Helping the Mayor Get Your Way

“We need more buses!” That’s what organizers with Miami’s congregation-based organizing group PACT (People Acting for Community Together) heard loud and clear as they went from house to house in fall 2000 talking with members about the problems they were facing. Many of PACT’s members rely on buses to get to work, but when buses only come every 40 minutes or hour and a half for a two-hour commute, a missed bus could mean a lost job or docked pay. Limited evening and weekend schedules were also making life difficult for second-shift workers and senior citizens trying to get to church. The county had not increased its bus fleet since 1980, and breakdowns were rampant.

So at PACT’s March 2001 convention the group picked transportation as a campaign issue and set the goal of doubling the bus fleet. Leaders called on Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas to commit to spearheading an effort to bring this about. It was a fairly soft request as they go – no deliverables, just a promise to try. But Mayor Penelas – a known public transit supporter – said no.

Mayor Maybe

PACT leaders thought they knew why. In 1999 Mayor Penelas had promoted a public transportation proposal. It lost, for some good reasons. First, it had been developed without community input and so ignored needs like buses. Second, it was vague on the details of what would be achieved and had no deadlines for implementation. And finally, there was no accountability measure to ensure the funds – to be raised by a sales tax increase – would actually go to transportation. In an area with rampant corruption, says PACT Director Aaron Dorfman, for most voters this looked like a “slush fund,” and so they roundly rejected it.

The loss was dramatic, making this a subject Penelas did not want to revisit. “He had put his political capital on the line in 1999,” says Dorfman. “And he had been bloodied by that defeat. He said no because he had no idea how he could make something happen.”

But PACT needed the mayor. “We’re a reasonably strong organization,” says Dorfman, “but this was a multibillion dollar campaign. We knew we needed the mayor out in front.” So they had to make it look like an issue with momentum.

Creating Possibility

The other two bodies with some influence over transportation in the county are the county commissioners and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). According to Dorfman, they are made up of mostly the same people. PACT began a steady campaign of targeting the MPO and the commissioners with one message, “we need more buses.”

Throughout 2001 hundreds of PACT members attended MPO open meetings and participated in a dozen meetings with county commissioners. PACT filed a federal civil rights complaint in summer 2001, saying the MPO’s public involvement process was not accessible enough to low-income people. The complaint resulted in MPO public meetings being shifted to evening hours. It was a small victory, but in the meantime it also “gave us another forum in which to continue raising the real problems,” says Dorfman.

In October PACT turned out 600 people for an action meeting at which three county commissioners signed a “PACT transportation pledge.” By the end of the year, in one way or another, all of the commissioners had publicly acknowledged that the bus fleet needed doubling. And PACT had shown there was persistent energy behind the issue.

Riding the Wave

Mayor Penelas introduced a new transportation proposal in January 2002 – without mentioning PACT at all. It didn’t look very different from his previous proposal, but PACT was confident that it now had the leverage to get the bus improvements included. It seemed, however, that Penelas or someone close to him had actually learned a few things. The formal proposal was rapidly withdrawn a month later, and the mayor announced a four-month community input process to work out the details. PACT members showed up in force.

At the end of that process, the transportation proposal had everything PACT wanted in it: a doubling of the bus fleet, increased service time to every 15 minutes during rush hour and 30 minutes at other times, 24-hour service on some routes, added weekend and midday service, quick phase-in and an independent oversight committee to ensure that the funds were used for transportation. The package, which also included massive rail improvements, totaled $17 billion and would be funded by a half-cent increase in the sales tax. The commissioners voted in July 2002 to put the proposal on the ballot in November.

PACT swung into action to get the package passed, targeting the faith vote. The group sent videos (including a trilingual one in English, Spanish and Haitian Creole) and literature to congregations, participated in diocesan radio shows and penned editorials for religious newspapers. PACT’s efforts covered 150 congregations and reached 100,000 likely voters. Group members turned out as election day workers. The measure passed overwhelmingly.

The Name Game

When your strategy is helping a politician be out in front, taking credit for your work sometimes becomes dicey. While the mayor’s staff was giving credit to PACT left and right, says Dorfman, the mayor studiously avoided ever mentioning the group’s name in public, always referring to “community groups who are helping with this effort.” And while the win is most important, Dorfman points out that recognition is important too, because it enables the organization to grow. In this case, despite the mayor’s reticence, PACT’s role in the campaign was clear to anyone involved. “Our members know what we did,” says Dorfman. “We got enough recognition.” PACT also secured a spot on the committee that will nominate the oversight committee and plans to try to get some of its members on the oversight body.

PACT holds a convention every two years. In March 2001 the mayor said no to doubling the bus fleet. After two years of organizing that made it possible for the mayor to carry out their plan, PACT members at the March 2003 convention will be hearing a report from the county transit director on the progress that has already been made toward just that goal – initial schedule increases and the first order of new vehicles. The buses are on their way.

For more information: 305-643-1526 or www.miamipact.org.

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