inequality and the need for affordable housing, but on some new ones as well, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing, while quoting James Madison, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset and Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead, among others.
Always elegantly turned out, wielding a sparkling wit and with an ever-present glint in his eyes, Ferré was unafraid to show off his cultivated erudition with flair and fluency in English, Spanish or French. His urbanity made him an object of both admiration and resentment. He could effortlessly pour on the charm, and though he was also known to be at times petty and peevishly vindictive as a politician, Ferré inspired loyalty from aides, friends and supporters that he could call on long after leaving office.
“One of the things that characterizes him is a level of charisma that may be exceeded in my experience only by that of Bobby Kennedy,” said Miami-Dade Commission Xavier Suarez, who defeated Ferré in 1985, bringing his term as Miami mayor to an end, in an interview earlier this year. “It’s incomparable.
“And he comes up with the most amazing terminology,” Suarez added, before referring to Ferré’s conversion on green space. “Now he gets religion, and it’s, ‘Don’t monetize beauty.’ “
Ferré’s six terms as Miami mayor, at a time when the term was two years, featured a long list of firsts: Though not the only figure to envision Miami as an international city at the crossroads of Latin America, he was the first to put that vision into action.
He was the first Puerto Rican-born U.S. mayor and the first Hispanic mayor of Miami. He was responsible for the appointment of the first black city attorney, the first two black police chiefs and the first black city manager.
Ferré was also the first Miami mayor to seriously tackle deep-rooted racial discrimination in city hiring and promotion, particularly in its police and fire departments. He and his hand-picked city attorney, George Knox, persuaded the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the city for discrimination, resulting in a consent decree or order requiring equality in hiring and promotion of police officers and firefighters that’s still in place today.
“This is the proudest achievement of my career,” Knox said in an interview earlier this year. “It was early in the process of changing the culture of the city. One of Maurice’s attributes is that he was always in front of an impending crisis. And he was a decent human being. There was to him something wrong being associated with a city that was still in the dark ages.”
“That was a breakthrough that changed everything about public employment. It changed everything about the perception of blacks as capable. Maurice would always be about five years ahead of his contemporaries on his vision of what it takes to make a great community.”
As mayor, Ferré engineered the development of Bayside Marketplace on a piece of historic Bayfront Park as a tool, largely successful, to kick-start a revival of a dying downtown Miami. He also directed the taking, by eminent domain, of the FEC property on the downtown bayfront of the site where the AmericanAirlines Area sits today. He drove a project to redesign Bayfront Park under a plan by famed sculptor Isamu Noguchi, though the resulting park has had mixed success.
He was the first to draw up a model of private-public partnerships for major civic projects with a novel approach to building the Knight Center and Hyatt Hotel in downtown Miami. And he pushed effectively for a new way to build affordable housing by using public subsidies for private nonprofit and for-profit developers, the model that today provides most new housing for low-income people in Miami-Dade.
Ferré gave Dodge Island to the county to expand the port of Miami, which then was quite small, and championed the deepening of the shipping channel in Biscayne Bay to accommodate larger vessels. He also backed the construction of the Metrorail system by the county, and pushed unsuccessfully for a tunnel to the port — much later made reality — and a tunnel under the Miami River at Brickell Avenue.
Ferré won a key change in state banking regulations that allowed international banks to operate in Miami, opening the door to making the city one of the top international banking centers in the United States, and creating a financial district south of the Miami River along Brickell.
“I was flying to Brazil and Argentina and Mexico City and getting these banks to realize Miami was the best place to have their central offices,” Ferré recalled in a lengthy interview at his home earlier this year. “That was a major thing.”
He also persuaded U.S. corporations to set up their Latin American headquarters in Miami, and Hong Kong developer Swire, which built Brickell Key and later Brickell City Center, to come to the city.
“My argument was that Miami was going to be America’s Hong Kong,” Ferré said.
Boosting the development of downtown as a commercial center was critical to the city’s future, he said. City homeowners were footing most of the city’s budget at the time, an untenable fiscal position. New downtown development could shift the balance to commercial properties, with the added advantage of bringing residents back to the urban core and providing an alternative to the sprawling development threatening the Everglades.
“We needed an engine. And the engine was the development of downtown and Brickell, increasing density by going vertical,” Ferré said.
