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Victor Diaz walks briskly down Miami’s Lincoln Road. It’s just two days after Christmas and he’s still in vacation mode, sporting a pair of jeans and a polo shirt. It’s a sharp contrast to the starched shirts, suit and tie he wears in court, at the office or at one of the many civic organization meetings he attends almost nightly. But even dressed casually, Diaz appears neatly creased. Behind his dark shades are penetratingly dark brown eyes and Tony Danza good looks. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” he says, extending a slender hand, his mouth forming a boyish grin. He’s only a couple of minutes late — though very much on time in a city where tardiness, or, rather, “Cuban time” — is the norm. After weeks of trying to pin him down, the 40-year-old powerhouse Miami lawyer and self-appointed activist agrees to have lunch. He makes no secret of the fact that he’s not keen about being the focus of a newspaper article. He still questions why he rates the ink. But ink, and plenty of it, is what Diaz has gotten and has used effectively in recent months. If he hasn’t been writing letters, newspaper editorials and newspaper opinion pieces for the Miami Herald, he has been the subject of them. His causes have been many — from supporting Miami-Dade County’s controversial Cuba ordinance, which barred county funds to organizations that interacted with the communist island, to denouncing the Florida Bar’s support of appointing rather than electing judges. Along the way, he has fought to preserve historic landmarks such as the Venetian Causeway, been a vociferous advocate of minority rights, and has led a couple of politicians — including Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin and Miami Beach City Commissioner Matti Bower — to victory. And it won’t be long before Diaz is in the limelight again. As a partner at one of the most powerful law firms in Miami, Podhurst Orseck Josefsberg Eaton Meadow Olin & Perwin, he is co-lead counsel in one of the biggest product-liability cases in the nation against Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. and Ford Motor Co. He’s also handled a few other high-profile lawsuits: Once as a member of the steering committee in a case involving the 1995 crash of an American Airlines jet in Cali, Colombia, that killed 159 people, and again as a member of the steering committee in the litigation that grew out of the 1998 crash of a Swissair plane off the coast of Nova Scotia. More recently, Diaz was appointed to the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council, where he and other county-appointed members will determine which arts groups, including the Miami City Ballet, should receive public tax dollars in the form of grants to fund their programs. And that is concerning some arts leaders who opposed the Cuba ordinance that Diaz so strongly supported. They fear that Diaz, who sometimes is accused of using threats and intimidation to get what he wants, is now in a position to exert revenge. Today, however, the mood is much lighter. Diaz is at an outdoor cafe next door to the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road. He appears most comfortable on the Beach, his home for the last decade, where he’s made friends and become politically well-connected. Indeed, as he sips his soup, people passing by the table smile and wave. A couple even drop by to say hello. There is no doubt he is a recognizable face and force in this community. Though Diaz is still somewhat suspicious of this get-together, the conversation moves into an easy discussion about Christmas dinner with the family. They are a tight-knit lot who, he says, get together at least once a week for dinner. And while the holiday meal included the traditional pig, it wasn’t cooked in the backyard, but was catered. Diaz has come a long way from the days 40 years ago when his family fled Camaguey, Cuba. To understand his passion, one has to understand his roots. Born in Cuba in 1960, Diaz moved to the United States at the age of 2. In 1969, Diaz’s father suffered an injury that would deeply impact his son. His father fell from a work platform and suffered a severe head injury. While he was in the hospital his employer told him that if he didn’t check himself out and get to work in 24 hours he wouldn’t have a job. “My father rose out of his hospital bed, checked himself out and executed a written release of all his legal rights arising out of his workplace injury, in fear of losing his job,” recalls Diaz. He says it’s one of the reasons he cares so much about protecting the legal rights of those who otherwise can’t afford an attorney. “We are a bundle of our own prejudices and our prejudices are a result of our experiences in life,” Diaz says. “It is impossible to advocate what you believe, without making yourself an issue.” Margarita Cepeda, executive director of the Miami Beach Hispanic Community Center, which Diaz chairs and helped create, says Diaz’s background often comes through in what he does. The center began as a nonprofit organization devoted to the welfare of Hispanics. It has grown, under Diaz’s leadership, to include people from different ethnic backgrounds, she says. “He always makes reference to how he came to this country and at one time his family needed that extra push and