The Candidate

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

Suarez promised many idealistic reforms. He would scrutinize and shape up the budget, he'd cut costs, in part by reducing the salaries of top bureaucrats. And he'd control the city commission's famously animated meetings. But he very quickly learned that under the existing form of government, he had to build a coalition among his fellow commissioners. Coalitions have never been Suarez's strong suit. He failed to gather the votes to implement any significant reforms. As mayor he held so little control over the budget that he couldn't even manage to oust then-city manager Cesar Odio, though he tried in 1990. He even failed to control the commission meetings, which continued their circuslike atmosphere.

His maverick-outsider stance alienated even the people who had backed his campaign. Because Suarez wanted to avoid any hint of favoritism, he consistently voted against his supporters. Word got around, recalls former city commissioner Victor De Yurre, that it was better business to be his enemy. Luxury-car magnate Norman Braman virtually bankrolled Suarez's first mayoral campaign, providing more than $100,000 through associates and family members. Now, according to records on file in the city clerk's office, Braman has donated a few thousand dollars to the Carollo campaign, and nothing to Suarez. That's only one indication of Suarez's inability to maintain a political coalition. Most of the money he has collected, several political observers agree, is more anti-Carollo than it is pro-Suarez. It's relevant to note how few of the supporters standing behind Suarez when he launched his current campaign supported his bid for county mayor -- and how strongly most of them despise Joe Carollo.

When Suarez left office in 1993, the laurels the outgoing mayor could claim were offset by equally noteworthy darts. He did spearhead construction of affordable housing in Liberty City and Overtown, but he also snubbed Nelson Mandela, sparking an embarrassing black boycott of South Florida. He helped land the Miami Heat basketball franchise (which helped the region win a baseball team, too), but he also insisted upon a downscaled Miami Arena, perhaps the single largest reason that the young building is already considered obsolete.

"The reality was that he didn't do anything bad, but he didn't do anything good, either" is the assessment offered by David Kennedy. "He's a guy that with all of his education, if you look at him on paper, he looks beautiful. But if you look at him in reality, he doesn't look that good. I think you'd have to say on first impression people would be impressed with him. But after the third or fourth meeting, all that disappears."

Last month Miami voters scrapped the weak-mayor system, bestowing strong new powers on the next person to hold that office. The victor in the upcoming election will control the budget and appoint committee heads, and can veto any commission decision (subject to a four-fifths override).

"It will be totally different," Suarez says, almost giggling. "I mean, like night and day. For example, I'm already formulating my 1997-98 budget. I'm going to present that; it will be radically different from the 1996-97 budget. I'll be able to appoint a chairperson for the city commission. I can even be chairperson of the commission myself, which is something that a lot of people don't realize. I might want to do that, say, in moments of symbolic importance like the investigative hearings I'm strongly considering. I think the dignity of the office will help me do those things correctly. My own legal abilities might help too," he adds.

"I'd like to support you, really, but I'm really rather impressed with that fella from Hialeah," says a man who wears no shirt over his substantial belly. Holding his smile, Suarez explains that whatever the merits of the fella from Hialeah, Suarez wants to govern Miami, the city where the homeowner happens to live. He surrenders a flyer with a personalized note: "I need your vote, Xavier."

(He's a bit miffed about the flyers, Suarez confesses: "We messed up on that one. We were supposed to order the white ones, which give me more space to write on, but we ordered the blue ones instead." He glares disdainfully at a blue flyer. "Too glossy, I told them. But once you order them, you've got to use them.")

Written in English and Spanish, the flyers tout the slogan (apparently composed without irony) that a vote for Suarez, he of the eight-year mayoral reign, is a vote for "A New Miami." The English-language version presents a reasonable (though debatable) argument for why he deserves election: During his tenure he reduced taxes and built the Miami Arena, Bayside Marketplace, and fourteen Neighborhood Enhancement Team centers. The flyer distributed in the Spanish community repeats the same argument, and adds ten suggested reforms to combat crime. Among them: military camps for misled youth ("The traditional juvenile hall accompanied by an absolute pardon to protect minors simply doesn't function"); a change of the Fourth Amendment laws of search and seizure ("The Supreme Court has erred when they said that drugs and guns obtained without legal authorization cannot be utilized as proof against the accused"); an alteration of the Miranda laws concerning the use of confessions; and the elimination of bail. "It only has to do with the power of the mayor to lobby for the changes in question," Suarez clarifies, adding that he meant to translate the ten points into English for the campaign but "never got a chance to."

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