Ferré’s achievements were especially remarkable because the so-called “weak mayor” post he occupied was largely ceremonial, conferred no appointment powers, and gave him but one vote on the five-member commission. But Ferré courted sufficient commission support to enact his bold agenda, primarily with the consistent votes of the Rev. Theodore Gibson, a black civil-rights leader, and Manolo Reboso, the first Cuban-born elected official in Miami.
“I was a weak mayor, but so long as I had two other votes, I was not a weak mayor,” he said.
Ferré also helped loosen the political grip of a white “Anglo” elite that had long — and secretively — run Miami, meeting regularly as a “non-group,” as its members referred to it. Made up of the city’s principal business leaders and executives of the Miami Herald’s ownership company, the non-group set the city and county’s political agenda outside of public view or knowledge.
Ferré recalled he rebuffed directives from members of the group in his early days in office, first as a city commissioner and later as mayor, and often ended up locking horns with the Herald’s editorial board, which he felt represented their outdated way of looking at Miami.
“The view of Miami in the 1960s and 1970s is that it was Miami, USA, and Miami was looking north,” Ferré said. “Miami was the competitor of Atlanta. They just didn’t understand the importance of the Cuban-American community. By this time, mind you, Cuban Americans were presidents of banks and were in all the law firms.
“As a commissioner, I had a clear vision that Miami really needed to look south. For a very simple reason: There are 100 million people who are not poor in Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil. My main thing was seeing Miami as an international center, and I helped make that happen.”
“Miami still had a foot in its origins, which had remained constant, which was that this is a tourist town. It opened in November and it closed in March. It was in the midst of changing, and I thought it should become more than just a tourist town.”
Knox, a former assistant Miami city attorney who was teaching in law school in Arkansas when Ferré recruited him as the city’s first black city attorney, said Ferré prevailed, but paid a high personal and political price to buck the establishment.
“His circle was a global circle of wealthy exotic people, if you will. He wanted to spruce up his place, even on his level. And he had to deal with the people that he found, both as his colleagues and his critics,” Knox said. “To advance visionary ideas against critics, both as colleagues and opinion-makers, and ultimately achieve it, is really powerful stuff.
“He planted the seed for the energy Miami now enjoys. And he is responsible ultimately for the boom we are now suffering, as it relates to modern high-rise dense development. All those ideas, regardless of whether they have been properly applied, were his — a bustling skyline and an international business center and being an attraction for all the money in the world.”
To boost his political position, Ferré became an enthusiastic pioneer in the ethnically based electioneering that is today prevalent across the county, but that in the end was his political undoing at the city.
Ferré assiduously cultivated black support and relied on his popularity in the community to win re-election several times, while splitting the Hispanic and non-Hispanic vote, then commonly known as the “Anglo” vote. But his middle-of-the-night firing of that same city manager, Howard Gary, eroded his black backing enough to cost him the mayor’s seat in 1985.
That made him the last city of Miami mayor not of Cuban background. After the Gary firing, he was defeated by Suarez, Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor, as Cuban American voters asserted their numerical superiority and growing political clout.
Ferré, who believed strongly that voters deserved to be represented by elected officials of their ethnic and racial background if they so chose, was also a leading plaintiff in a key lawsuit that dramatically changed the way Miami-Dade County commissioners are elected, and thus the board’s makeup.
Most of the nine commissioners at the time were elected countywide, resulting in one Hispanic and one black member. After Ferré and others sued, the commission was expanded to the current 13 members and seats went to district elections, radically diversifying the board’s membership. Hispanic commissioners are now the majority, but black commissioners have significant power and influence.
Ferré’s last elected job was as a county commissioner, but he gave up the seat to run for county mayor in 1996. He finished third to Arthur Teele Jr., a black commissioner, and the eventual winner, Cuban-American Alex Penelas. In 2001, Ferré ran again for Miami mayor, but lost to Manny Diaz, who in his eight years in the post built substantially on the base Ferré had laid out 15 years previously.
His story was also one of frustrated higher political dreams. Once touted as potentially the first Hispanic U.S. congressman or senator from Florida, Ferré never fulfilled that ambition. He ran a lackluster and underfunded campaign for Senate in 2010, long after his political career had peaked, and did not make it out of the Democratic primary.
In the February interview at his home, Ferré took only some of the credit for Miami’s transformation. He credited Diaz, mayor from 2001 to 2009, and others for extending the urban vision he first laid out for Miami.
“Nobody’s a prophet, much less in his own home,” Ferré said. “If I said the Miami of today is what I dreamt of 50 years ago, I’d be lying. I don’t do that. The urban world is a changing scene everywhere, and we’re going towards this new urbanism.”
