The Candidate

Xavier Suarez on the campaign trail: A pair of fifteen-dollar shoes and cures for all Miami's ills

On the sidewalk lie seven cats, completely motionless. They appear to be dead cats, their bodies slumped flat as puddles, each a pool of cat hair and decomposing cartilage. It's puzzling to see so many dead cats in one place. Perhaps, in an amazing coincidence, all seven chose the same moment to collapse of natural causes outside this house, near where the western reaches of Miami give way to Coral Gables. Perhaps they fell under the sway of a cat cult leader, a deranged feline who promised their souls a trip to Saturn on the Cassini probe. Or perhaps they simply broke into a tainted box of Meow Mix.

Closer inspection, augmented with several nudges from a shoe, reveals that these cats are not dead, only resting, their limp bodies feeding on the energy from the warm concrete walk. At twilight on this Tuesday evening they seem unaware that the home they've chosen to ornament is the informal campaign headquarters of Xavier L. Suarez, the man who is attempting to become the first executive mayor of the City of Miami. And that everyone inside the house believes he is actually going to win.

Stepping gingerly around the cats, the candidate enters the bungalow to a warm cheer. A swirl of more than a dozen Suarez volunteers flows through the rooms, gathering up pamphlets, gossiping, and coordinating plans for the evening. Armando Molina, president of the Nicaraguan American Chamber of Commerce, rises from a tired white couch in the living room and heads for the kitchen. He's replaced by a grade-school English teacher named Angelica Lopez-Jenkins, who parks herself beside a stack of worn LPs. Tonight she'll accompany Suarez on his daily door-to-door walk for voters. To show he's prepared for the expedition, Suarez brandishes a pair of fifteen-dollar "marching shoes" he purchased at Payless. As he slips off his dress loafers, a relative hands him a shot of cafe cubano.

There's a glow in the house today, a month before the election. A just-released Miami Herald/Univision poll shows that Suarez holds an eight-percentage-point lead in the mayoral race against incumbent Joe Carollo. This is the most credible poll to date in a campaign that Suarez has led from the outset, when he declared his candidacy in January by asking voters to "Abolish Carollo, not Miami."

"A Channel 51 poll [released in August] said I was leading by thirteen or fourteen percent. That's the one I believe," Suarez says on the ride from the house to the site of tonight's trek. "I'd be very surprised if I don't get two out of every three votes across the city. Of course, I was surprised the last election too. Unpleasantly surprised."

"The last election" was the 1996 race for Dade County strong mayor, in which Suarez leaped out to an early lead in a field of four major candidates, only to lose decisively to Alex Penelas. Suarez had seemed well-positioned for victory: He'd served two highly visible terms as mayor, from 1985 through 1993, the city's most recent glory days. During his tenure a new arena popped up, a pope popped by, and Miami Vice won the world's attention. Yet Suarez squandered his advantages by running a disastrous grassroots campaign. He shunned professional consultants, preferring to handle the most minute details himself -- right down to answering the phones -- rather than yield even a fraction of his control. He rejected campaign donations from lobbyists (traditionally the most enthusiastic contributors) because he didn't want to be beholden to special interests. Penelas, who made no such high-minded promises, happily collected $1.3 million in campaign funds before the primary -- three times more than Suarez -- and with the TV airtime that money bought, he handily defeated his top two rivals, Arthur Teele and Maurice Ferre.

Mr. Grassroots finished with fourteen percent of the vote, dead last.
"He didn't listen to anyone on how to run the race," opines former Miami mayor David Kennedy, who works these days as a political consultant (though not for any candidate in the city's mayoral contest). "He doesn't know how to run a race. His TV was terrible, his direct mail terrible in that it was poorly put together. When you compare it with what Penelas, Teele, and Ferre did, he looked like he was running for high school class president."

Are Suarez and his staffers bitter in defeat? The former Miami mayor works for Shutts & Bowen, the same downtown law firm that employed Penelas before he won his county post. In the tiny conference room adjoining Suarez's office, on a windowsill next to envelopes inscribed "XLS Fiscal Crisis" and "XLS '97, Research for ads, Carollo -- Negative," lies a stack of newspaper clippings. At the top of the pile is an article from El Nuevo Herald about Penelas. On the accompanying photo of the Dade County mayor, drawn with a blue ballpoint pen, is a Hitler-style mustache.

For the current race, Suarez relaxed his opposition to special-interest contributions. Flanking him at the press conference when he entered the race were Cuban American Foundation president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez and former Latin Builders Association president Aurelio Pena. Sergio Pino, another former LBA president, threw a fundraiser. Still, Suarez continues to call nearly all the shots himself. He trumpets his refusal to hire a political consultant. All his polling is informal, and only one of his campaign workers is paid. "I am not an establishment guy," Suarez boasts as he steps out of the car and prepares to pound pavement. "In no way am I an establishment guy. I never wanted to be."

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