there were people who helped them,” she says. Last year, Diaz was the recipient of the Tobias Simon Pro Bono Service Award, Florida’s highest public honor in the legal profession. Upon accepting that award, Diaz said he believed strongly in “equal access to justice” and “respect for individual liberties.” But many questioned that respect for individual liberties after his actions in the Cuba ordinance debate, when Diaz wrote letters and made phone calls trying to stop a challenge of the ordinance. Among those he called was fellow attorney Mike Eidson, president of the Miami ballet’s board and now Diaz’s co-counsel in the Bridgestone/Firestone case. “Victor called me to tell me that some people he knew were upset about the ballet taking a position” on the ordinance, recalls Eidson. “At the time he spoke to me, he told me what his friends and his groups were going to do or say about the ballet and they were going to take punitive measures against the ballet.” The calls were viewed by many, including ballet executive director Pamela M. Gardiner and chief executive Edward Villella, as a threat. “He was very specific about threats to us and I take him at his word,” Villella says. “I told him, ‘Frankly, you scare me.’ “ Though the ballet never took a position, Gardiner, speaking as a private citizen, had taken a stand against the ordinance. “I felt like I was being told when and where I could discuss [the ordinance] and what I could say about it,” Gardiner says. “To me, that’s a pretty chilling effect.” Of even greater concern to Gardiner and Villella now is Diaz’s appointment to the Miami-Dade Cultural Affairs Council. Villella fears that Diaz’s position on the Cuba ordinance may prejudice him when it comes time to vote on divvying out dollars to the ballet. “I am very uncomfortable that a person like that would be involved in any kind of cultural, political, fiscal support because I think his agenda is separate from [promoting] — in an honest way — culture and art,” Villella says. (Miami-Dade’s ordinance essentially died last June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Massachusetts restricting state agencies from purchasing goods or services from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.) Gardiner says the ballet plans to formally express its concerns about Diaz’s appointment to county commissioners and will ask that Diaz recuse himself from voting on any ballet-related grants. Diaz says he would only agree not to vote if the county attorney advised him not to. “I don’t believe I have a conflict of interest,” he says. “I think these groups have a right to bring any performer from whatever country and whatever political point of view they want,” But, he adds, “I also have no problem with those who think that had Congress not legislated in that area, there would have been a different result,” referring to the fact that Congress had authorized the president to impose economic sanctions against Myanmar as a way to pressure reform in that country. The ballet wasn’t Diaz’s only target during the Cuba ordinance debate, which involved several arts groups because of their desire to include artists from Cuba in events. He also fired off letters to various other art and cultural groups, including the board of directors of the Miami Light Project, an organization that promotes the arts, questioning its motives and chastising members for their “deep insensitivity” at taking sides on the issue, particularly given the “highly charged environment” created by the Elian Gonzalez custody battled. “Your timing,” he wrote, “borders on outright provocation.” Some viewed those letters as “veiled threats,” says Alvaro Fernandez, past vice chairman of the Miami Beach Cultural Arts Council. “Members of the artistic community and organizations felt pressure because of Victor. Whether they be real or implied, it is not accepted.” Others viewed Diaz’s efforts differently. “I happen not to have agreed with him on the Cuba ordinance, but I do respect his opinion,” says Esther Percal, a member of the board of directors of the Miami Light Project and a friend of Diaz’s. “He said, ‘Goddamn it, Esther, why didn’t you guys just call to hear the other side?’ ” Percal said. “ What he wanted was the chance to give his opinion. I later heard his opinion and while I respect it, I still would not have voted differently.” Clearly, those who know Diaz don’t seem surprised that he sometimes gets too passionate about a cause. Joel Perwin, Diaz’s law partner, describes him as “peripatetic, energetic, incredibly committed and charged with energy about every endeavor he is committed to. He is literally everywhere.” Still, while lawyers have the same First Amendment rights to speak out as the rest of Americans, there is a fine line they must walk by virtue of their position, says Tony Alfieri, director for the Center of Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami School of Law. “For community leaders like Victor Diaz, the higher ethical challenge is the challenge of self-restraint in interceding in matters that might cast a questionable light on his intent in swaying the outcome of a legal/public policy debate,” Alfieri says. “In circumstances like these, the best traditions of the profession recommend that our Bar and community leaders permit the legal and political process to go forward to