By Chuck Strouse
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Hogwash, says veteran political consultant Phil Hamersmith. "Suarez thinks that Cuban Americans are stupid and won't see through this," rails Hamersmith, who is in charge of Carollo's campaign. "He is insulting the Cuban-American community, basically. My opinion is that he looks at the target voters as being morons that will buy this stuff. For a guy who went to Harvard and is allegedly a major attorney at a downtown law firm, he proves every day that he's not very bright."
The caravan winds onto the block where Suarez lived during his early days in Miami politics. There's the house where Miami mayor Steve Clark lived until his death last year. Suarez says he always wanted to live in the house directly across the street from Clark but couldn't afford the elegant abode. On a questionnaire provided by the Herald and forwarded to New Times by Suarez, the candidate estimates his net worth at $100,000. A tidy sum, but then again, Suarez is a 48-year-old father of four, a Harvard graduate who has practiced law in Miami for more than twenty years, most recently as "a big-bucks lawyer," as one Herald article put it, for a prestigious downtown firm. (His financial picture should improve if he's elected. The salary of the new strong mayor position has not yet been set, but Suarez expects it to pay about what Alex Penelas earns at the county, $98,500 per year.)
Two volunteers march ahead of Suarez, knocking on doors before he arrives to save time. "Look at that house there," he commands, pointing up the street at a boxy pink edifice. "They've always tried to do something with that house. They've fixed it up so many times, and it just can't be done. It's a poorly constructed house, I'm telling you, that's what it is."
The candidate has ideas about how to fix everything. Houses, Metrorail (reduce fares by 50 cents during rush hour), the public school system (he filed the lawsuit that led to single-member districts for board members), even a certain weekly newspaper. ("You know what's the problem with New Times?" he asked recently during a break in an interview on a Christian radio station. "It's too secular a publication.")
His most famous fixer-upper in recent memory is the stance he took regarding the City of Miami's fiscal crisis. Perhaps from pride, Suarez spoke out -- on radio, television, anywhere he could persuade people to listen -- to proclaim that the $68 million deficit uncovered by interim city manager Merrett Stierheim was a politically motivated salvo designed to make Mayor Carollo appear to be a savior.
Suarez drafted press releases and memos to Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay challenging the validity of the fiscal emergency, screeds clogged with statements such as, "Qualitatively, the picture changes only slightly for FY 1995, even though there is a large quantitative change due to the decision to follow GASB #10. All of a sudden, there is a declared claims exposure of close to $100 million -- which no one would reasonably expect the City to cover with instant assets."
The Herald performed a virtual vivisection on Suarez's take, noting that the former mayor "acknowledged he hadn't read Miami's financial statements in years" and pointing out that auditors first noticed financial problems in 1991 -- while Suarez was still in office. The ex-mayor responded with a press conference accusing the Herald of coconspiracy with Carollo, Gov. Lawton Chiles and his oversight committee, and Stierheim. "I find this is a conspiracy theory that not even movie producer Oliver Stone would believe," Stierheim retorted in a caustic press release. "I would respectfully suggest that he should begin his analysis of the city's problems by reviewing his eight years as mayor."
A cynic might recognize in Suarez's attack on the Herald a condescending but effective way to drum up support in the Cuban community. "Knocking the Herald is always good for votes in the Cuban community," allows Jorge Alvarez, a Suarez campaign volunteer who is anything but cynical about his candidate. "They hate the Herald there."
"No to Carollo!" cheers Yoel Alfonso when he spies Suarez rounding the corner onto his street. "I say, 'No to Carollo,'" Alfonso repeats as he kills the engine on his lawnmower. "It's the same thing as with Penelas," explains the county parks worker. "They make all these promises and then what? Me and ten of my friends, we're telling everyone we're voting for Xavier."
A compact car pulls up, the driver hurriedly rolling down his window. Two passengers are visiting from Spain, she says, and would Suarez please meet them? The former mayor gabs for a full five minutes, taking in a story about Tip O'Neill, the late speaker of the house from Massachusetts. "After 35 years in office, Tip O'Neill says he was talking to his neighbor," Suarez reconstructs after the car has pulled away, its horn tooting. "And the neighbor admitted he'd never voted for him. 'You've been my neighbor for 35 years and you never voted for me? Why not?' O'Neill asked. 'Because you never asked me,' the neighbor responded."
He cocks an eyebrow, signaling that sage advice has been imparted.
"You know, it's interesting. I've got my own Tip O'Neill story. When I was at Villanova I decided to run for the senate, representing the school of engineering. I figured I would win -- everybody knew me, knew what I was about, and I coasted, figuring I would win. My opponent, he was a nice guy, but he didn't touch me as far as credentials go. So I sort of mailed it in with the campaign. And you know what? I only won by just a little bit. I barely won. And I asked my friends, I said, 'Hey, who voted for this guy?' And they said I'd never asked them to vote for me. I learned my lesson. The next election, I cleaned his clock. My girlfriend at the time was an artist, and she made up all these posters for me. I had posters everywhere."