'537 Votes': Where is Alex Penelas? Former mayor once touted Al Gore's pick for VP, slammed as 'treacherous'

The Democrat was once touted as the golden boy, having even been declared the sexiest politician in 1999 by People magazine

                            '537 Votes': Where is Alex Penelas? Former mayor once touted Al Gore's pick for VP, slammed as 'treacherous'
Alex Penelas (Getty Images)

The race to win the elections to become the 43rd President of the United States was perhaps the closest in the history of the country. Eventually, George W Bush beat Al Gore by just 537 votes, but plenty about the 2000 Presidential elections still remains contested and controversial. Initially, it did look like Gore, who served as vice president to the 42nd President, Bill Clinton would win. The fates changed when six-year-old Elian Gonzalez was found nestled in an inner tube floating at sea three miles from Florida's Fort Lauderdale coast.

His mother and her boyfriend had drowned at sea during their journey from Cuba to America -- Elian's father was back in Cuba. What followed was an intense custody battle: the international law was on Elian's father's side to have the child returned to Cuba, but Cuban-Americans in Florida saw Elian's arrival as a miracle and campaigned to have Elian stay in the United States as per his mother's dying wish.

Eventually, the Clinton administration sent federal agents to take Gonzalez at gunpoint from the home of his Miami relatives and sending him back to Cuba. It was this event that prompted the Cuban-American population to cast a sort of "revenge vote" against Clinton's VP. This, and the contested election recount, which led to the results only being announced more than a month after ballotting, led to Bush winning the elections.

There were many people at the center of the debacle that was the 2000 elections and one of them was Alex Penelas, the former Mayor of Miami-Dade County in Florida. The Democrat was once touted as the golden boy, having even been declared the sexiest politician in 1999 by People magazine. The son of Cuban refugees, Penelas had the Hispanic vote in his pocket and had many accomplishments as mayor in his name, including universal prekindergarten education and more money for local transit. In 1999, Penelas was also spoken about by Gore's campaign team as a potential pick as Gore's running mate.

During the Elian dispute, Penelas sided with the Cuban-American populations, standing against Clinton on the issue, which invited the ire of Democratic loyalists. However, he later said that local police would “maintain order” regardless of the administration’s decision. In September 2000, after Penelas was re-elected as Mayor of Miami-Dade County, he began to distance himself from the Gore campaign. He took a trade mission trip to Spain and made no campaign appearances for Gore in the run-up to the general election. When the Miami-Dade canvassing board decided to stop manually counting ballots amid protests from Republicans, Penelas did not intervene.

Would Penelas's intervention have helped Gore secured the elections that year? It is hard to tell, however, Gore had turned against the young politician. When Penelas ran for the US Senate in 2004 and Gore was asked about his fellow Democrat, the former Presidential candidate said, "One of the other candidates in this race became in 2000 the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with during the campaign anywhere in America," and though unnamed, his team confirmed that Gore was, in fact, speaking of Penelas.

Gore's statement was perhaps the death knell for Penelas's fading career because the latter failed to advance beyond the Democratic Primary. He then retired from politics and went into business in real estate. Penelas's reentry to the political stage happened earlier this year when he ran for the seat of the Mayor of Miami-Dade County again. Penelas initially led in most polls but finished in third in the first round behind Daniella Levine Cava and Esteban Bovo.

'537 Votes' premieres on HBO on October 21 at 9/8c. The documentary will be available for viewing on HBO Max on October 22.

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