resolution without even well-intentioned intervention.” Shortly after Diaz put the Cuba ordinance battle behind him, he took up the gauntlet in yet another fight — this one over the election of judges. A member of the debate team at Miami Coral Park Senior High, Diaz has continued to be a natural when it comes to verbal sparring. On one occasion before a debate at Miami-Dade Community College last year, Diaz worked the crowd before and after the event, appearing more like a political candidate than someone preparing for battle. Diaz shook hands with students and professors before taking the podium to square off against then-Dade County Bar Association president Dennis Kainen, who spoke in favor of judicial appointments, otherwise known as merit retention. Diaz’s position favoring the election of judges directly conflicted with the Florida Bar’s and that of many of its members. “It was very unpopular and there was a time when I was under a lot of political pressure to back down by my so-called friends,” says Diaz, who was president of Citizens for an Open Judiciary. Even his law partners disagreed with him. “Everybody but Victor was in favor of merit retention,” recalls Joel Eaton. “I disagreed with him on that.” There were rumors that Diaz’s activities caused great consternation and even some infighting at his firm. Eaton denies any problems. “Everybody is entitled to do their own thing around here,” Eaton said. “We have all different kinds of people with different philosophies. We are all passionate in different ways or we wouldn’t be doing what we are doing.” Diaz echoed Eaton’s sentiments: “My partners don’t always agree with me, but they have always supported me, even when I have taken outspoken positions. I don’t commit the firm, I commit myself.” Indeed, Diaz spends countless hours outside of the office. He starts his day around 7 a.m. with a muffin and a Diet Coke while reading the Miami Herald “cover-to-cover.” The moment he gets into the car, he starts returning phone calls or dictating. “I have never used the [car] radio,” he says. Diaz’s day usually ends about 14 hours later. Most evenings he has a meeting to attend, whether it’s for the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board, on which he sits, or the Miami Beach City Commission, where he has played pivotal a role in getting some members elected. A few nights each week he runs three to four miles to relieve stress. Before going to bed, Diaz watches television to unwind. His favorite shows? Reruns of “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Seinfeld.” “When I get home I am so burnt out I just want to watch light, frothy sitcoms,” he says. “I definitely don’t watch the Discovery Channel; I don’t like to see animals eating each other.” When he’s not pushing an agenda, Diaz enjoys buying, fixing up and selling homes in Miami Beach. He has renovated four historic homes and built one house from scratch. He’s in the process of renovating a 1930s Bermuda colonial on La Gorce Island. When he was younger, Diaz wanted to be an architect. The problem? “I couldn’t draw. I had great concepts, but I couldn’t put them on paper,” he says. Besides, he adds with a grin, “Everybody always thought I would be a lawyer or a politician. I have a big mouth.” A tireless advocate for the underprivileged, Diaz served two terms as president of the board of directors of Legal Services of Greater Miami Inc. in 1996 and 1997. “Victor is very hands-on,” says Marcia Cypen, the organization’s executive director. “He has a very political sense. He wasn’t just someone who took a back-seat role.” For example, she says, if the organization wanted to close a neighborhood office, “he made us prove to him why it would be better or why there was no way we could keep it open,” she says. Diaz, she says, “is a master at getting what he wants.” “We would talk about an issue and we would be concerned about division on the board, but he was confident he could bring people around to his viewpoint and he usually could. It was impressive,” Cypen says. It’s getting others to see his point of view that’s often the most difficult part for Diaz. “Sometimes I move too fast,” Diaz admits. “I expect others to respond to an issue as passionately and as quickly as I do. I am sure that time and age will temper my advocacy, but I hope it will never diminish my passion to stand up.” When asked what drives him, Diaz pauses. A full 30 seconds pass before he responds: “A desire for excellence.” Then another 20 seconds tick by. He leans back in his chair, “This may sound corny,” he adds, “but a desire to leave things better than I found them.” It’s February now, nearly two months after the first lunch meeting on Miami Beach. It’s taken this long to pin Diaz down for a second interview. This time he is wearing that starched shirt and tie. We walk down a maze of small offices to reach his. It’s small, but nicely appointed and very neat. Three small piles of paper sit on his desk. He is a neat-nick, says Bower, the Miami Beach city commissioner he helped get elected. “He comes into my office and he starts straightening my books. He can’t stay still,” Bower says. “He can’t relax. He says let’s change this pot over here or move that over there. He is in constant motion.” Diaz leans back, his hands behind his head. Indeed, he is in constant motion, his chair rocking