Manny Diaz explains “the city we can become”

The New Tropic: What are the big leadership challenges you see facing Miami?

Miami has become very institutionalized. Our principal institutions are not representative of the new Miami; of young Miamians and other who need to take the city in a new direction. There are too many people in office who subscribe to the old paradigm.

TNT: What is that “old paradigm”?

If you look at economic development models, I think we need to have people who understand what the new economy is all about. And not the traditional, “let’s bring down some widget manufacturing with 25 jobs,” and we’re all supposed to be excited about that.

My generation, we need to begin stepping aside and grooming a new young leadership to take Miami to the next level. I think Miami has had tremendous developments in the last 15 years of so. But our job is to help leaders of the new Miami take us to the next level.

When elected officials talk about the future, we’re talking about your future. My future is much more limited now than it was a few years ago.

If you look at the new demographics, particularly in the urban core, it’s young people moving in. Those are the people that need to step up. That’s why I spend time every chance I get speaking to people, getting involved as much as I can.

Courtesy of Manny DiazTNT: How do you get more young people to step up, in practice?

I did it in my office. My staff was very young. It was a lot of 25 to 30-year-olds I brought in. I was criticized. “Manny never held elected office, he’s got that to deal with; they’re never going to get anything done.” I think we proved that wrong; I think we made an impact.

Since leaving office, they’re involved in transit projects and art and culture. They took years of experience working for the mayor, and became part of the fabric of our society. I tried to put my money where my mouth is.

TNT: You never held elected office before running for mayor. Many people are hesitant to run for public office because they may not have the experience. How did you make it happen as a first-time candidate?

I hear that all the time. How did I do it? There’s no textbook on this. It’s the old-fashioned way. You just do it.

I started getting involved in high school. I was a community organizer before the term was popular. I worked on campaigns and issues with other young people. I did it on my own, I just showed up. There are so few people that participate, so participation is always welcome.

I ran a mayoral campaign in 1973 against the person that I beat 27 years later. I was executive director of the Spanish Speaking Democratic caucus. I was chairman of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination, which successfully beat down English-only amendments in the legislature.

I developed a relationship with Miami Herald reporters. They have their rolodexes—do you even know what a rolodex is anymore?—their list of people to call on issues. Back in the day when they wanted a comment on Cuban or Latino issues, they had a rolodex. A lot were old Cubans, Bay of Pigs veterans of whatever. That’s who the media reached out to.

I said, “there’s a new generation who are becoming professionals and we have an opinion, too. And we’re going to make this city our home for the rest of our lives. Put us in your rolodex.”

And they started to. I imposed myself on other people. You have to show up. Crash the party.

TNT: As you entered office, how did you decide what to focus on? We talk a lot these days about a few issues like transit, but what other issues did you start to work on that didn’t get resolved?

My agenda was everything. I don’t believe in this whole theory of “pick three issues”. When you’re in elected office, you have the bully pulpit. Talk about everything from climate change to AIDS. That’s your job. There are different levels of activity; you can’t focus on 40 issues at a time because there isn’t enough time. But that doesn’t mean I don’t talk about AIDS or childhood obesity. You do it enough to get the message out there. It’s about building a constituency and letting people run with it.

There are the tech and brain drain issues. Those were conversations I had even as I was leaving office. I spent time teaching at Harvard and saw how many South Florida students we had and their frustration over whether to come back or not. We can’t become the city we can become unless we are able to have that talent come home.

You mentioned transit. For me, if it’s not our most important issue, it’s certainly up there. In terms of building the city we want, it’s also income inequality. Which ties into education. All these factor into each other. That’s the thing about getting things done. There are no simple answers.

People like to ask, “how are you going to get rid of poverty?” As if there’s a ten-second soundbyte. It doesn’t work that way. What does work is to look at these as long-term issues and take them one step at a time. Through time you will be able to make a dent.

 Manny Diaz was mayor of the City of Miami from 2001 to 2009.