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February 2010

Obama's Man in Miami

Ricky Arriola is willing to be pulled in many directions to attain a more representative community that is rich in the arts

By PODER Staff
Pablo Garcia

STORY TOOLS

Back in early 2007, when Sen. Barack Obama was beginning his long-shot campaign for president, he turned to his friends. One name came to mind in Florida.

“Call Ricky Arriola,” Obama told the state’s campaign finance chief, Kirk Wagar. “He’s the person who knows me best in Florida.”

Wagar had heard about Arriola, but knew him only as a young, up-and-coming Cuban-American businessman, and son of Miami City Manager, Joe Arriola. But he was also a registered Republican.

Wagar would quickly discover why Obama was recommending him. Not only is Arriola a successful executive, heading Inktel Direct, a direct marketing company, he’s also one of the city’s most community-spirited businessmen.

“Ricky is someone you can really count on,” says Wagar. “He’s pulled in so many directions that you wonder how he can do it all.”

It’s a question many of his friends and acquaintances ask themselves. A pocket-dynamo, Arriola, 41, is currently chairman of the Performing Arts Center Trust that oversees Miami’s three-year-old concert and opera hall complex. In November he was appointed to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, regarded as the nation’s preeminent cultural body which serves as a liaison between the White House and federal agencies.

He’s also now an active member of the Democratic National Committee, working on three campaigns: Alex Sink, for Florida Governor, Rosa Scarcelli for Governor of Maine and Alexi Giannoulias of Illinois for the U.S. Senate.

On top of that he runs 40-50 miles a week and is currently training for a series of triathlons, as well as the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC. “He’s incredibly disciplined,” says Rosa Sugrañes, CEO of Iberia Tiles and a past president of Miami-Dade County Cultural Affairs Council. “I get exhausted just thinking about Ricky’s schedule, and I have a lot of energy, too.”

Arriola takes it all in his stride. “I just have very full days. I get up early and I work until my head hits the pillow. I try to schedule things in advance and stay organized.”

Arriola credits his work ethic, as well as community spirit, to growing up the son of Cuban immigrants who arrived with nothing in the early 1960s. “It wasn’t so easy back then being a Cuban in Miami,” he notes. “Miami was going through a lot, moving from having been a sleepy southern town, transitioning to what it is today,” he says, recalling the race riots, drug mafias and economic instability that marked the 1970s and 1980s.

The city’s evolution had a big impact on his thinking as he observed the political tension between the new Cuban arrivals and the city’s Anglo-establishment. “We had a system of government that was not representative of the population. Even as I young boy I was thinking, ‘This doesn’t seem right,’” he says.

But early on, Arriola set his sights beyond Miami. “I knew I needed to get out of Miami and experience the rest of the world and get exposure,” he said, interviewed recently after early morning meetings at the Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts.

He studied economics at Boston College, where he got to see another side of America. “I went from a very new city, Miami, to a much older city with a great American tradition but also with a different set of problems, with issues of race and financial and political turmoil.” Not done with that, he went on to New York for law school, before returning to Miami to go to work for the law firm, Steel, Hector and Davis. By the time he returned to South Florida, a lot had changed. “South Beach was moving. We were getting a lot of recognition as a city that was coming back,” he says. “There was a real power shift towards having a much more Hispanic government.” The 1960s Cubans were now a major political force, like Arriola’s father who created a successful printing business before entering local government.

Arriola’s belief in Miami as well as his love of the arts prompted him to take the job at the performing arts center, an unpaid position to which he devotes at least 20 hours a week. “When I got the opportunity to become chairman I jumped at the chance, because it was important to me that the community got this right,” he says. “Growing up I had seen too many failures in our community, and it’s hard to establish civic pride and to encourage the community to make these kind of investments if our history is one of failure.”

The center’s much-delayed construction and cost over-runs raised fears of a pink elephant rising in the city’s midst. Miami’s population lacked the culture to sustain two large halls, skeptics said, leaving empty seats and a big hole in the city’s finances.

“When this was being built there was a risk that it would go sideways. That was again the conventional wisdom, that this would be yet another miss by our community—that we have great ambition and we will spend money, but we somehow miss the mark.”

The first year—a financial flop—seemed to prove the critics right. But within a year of Arriola’s arrival things had turned around. The last two years have ended with a surplus, and a growing audience.

Arriola credits the success to collaborations with local arts organizations, as well as scheduling some top international acts from around the world. The center also began programming events throughout the summer. “The conventional wisdom in our community was that you don’t program in the summer. So many of our local arts organizations go dormant for the summer,” he says.

Starting with a successful run of Celia Cruz the Musical in 2008, the center followed up with an original Cuban roots musical featuring local artists, Miami Libre, as well as a Cirque du Soleil type event, Slava’s Snowshow.

