Strong mayor bid dead, Suarez might be weaker

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOEY FLECHAS jflechas@mi­ami­her­ald.com

Mi­ami Mayor Fran­cis Suarez might have wo­ken up Wed­nes­day with less po­lit­i­cal clout than he has ever had.

On Elec­tion Day, vot­ers roundly re­jected his bid to ex­pand the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of a po­si­tion that is largely cer­e­mo­nial.

As Suarez sought to be­come a “strong mayor,” two city com­mis­sion­ers and Mi­ami-Dade Mayor Car­los Gimenez openly blasted his cam­paign. They branded his ef­forts to be­come the city’s top ad­min­is­tra­tor as a power grab dis­guised as an ac­count­abil­ity mea­sure.

Suarez also took heat from fel­low Repub­li­cans on Tues­day when he told the Mi­ami Her­ald he had voted for Demo­cratic gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date Andrew Gil­lum. One of the most pow­er­ful Repub­li­cans in Florida, in­com­ing state House Speaker Jose Oliva, called him “trag­i­cally ig­no­rant” in a tweet re­act­ing to the rev­e­la­tion.

Mi­ami Mayor Fran­cis Suarez sought more power through the “strong-mayor” ref­er­en­dum that he backed. When it failed, he might have come out weaker.

In both cases, Suarez gam­bled his po­lit­i­cal cap­i­tal and lost some of it.

That could hurt the 41year-old real-es­tate at­tor­ney as he tries to stitch to­gether votes to ap­prove new in­fra­struc­ture, hous­ing, and cul­tural pro­jects — in­clud­ing a new sta­dium for Mi­ami’s Ma­jor League Soc­cer team.

“Suarez made two los­ing bets for this elec­tion, and they have the pos­si­bil­ity of sig­nif­i­cantly de­creas­ing his po­lit­i­cal power,” said Sean Fore­man, a Barry Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence pro­fes­sor.

Suarez dis­agrees. Mi­ami’s other two bal­lot ques­tions — which he sup­ported — passed: a deal to lease pub­lic wa­ter­front land to de­vel­op­ers in ex­change for a new city ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing and ini­tial terms for a soc­cer sta­dium/com­mer­cial com­plex for David Beck­ham’s new MLS team (though that plan is run­ning into its own prob­lems).

“Look, pol­i­tics ebbs and flows every day. You don’t win every sin­gle po­lit­i­cal en­deavor you’re in­volved with,” Suarez said.

In­deed, he has un­suc­cess­fully tried to change Mi­ami’s govern­ment into a strong-mayor sys­tem be­fore. Dur­ing his eight years as a com­mis­sioner, he twice failed to con­vince com­mis­sion­ers to put the ques­tion to a pub­lic vote.

But Tues­day did mark a mile­stone. He has suc­cess­fully run for elected of­fice three times with lit­tle to no real com­pe­ti­tion. One year af­ter Suarez swept into the of­fice with 85 per­cent of the vote, Tues­day was the first time that vot­ers re­buffed Suarez at the bal­lot box.

And they were em­phatic. About 64 per­cent voted against the strong-mayor pro­posal. No re­counts here.

“While Fran­cis Suarez is full of charisma, if he can’t get peo­ple to fol­low where he wants to lead, then his lead­er­ship is in­ef­fec­tive,” Fore­man said.

On pa­per, Suarez has lit­tle power to be­gin with. He can act as chair­man of the City Com­mis­sion, a re­spon­si­bil­ity he chooses to pass along to a chair­man whom he ap­points. But he has no vote, and he can’t give or­ders to his ap­pointed city manger, Emilio Gonzalez, or any of Gonzalez’s more than 4,000 em­ploy­ees. Suarez can fire Gonzalez, but the com­mis­sion can, too. Or it can over­rule the mayor.

So Suarez’s chief weapon is the power of per­sua­sion that he can wield from the bully pul­pit. Some of his big­gest crit­ics are com­mis­sion­ers whom he needs to sway to get any­thing done.

Manolo Reyes, who holds Suarez’s old com­mis­sion seat, said the vote rep­re­sented a clear man­date that the cur­rent govern­ment struc­ture works and the peo­ple don’t want “one sin­gle per­son to have ab­so­lute power.” Joe Carollo loudly cam­paigned against the mea­sure, fir­ing off at­tack ads that ac­cused Suarez of want­ing to be­come a “dic­ta­tor-mayor.” Both he and Gimenez mailed ads show­ing pic­tures of Suarez’s newly pur­chased $1.4 mil­lion home in Co­conut Grove, sug­gest­ing the mayor sought a pay raise so he could af­ford mort­gage pay­ments.