back and forth as he thinks about how he’s become involved in so many causes over the years. “Sometimes, they select me,” he says with a smile. “If there is a pattern, it’s someone asking me for help, spending some time gathering information, becoming activated by the information and launching into some fairly aggressive activism,” he says. That’s how Diaz says he became involved in matters relating to the lack of Hispanic representation in Miami Beach. About two years after moving to the Beach, Diaz met up with some civic activists, including Bower, who were concerned that the Hispanic community there had no voice in city government. Diaz says he reviewed the statistics and “what I saw shocked me.” The city, once known for its kosher delis, Jewish retirees and tourism, had seen its Hispanic population boom to some 50 percent, yet there were no Hispanics in leadership positions. In 1993, Diaz filed suit against the city claiming its election process violated the federal Voting Rights Act and thus didn’t give Hispanics a fair shake at winning public office. At the trial level and again at the appellate level Diaz lost his case. Along the way, he ruffled more than a few feathers. Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin says part of the reason Diaz has upset so many people is because he has been an advocate of change: “When you are an agent of change, you make enemies.” While the city won its case, some good did come of it for Diaz and the Hispanic community, says John Dellagloria, the chief deputy city attorney for Miami Beach between 1990 and 1996 and now city attorney for North Miami. Today there are several Hispanics in city government. “Victor is a very opinionated guy and he is in a position to make his opinion count because he is involved with people who hold public office,” Dellagloria says. “Do I think he is a person who attempts to influence legislation and actions? Of course. But he will be the first to admit that.” It’s how Diaz uses his influence that concerns Miami lawyer Howard Weinberg. Weinberg was representing prominent Miami Beach architect Robert Swedroe before the city last year in a battle over improvements that Swedroe made to city-owned land adjacent to his property. Swedroe took it upon himself to clean up and beautify the public beach access — once littered with dirty needles, condoms and other trash — that ran alongside his home near Collins Avenue and 78th Street. He also put up a partial fence. City officials feared that a visitor might think it was private property. The biggest problem though, was that Swedroe didn’t get a permit to do it. At a meeting last July before the City Commission to discuss Swedroe’s application for a permit to legalize the improvements he made, Commissioner Bower got up off the dais and walked into the audience to speak with Diaz. Moments later, Diaz, who is on the record as saying he had been at the meeting on another matter, got up and suggested to commissioners that the Swedroe controversy belonged before the Miami Beach Historic Preservation Board on which he sits. “The analogy would be if a judge referred a matter to a mediator and the judge showed up to give his opinion,” says Weinberg, who accused Diaz of “orchestrating a maneuver” that put the question before the Historic Preservation Board, which later denied Swedroe’s improvements. Ridiculous, says Bower: “Victor walked in and I went down to say hello. I do not need to tell Victor anything and Victor doesn’t need to tell me anything. If people turn it around, that’s their problem.” Regardless of what was said, Weinberg says it was improper for Bower to walk into the audience to speak to anyone while sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity during the hearing. “Besides, she has the duty to avoid even the appearance of an impropriety, just like any judge and she clearly failed to do that,” says Weinberg. It’s not the first time the Diaz/Bower relationship has been questioned and it won’t be the last, says Bower. Diaz “gets a little upset because people will say I will do what Victor says,” Bower says. “People who know us know that I will do what I think is the right thing. Many times I don’t follow at all what he says. That’s people’s perception. I know who I am; I don’t worry too much.” Herb Sosa, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, also has been accused of working behind the scenes and in cahoots with Diaz. “We have been accused of being this tag team of horror,” Sosa says. “A lot of critics often have said, ‘The way Victor votes, Herb votes,’ and, ‘The way Herb votes, Victor votes.’ But if you look at our record, it’s not the case; it’s just the perception. But as you know, perception often becomes people’s reality.” The perception about Diaz these days is that he has political aspirations. And though he often talks and acts like a politician, it’s one rumor he vehemently denies: “I really enjoy being a lawyer, I think I am good at it. I would just as soon not be in the public light.” This from a man who has made a habit of being in the spotlight and who shows no signs of stepping out of it anytime soon. When he finally does lie down for the last time, what would Diaz like to have engraved on his tombstone? “I wish I’d had five more years,” he says, chuckling.

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