All were big box office hits. This year the center followed up with another acrobatic hit, Fuerza Bruta, from Argentina, which had a six-week run of sell-out shows. A London reggae production, The Harder They Come, was also popular with Miami’s large Caribbean audience. “We brought in thousands of audience members who had never been to the center before, a much younger age demographic,” says Arriola.

 “Now we have something we can point to internationally and say we hit the mark, we got the performing arts center right, we are world class, and people are taking notice,” Arriola says as he enters his last year at the helm.

His success at the center made Arriola a natural choice for the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. “The fact that I can use a lot of the experiences and network that I have established here at the Arsht Center to help Miami and to help the nation is very exciting. And a real honor for me.”

He was sworn in at the White House with the other committee members, along with honorary chairwoman, Michelle Obama. The 26-person committee includes actors Sarah Jessica Parker, Forrest Whitaker, and Edward Norton, as well as musician Yo-Yo Ma, and fashion luminary Anna Wintour. Arriola is Florida’s sole representative, as well as the only Hispanic.

Unlike most countries, the U.S. has no Ministry of Culture, leaving the presidential committee with a major say in promoting arts and humanities through awards, education, and cultural diplomacy abroad. The committee works closely with the main federal cultural institutes, the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for Humanities, as well as the museum and library services.

Despite the added work burden, Arriola should have no trouble fitting it into his already busy schedule. He’s likely to be a major force on the committee, say those who know him.

“He a natural leader. Anything that he does or gets involved in, he becomes the leader,” says Sugrañes. She credits his education in both business and law for giving him the capacity to juggle his different responsibilities. “He’s very committed to every task he dedicates himself to. He’s a perfectionist,” she says.

A voracious reader, Arriola gets through a couple of books a week, yet friends say he still finds time to go out on dates. He also finds time for his nieces, escorting them to performances over Christmas of The Nutcracker and 101 Dalmatians.

“You couldn’t wish for a greater older brother and role model,” said Eddy Arriola, 37, an aspiring banker who founded Inktel with his father before Ricky joined the business. Another brother, Dan, 34, runs Inktel’s operations in Chicago. The three brothers speak on the phone “at least four times a day,” said Eddy. “We compare notes on everything, books, movies, you name it.”

Arriola’s next move will be closely watched. Some wonder when he will throw his hat in the political ring. “The ripples are just starting to emanate from this guy,” says Wagar.

He’s already built up some good political pedigree. He got to know Obama during his U.S. Senate campaign in 2004 in Illinois, where Inktel has a distribution operation. And his role on the Obama’s national finance campaign put him in some pretty elite company. “Ricky did a lot for the campaign,” says Penny Pritzker, who served as its chairwoman. “He was one of the first people to become involved in the campaign fundraising from Florida. His leadership was greatly appreciated.” The campaign raised roughly $750 million. “It was the most successful fundraising campaign in U.S. political history,” Pritzker says.

He’s also held in high regard by some Republicans, despite switching parties. He and his parents are good friend of attorney Al Cardenas, former chairman of the state Republican party. “The Arriolas are a great family,” Cardenas says. “As the saying goes: the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Indeed, his political concerns span party lines. He is very supportive of the Obama administration’s decision last year—which he helped craft—to loosen restrictions on family travel to the island by Cuban Americans. But now it’s up to Cuba to make the next move, he believes. “At this point the administration has done exactly what needs to be done,” he says. “I think we need to see more willingness from the Cuban government to engage with us. I think if we see movement from the Cuban government then it’s time to continue to reconsider our policies.”

Closer to home and more urgent, perhaps, are the financial challenges facing the city of Miami under new mayor Tomás Regalado, he says. “I am praying for the best. He has a tough hand that was dealt him,” Arriola says, referring to a current investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into the city’s accounting practices. The city’s overburdened budget is weighed down with bond issues to pay for major public projects, including the performing arts center and a new Major League Baseball stadium at the historic site of the now demolished Orange Bowl.

Arriola hopes Regalado adopts a more centrist position, and leaves behind his uncompromising political style as a city commissioner. Unless the mayor is willing to make hard financial choices, Arriola warns that the state may have to intervene, as it did a decade ago. “You just can’t have declining revenue and increasing costs and hope that the budget is going to balance itself,” he says. “You have to make hard choices. Either you are going to have to raise taxes, or cut spending. And he doesn’t seem to be willing right now to do either.”

Even so, Arriola remains confident about Miami’s future, while recognizing there’s still work to be done to cement its place as a major international city. He hopes others come forward to follow his lead.

“We need to build a more solid foundation. Unless people continue to step forward and take leadership positions, there is a possibility that we revert back to the 70s and 80s Miami that I grew up in,” he says. “I am going to do everything I can to prevent that from happening. But we need a lot more people to do it."

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