On Wed­nes­day, Carollo dis­missed Suarez’s de­sire to bring back a new strong­mayor plan later on.

“The vot­ers clearly spoke,” he said.

With three years left in his term, Suarez said a key agenda item is the rolling out of pro­jects funded by the Mi­ami For­ever Bond, a voter-ap­proved plan to bor­row $400 mil­lion for anti-flood­ing work, park im­prove­ments, and new af­ford­able-hous­ing pro­jects. The first round of work is ex­pected to be an­nounced be­fore the end of the year.

If Suarez wants to have a role in the ap­proval of those pro­jects, he’ll need to have in­flu­ence with the five com­mis­sion­ers who hold the power with their votes. If the city ne­go­ti­ates a lease for the Beck­ham soc­cer com­plex, the agree­ment needs four of five com­mis­sion votes for ap­proval. But two com­mis­sion­ers, in­clud­ing Reyes, have al­ready said they op­pose the deal. To shep­herd the pro­posal into a re­al­ity, Suarez will need to do some con­vinc­ing.

Other pro­jects he wants to see come to fruition: restora­tion of the Mi­ami Marine Sta­dium and rent sub­si­dies for ten­ants strug­gling to make ends meet.

De­spite the sharp dis­agree­ments over the strong-mayor idea, Suarez re­mains an op­ti­mist.

“I have good re­la­tion­ships with the com­mis­sion­ers,” he said. “It’s some­thing I will con­tinue to em­pha­size. That’s my job. My obli­ga­tion is to find con­sen­sus.”

The fall­out might ex­tend beyond city lim­its. Af­ter re­veal­ing his vote for Gil­lum, Suarez might have trou­ble lob­by­ing the ma­jor­ity-Repub­li­can Leg­is­la­ture on state fund­ing for lo­cal pro­jects.

He cer­tainly flexed his po­lit­i­cal mus­cle with his strong-mayor cam­paign. Through the elec­tion sea­son, Suarez spent a good deal of time and about $3 mil­lion in po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tions to cham­pion the change — a remarkable sum to sup­port a bal­lot mea­sure.

Along the way, he was con­tin­u­ously met with re­sis­tance rang­ing from staunch op­po­si­tion to ca­sual crit­i­cism. Carollo un­suc­cess­fully sued to block the ref­er­en­dum, though that was less sur­pris­ing than the skep­ti­cism over whether Suarez was pre­pared to jug­gle run­ning the city with his job as a realestate at­tor­ney at Green­spoon Marder.

It was a new dynamic for Suarez, who has avoided mak­ing en­e­mies and has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing a ge­nial politi­cian with a skill for con­sen­sus-build­ing.

“You’re not ready for this,” said a man who called into a Ra­dio Cara­col 1260AM pro­gram where Suarez was pro­mot­ing his pro­posal Mon­day af­ter­noon, be­fore Elec­tion Day. In Spanish, the man ad­vised the mayor: “Hold off on the am­bi­tion for a lit­tle while. Keep work­ing for the city, and then later you can be­come a strong mayor.”

The caller seemed to cap­ture at least part of the push­back against Suarez’s plan: The politi­cian should learn to walk in the may- or’s shoes be­fore run­ning.

“You have to learn from th­ese sit­u­a­tions, with­out a doubt. You have to grow,” Suarez said. “But I’m ex­cited about the next three years.”

Jesse Man­zano-Plaza, a po­lit­i­cal ad­viser who helped or­ches­trate the strong-mayor cam­paign, said it’s easy to con­sider the elec­tion a loss for Suarez, but time might look more kindly on his stand­ing be­cause he sup­ported two mea­sures that did pass.

“If th­ese other pro­jects are re­al­ized the way they’ve been pre­sented, I think we’re go­ing to look back at this and say, ‘Wow, look what he ac­com­plished in his first year,’ ” said Man­zano-Plaza, who works at the con­sult­ing firm LSN Part­ners that lob­bied on be­half of the de­vel­oper back­ing the wa­ter­front land-lease deal.

Oth­ers in City Hall are happy to move beyond elec­tion sea­son. Reyes be­lieves the city will run bet­ter with­out the po­lit­i­cal dis­trac­tions.

“Many of the city’s needs have been put on hold by the ad­min­is­tra­tion pend­ing [the strong-mayor] vote, and now it’s time to stop the games, come to­gether, and get to work on in­creas­ing ef­fi­ciency, se­cu­rity, and quality of life for the res­i­dents of Mi­ami,” he said.

Fran­cis Suarez

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