America's Best Leaders: Manny Diaz, Mayor of Miami

A son of Cuban immigrants, Diaz leads one of the nation's major multi-cultural cities

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Manny Diaz

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Back in the '60s, some apartment buildings in Miami carried signs aimed at would-be renters: No dogs. No Cubans. Manny Diaz doesn't remember the signs, but they're seared in his memory from the tales of his parents, who fled the chaos of Cuba in the wake of the revolution. His hand wrapped in his mother's, he left on a Pan Am flight as a 6-year-old boy, arriving on July 21, 1961. To soften their landing, his mother told him what was either wishful thinking or a white lie. "We're going on a summer vacation," she insisted.

At the time, his father was behind bars in one of Fidel Castro's prisons for civil disobedience, but he avoided the dictator's firing squads that left others dead. Many months later, father, mother, and son were reunited in an apartment, cheek by jowl with other relatives in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.

Crisis, upheaval, flight—such life-changing chapters mark the lives of legions of immigrants, but it's the rare newcomer who, 40 years later, becomes a mayor.

Echoes. A low-key lawyer of 54, Diaz made a name for himself in 2000 in the watched-around-the-world fight over Elián González, a Cuban boy whose mother drowned along with other refugees during a harrowing crossing from Cuba. Elián survived. Diaz ended up as counsel to his Miami relatives, who did not want the boy flown back to his father in Cuba. The lawyer was in their home when federal agents barged in—armed with submachine guns and "looking like Ninjas," he says—pepper-sprayed him and others, and seized the boy, then 6. The nightmarish raid lasted minutes, but sadness from the ordeal persists, not least because of its faint echoes of Diaz's own journey. He says it pains him that the child, now a teenager in Cuba, won't have the opportunities he did.

An ex-Democrat elected as an independent in 2001, Diaz next year finishes out eight years at the helm of Miami, the sun-soaked enclave of 400,000 along Biscayne Bay that has battled serious problems while unflinchingly selling itself as a tourist playground and international gateway. Term limits restrict him to two terms, which has Latino advocates touting him for a high-level post in the Obama administration.

In childhood, he saw his parents clean toilets, park cars, wash dishes, and toil in an auto-parts factory. They sacrificed, he says, but never despaired. "If there was one steak on the table, I got the biggest piece, just to make sure they took care of their son."

His work ethic hewed to theirs. In his teens, Diaz entered the old federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program for a $1.10-an-hour job as a high school janitor. Today, the 5-foot, 9-inch mayor stands tall with a $150,000-a-year job, an oceanfront office, and perks that include a driver. Diaz insists on a hybrid—he travels in a Toyota Highlander SUV—in his push for an ecofriendly city. It's the same reason he often wears a green tie, though he's favors Cuban guayabera shirts, too.

The bilingual mayor is credited with attracting major developers, combating crime, bringing down poverty, and improving city services. He tries to get the city's 3,655 employees to see the big picture and praises them when they do. He answers his own E-mail. He blogs. He isn't above picking up a piece of trash in a city Forbes magazine heralded as the cleanest in the United States. "I'm personally a clean freak," confesses Diaz, who subscribes to the "broken windows" theory of community policing that says areas marked by disorder are havens for criminals. Violence, though it has dropped, remains a concern. "On the streets of Miami, an AK-47 is cheaper to buy than a PlayStation," says Diaz, now president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Another headache is Miami's glut of condos, the result of overbuilding and the foreclosure crisis.

Teamwork. Associates call him a visionary—a smart, deliberative, long-term thinker who sticks by his decisions and prizes partnerships. John Timoney, now the city's police chief, had never been to Miami when he got a call in 2002 saying Diaz wanted to see him. Timoney, the former top cop in Philadelphia and earlier second-in-command of the New York Police Department, traveled to Miami's City Hall in trendy Coconut Grove. The men spoke on the mayor's veranda overlooking a marina. "He said, 'I'm going to be doing great things in this city, and we can be a team and do this together,' " the chief says.