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Former Dade mayor & 'sexiest' pol, Alex Penelas, might run against ethics-hobbled David Rivera for Congress

Miami-Dade's former mayor and one-time Democratic star Alex Penelas is making calls and gauging support for a Congressional bid against Republican Rep. David Rivera, who has been under state and federal investigation for his role in a secret $500,000 million dog-track payment. (Background here)

Allies of Penelas recently polled the new congressional district drawn by the Legislature but they're not releasing the results. Neither Penelas nor Rivera could be reached.

Penelas has some of his own baggage, but it has more to do with loyal Democrats who might still be better about his opposition to the Clinton Administration's decision to seize the child Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives' home and return him to his father in Cuba. Penelas refused to campaign alongside Vice President Al Gore that year when George Bush won Florida, and therefore the White House, by just 537 votes. Some felt Penelas betrayed Gore a second time by saying nothing when Miami-Dade's canvassing board halted its recount of disputed ballots.

The year before, Penelas was named the "sexiest politician" by People Magazine. Four years on, in 2004, he was so disliked in his own party that he couldn't even carry Miami-Dade in a three-way Democratic primary.

All those partisan problems could be behind him now -- and perhaps they could help in a general election. Penelas can easily argue he's no party stooge and he's willing to stand up for his community.

"A lot of Democrats have recognized that Alex Penelas could bring a lot to the party, the bad feelings have subsided. He is well known and he has a strong track record of creating jobs when he was mayor," said Penelas loyalist Freddy Balsera.

As for Rivera, Balsera said, "he's struggling to raise money. And obviously, he's under investigation. But David Rivera is a very clever politician. This won't be an easy election."

The district is one of the most balanced in Florida from a partisan standpoint. About 37 percent of the registered voters are Republican, 36 percent are Democrats and roughly 27 percent are independents. About 69 percent are Hispanic, 21 percent Anglo and 9 percent black. If the 2008 election were held in the district, Barack Obama would only win by .2 percentage points -- meaning it's a dead-even district.

Right now, state Rep. Luis Garcia is running against Rivera, but Garcia might soon run against County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro. Garcia, a former firefighter and former Miami Beach city commissioner, has a background that might be better suited for a commission race rather than a congressional contest.

But Garcia, who was recruited to run for the seat by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said "I'm not going anywhere."

If Rivera’s legal troubles continue, there’s a chance former state Senate Republican leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla might challenge him in a GOP primary. But Diaz de la Portilla said he’s running for a state House seat – at least for now.

"We clearly have to field the strongest Republican candidate in this crucial election year," said Diaz de la Portilla. "That's pivotal."