He also reckoned frankly with his mistakes and the unanticipated consequences of that vision. He said the county commission system today is bloated and, because no one is elected countywide, board members have little incentive to work across divisions.
“What it did is, it created 13 fiefdoms. Each one of these commissioners has ministerios (ministries) with fifteen or twenty employees. It’s too much power and too much staffing,” he said.
And he said he did not anticipate how the urbanization and resuscitation of downtown Miami and surrounding neighborhoods would lead to runaway gentrification and housing costs, with a housing industry that caters only to the most affluent.
“The way it’s developed, it’s unaffordable. It’s become a speculation thing. Who can afford them? The rich people. You get a lot of people leaving. Even with two or three roommates, people can’t afford it. Yes, we build, but what do we build? What happens to the working people? They have to move out. It’s self-defeating.
“It’s nobody’s fault. I’m a great admirer of what Manny Diaz did. Did it work? Yes. But it worked too well. I think Miami should be a city where there is more balance. It’s inconceivable to me the working class of Miami has to work two or three jobs to afford it.”
Ferré was born in 1935 in Ponce, Puerto Rico, into a family that’s the closest thing on the island to royalty, with wide-ranging business and cultural interests. His uncle, Luis A. Ferré, was the first statehood proponent elected governor, and founded the island’s leading art museum. An aunt, Sor Isolina Ferré, was a Catholic nun who worked her entire life in poor communities. A first cousin, Rosario Ferré, was a leading novelist, short-story writer and essayist. Another branch of Ferres owns and manages the island’s leading newspaper, El Nuevo Dia.
Ferré carried this family tradition to Miami, where his father, Jose “Joe” Ferré, moved in the 1940s. The elder Ferré took over Maule Industries, a leading producer of concrete products, which he would groom a young Maurice to take over.
Maurice Ferré’s first glimpse of Miami came during a visit with his father in the early 1940s, aboard a Yankee Clipper Pan Am seaplane flight from San Juan through Cuba and Haiti that stopped at Dinner Key, where he would occupy an office as mayor for a dozen years.
After prep school at Lawrenceville in New Jersey, Ferré enrolled at the University of Miami to be close to his family, obtaining an engineering degree and a graduate degree in finance, before going to work with his father at Maule.
He also married Mercedes Malaussena, the daughter of the Venezuelan couple who lived next door to the Ferres on Brickell, then a boulevard lined with the estates of the wealthy. The couple had six children. One son, Francisco Ferré, died in 1995 along with his wife and son in a plane crash in Colombia.
Ferré, who said he long entertained a dream of being governor of Puerto Rico, soon began the juggling act between politics and business that consumed him for years, and cost him dearly in both areas. He won a state house seat in 1967, serving for only one year before running successfully for a city commission seat.
Meanwhile, Maule’s business was losing money, and Ferré said he managed to bring it to solvency in two years after being handed the reins by his father. His plan was to sell the firm and get into politics full time.
But the firm became mired in charges of price fixing that led to years of litigation and mounting financial troubles that cost the Ferres much of the family fortune at the peak of his political power. Ferré and his wife were forced to sell a grand estate they had built in the north Grove, Hi Oaks, and moved into the smaller though still elegant south Grove house. His critics also accused Ferré of sheltering assets from creditors by putting them in his wife’s name.
Ultimately, the debts were settled and Ferré, once his political career was at an end, regained his financial footing through a number of executive positions and business ventures. A son, Dr. Maurice R. Ferré, one of the couple’s six children, has been especially successful in carrying on the family tradition of entrepreneurship, and sold a venture in 2014 for $1.6 billion.
The years of financial turmoil, Ferré recalled, required his presence in Miami and foreclosed his larger political ambitions. Because the mayor’s job was technically part-time, it enabled him to split his time between government and business. But he could not devote his full attention to politics, and both suffered.
“My father used to tell me, ‘you have to decide what you wanna be... You have to decide if you’re going to be a businessman or a politician.’ And he was right. I think that ambivalence created more problems for me than anything else in my life,” Ferré said.
Ferré gave up his city commission seat after three years and ran for county mayor, losing to Steve Clark, who had been Miami mayor, in 1970. That was the first time, Ferré contended, that the race card was used in a Miami election. It was, he said, a wake-up call.
“That was the first time the race card was used — me being Hispanic. Steve used it,” Ferré recalled. “In that election, 1970, the Hispanic vote was negligible.”
