If this brawl were a play being staged at the Tower Theater in Little Havana, the title might be “Political Payback.”
The protagonist, antagonist, and comeback kid all rolled into one: Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, 63, who last year returned to elected office by winning — by a hair — the seat held by his brother, Frank, from whom he is estranged. His rival was his brother’s chief of staff.
Yeah, we’re already in weird territory, but there’s so much more to come. Let’s just say that in American politics before there was Donald Trump zaniness in the White House, there was Joe Carollo locura sitting on the dais at City Hall.
The commissioner earned the nickname “Crazy Joe” in the 1980s for his antics as a newbie commissioner. “Two-bit punk,” was the nicest thing he had to say about the police chief. He lost his seat in 1987, but made a comeback and was elected mayor on an anti-corruption campaign in 1996 and 1998.
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To get the Anglo vote, Carollo portrayed himself as a modern Cuban American who wasn’t afraid to take on the Cuban political machinery in Little Havana — until the child Elián González was rescued by fishermen floating at sea one Thanksgiving. Then, he became the poster for hard-line Cubans wanting to keep him here at all costs, firing the police chief when he hadn’t alerted Carollo to the child’s seizure by federal agents and return to his father.
Of course it follows that, throughout his political career, every single opponent or critic has been, in his eyes, a Communist.
Let’s just say Carollo never disappoints when it comes to putting on a good show, the kind that has shaped Miami’s national reputation as the epicenter of unmatched folkloric politics.
I mean, who earns headlines like “Joe Carollo, still crazy” in The Economist of all places (May 2000)?
These days Joe is older but not wiser. His big nemesis is the owner of the popular Calle Ocho restaurant-nightclub Ball & Chain, Bill Fuller, who supported Carollo’s opponent in the election — and also happens to preside over the board of the nonprofit that stages the 18-year-old arts and culture event Viernes Culturales.
Not content with throwing the city’s code enforcement force at Fuller, who owns several properties in Little Havana, Carollo is on a vindictive mission to kill Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays). The event, which has been featured in national travel magazines, is held on Southwest Eighth Street the last Friday of every month between 13th and 17th avenues from 7 to 11 p.m.
It has enjoyed city support and endorsement, but it’s no big money-making venture, only a draw for both tourists and locals out for affordable fun. Its dose of quaint comes by way of artists who set up shop along the sidewalks and in booths selling the most imaginative Cuban culture-themed art — everything from decorative cups for drinking cafecito to clay plates sculpted with the figures of the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem.
Shoppers stroll, dance to salsa tunes on Domino Plaza, and patronize the area’s restaurants, art galleries, clubs, and cigar and nostalgia shops. Everyone wins.
But Carollo is pulling every trick in the book to force out the festivities.
Taking advantage of the city’s nebulous permitting policies, he has applied for a permit to run his own event along the same stretch of Calle Ocho on the same Friday night. He says his festivities will showcase better talent and be an upgrade for the area.
Can ‘Crazy Joe’ Carollo throw a better Friday night street party in Little Havana?
I doubt it.
Mayor Francis Suarez, the city manager, and the Miami City Commission shouldn’t let Carollo kill Viernes Culturales.
If he were on the up-and-up and this wasn’t political payback against Fuller, Carollo would work with Viernes Culturales — which enjoys wide support in the area but, as one board member put it to me, “has been limping along particularly the last few years” — to give it a face-lift, make it a better event. But Carollo has ignored invitations to meet and join the board.
“Whatever goes on between them is one thing, but community events should not be collateral damage,” filmmaker and Viernes Culturales board member Joe Cardona told me. “I knew [Carollo] was going to be a nightmare. He’s living up to being everything I thought he’d be — and then some.”
Why, Joe, why?
I tried to ask him.
But the person who answered the phone in his office said he had just left to go to a turkey giveaway.
He never called back and I didn’t get to share my idea with him.
The career politician seems to have way too much time on his hands. His talents could be better used in another job for which he has demonstrated great aptitude in past and present, as evidenced by the reported sightings of costume-camouflaged Carollo in the middle of the night patrolling Ball & Chain for code violations.
Mythical “Crazy Joe” missed his calling in life.
He should’ve been a character actor.
It’s not too late. He’s already got the best startup résumé.
Hollywood will love him — and Miami can breathe a collective sigh of relief.
Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago