The Candidate

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

Shenandoah is an attractive neighborhood of brightly colored older homes, many of them recently restored. Hispanics and Anglos live alongside one another, their houses rimmed by pristine lawns and mature trees. It's a good community, a multiethnic enclave between Coconut Grove and Little Havana, nearly idyllic save for the iron bars on every window and the continual roar of jumbo jets accelerating overhead.

"English speaker in 1643!" shouts a volunteer who's lugging around a fat folder crammed with information about every registered voter in the city. When Suarez steps to a front door, he already knows the name of the home's occupants and how often they vote. If no one answers the door, a volunteer following in a car will try calling from a cellular phone. "This is actually so valuable," Suarez crows, tapping on the folder. "I almost don't want to publicize how valuable it is."

Knocking on the door of an older couple, Suarez greets a man who's been watching an American League playoff game. Noting this, the mayoral hopeful personalizes his pitch with the names of two Baltimore Orioles players. Beaming, the man and his wife wish Suarez good luck and assure him of their votes. The candidate scribbles his autograph on a campaign flyer, then quickly scoots to the next house.

Suarez makes a great first impression. He knows he's good at it, and it's a reason door-to-door visits are a cornerstone of his campaign. He's imposing in height and build, his skin always tan. His hair is slicked back these days, "Pat Riley-style," as he puts it. The imperfections on his face -- a flat nose, a thin upper lip -- add character, making him more handsome. He strives to make his press conferences into intimate reunions with each reporter in the room. ("Hey, it's Martin Wiskoll, the man from the Sun-Sentinel who spent all that time with me and all he writes is a tiny little article," he jived at a recent gathering. "And there's Tom Fiedler and Manny [Garcia, both from the Herald].... There's New Times, looking like he overslept.") For a man who has been described as shy and introverted, he appears even more in his element walking the streets, greeting strangers as good friends.

"One [informal] poll, we asked Carollo supporters -- people who voted for him -- what was one thing that they'd change about their candidate if they could," Suarez imparts. "And you know what they all said? 'The controversies.' I'd like to see a poll like that conducted about me, about what was the one thing my supporters would change, you know, because I can't imagine what that would possibly be. Maybe someone wouldn't like something I voted on -- perhaps they supported an issue -- but I'm sure if I could just talk to them face-to-face, they'd agree with me."

Miami first met Xavier Suarez in 1976, when he arrived to seek his political destiny. Born in Cuba but raised in suburban Maryland, he rode into the rough political frontier of South Florida with a resume so golden as to almost defy belief: a bachelor's in engineering from Villanova, a Harvard law degree and a master's in public policy from that school's prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government. With these uncommonly sparkling credentials, Suarez styled himself the flag bearer for a new breed of Cuban politician, one whose sensibility lay outside the cocoon of exile politics.

"The Marielitos got all the attention," T.D. Allman wrote in his 1987 book Miami, City of the Future, "but after 1980 ... Cuban Americans from the North actually came to outnumber both Marielitos and Haitians -- which is certainly one reason the city rebounded from these 'invasions' so easily. The skills and capital the newcomers had accumulated elsewhere in America played a vital role in Miami's growth into a major city. In the form of people like Xavier Suarez, they would also bring fundamental political changes to Miami."

A decade later Suarez's background no longer distinguishes him from his opposition. Joe Carollo is a Cuban American too, and he too hails from the North (Chicago). And Carollo has adapted. Once known as the city commission's biggest anti-communist hothead, these days he presents himself as a mature technocrat eager to solve the city's fiscal problems.

Suarez twice failed to win a seat on the Miami City Commission, in 1979 and 1981, before running for mayor in 1983. That campaign, against incumbent Maurice Ferre, is remembered as one of the most racially divisive and bitter campaigns in Miami history. While Suarez worked the Cuban community, handing out palm cards that read "Cubans vote Cuban," the Puerto Rican-born Ferre appealed to black voters, allowing his supporters to raise the specter of a Cuban takeover. Cynical as that strategy may have been, it helped him win three out of every four black votes and remain in office.

Then Ferre did something stupid, at least politically. Before the 1985 election, he participated in the firing of Miami's first black city manager, Howard Gary, alienating his constituency and ensuring his downfall. Ferre didn't even make the runoff, which Suarez won handily over banker Raul Masvidal. At age 36, Suarez was the youngest mayor in Miami history -- and, more significantly, the first Cuban American elected mayor of any American city.

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