In 1973, Ferré was elected Miami mayor to succeed David Kennedy, who had been indicted on corruption charges and removed form office, though he was later acquitted.
Because the mayoral term was just two years, it required constant politicking, Ferré quickly learned. In 1979, a surge in Hispanic voters, many first-timers, helped him defeat union leader Rose Gordon. But the political ground rapidly shifted as his former commission ally, Reboso, challenged him on an explicit “cubano, vota cubano,” or “Cuban, vote Cuban” platform. That meant he needed more than ever to rely on the black vote — he won 95 percent of it, he recalled — to stave off Reboso and stay in office.
“Politics is like riding a surfboard. You have to distribute your weight differently on the board as the wave changes. If the wave changes, you have to change with the wave or you get wiped out,” he said. “I knew Reboso had taken the Hispanic vote away from me. So from being a strong majority that put me over the top, two years later I’m losing it. So how do you make up for that?
“The only way now you can become mayor of Miami or even Miami-Dade County is you have to build consensus. Here was my problem, I didn’t have a base. I’m a Puerto Rican. The Hispanic community was Cuban. I’m not black. And I’m not an Anglo.”
In 1985, though, came the wipeout.
Ferré contends Suarez then adopted the ethnic-first approach Reboso had pioneered. Weakened by the Gary firing and the loss of black support, it was too much to overcome, he said.
By then, Suarez suggested, voters were also weary of Ferré’s grandiose ideas, his ambitions and ego and his divisive politicking. Neighborhoods were neglected and in need of prosaic attention and services, he said.
“Maurice is an ideal guy in an adjacent office, throwing ideas at you, and nine out of 10 you throw back. He was seen as an internationalist. I was more the pothole mayor,” Suarez said. “He’s not an implementer, not a nuts-and-bolts guy. It’s a different style. He’s a very thoughtful person, confident of his views. He has a great style, great flair personally and verbally. That’s very important in a leader.”
It was during 1985’s mayoral race that the Miami Herald’s editorial board declared, “It is time for a change, a profound change that can only come by ousting Maurice Ferré. The sad fact is that Maurice Ferré has become not one man but two. One is a charming, persuasive, urbane, occasionally visionary believer in and evangelist for Miami’s potential. For all that this Maurice Ferré has achieved as mayor, grant him due credit. The other Maurice Ferré is venal, vindictive, obsessed with remaining in office at all costs. It is this persona, alas, that seeks a seventh term.”
Ferré said he regretted relying on the “ethnic card,” but added Miami’s changing politics left him little alternative.
“I did, unfortunately, and I regret that,” Ferré said. “It’s one of the few things I regret. But it was circumstantial. I wasn’t really able to control it because I’m not the one who started it. Reboso started it and Suarez took it up with a vengeance, quoting [Cuban independence hero Jose] Marti all over the place. And remember the establishment left me. So I didn’t have the chamber of commerce or the Miami Herald.”
But Knox says Ferrés courting of black voters was sincere and a reflection of his values, not a play for political advantage.
“Maurice Ferré was the kind of politician who did not exclude anybody from his constituency. Maurice is a Puerto Rican who spoke to blacks, who had genuine friends in the black community, who called attention to their existence and would not allow them to be ignored,” Knox said. “He was revered in the black community, because he would not allow them to be ignored and he immersed himself in their concerns.
Ultimately, Knox said, there was no place for Ferré in the new terrain of Miami politics.
“The cultural fiber of Miami changed, the demographics changed, the politics changed,” Knox said. “Maurice refused to be corrupt or corrosive or needlessly ruthless, and he started getting beat. Maurice was not equipped spiritually to deal with betrayal and greed and ruthlessness.”
In the end, Ferré said, his legacy was the small part he played in the creation of a new kind of American city, forged through the full integration of a group of refugees and immigrants from another culture.
“I believe that Miami is still Miami, USA,” Ferré said, in Spanish. “And it’s true that Miami has been Latino-ized. But what is even more true, and to me more important, is that the Latino world of Miami has been Americanized. So that this is a great center, a great city, of Americans of Hispanic ascendancy, something that does not exist in the same proportion or with this same dynamic in any other city in the United States, or, for that matter, the world.
Ferré is survived by his wife, Mercedes, five children — Mary Isabel, José Luis, Carlos Maurice, Maurice Raimundo and Florence Mercedes — 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
There will a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, at the Cathedral of St. Mary ‘s, 7525 NW Second Ave. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski will celebrate the Mass.