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."

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.

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."

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."

A passerby asks for four autographed pamphlets to hand out to friends. An elderly woman catches sight of Suarez from across the street and comes over to boast that she's related to the last girlfriend Suarez dated before he married Rita, his wife of twenty years. "Silveria," he inscribes on the glossy flyer, "I need your vote."

He moves on, his step lighter than when he first began his march. "The one good thing, aside from the politics, is the sun, the weather, being outdoors and everything, meeting people," he says. "It's good for the soul, you know."

Slipping conspiratorially off the record, he whispers some radical plans to eliminate Miami's debt. He'd reveal the details publicly, he says, "but it would appear to be an act of demagoguery, and I don't want to appear to be a demagogue. That's the last thing this city needs right now." Without divulging specifics, he says he anticipates transforming Miami's "junk" bond rating into an unprecedented custom rating that's "better than A+++." Everybody's taxes would drop. All on a timetable that would make Lee Iacocca blanch.

"And then we'll combat the oversight board!" Suarez cries, slapping his hand down on his interlocutor's shoulder. "I'm telling you, this is like a second lease on life," he exclaims. "That's the one question nobody's asked me yet: How does it feel to be back in power almost?"

And with that the candidate is off in search of another vote. He finds a family playing Wiffle ball in their front yard, the father pitching to a young girl who has not yet mastered a smooth swing, while her brother, wearing a pinstripe Marlins jersey, heckles from the front porch. When the girl swings and misses a fat pitch, Suarez scampers across the lawn to retrieve the plastic ball. Tossing it back to the father, the former mayor crouches like a catcher and calls for a strike.

The family accepts Suarez immediately. One of the registered voters at this address, a matronly looking woman on the porch, boasts that she's voted in every single election since receiving her citizenship years ago. The father explains that he's from the Northeast, and that he played basketball. "I played in New Jersey," the man offers. "I could jump 48 inches. I used to jump across floors."

Suarez, a basketball zealot, knows his leapers. "The greatest is Karch Kiraly," he says, appraising the legendary thrust of the Olympic volleyball star. "He could get 48 inches. The only one who's better than that, I think, is Michael Jordan."

While the men banter, the little boy in the Marlins jersey walks over to Suarez and parks himself at the candidate's knees. "Why do you want to do this?" asks the boy, craning his neck to stare into Suarez's rubbery face.

"Because I want people to vote for me, so I'm walking door-to-door," Suarez says, turning back to the father.

"No," the boy pesters, not sensing, or perhaps not accepting Suarez's polite brushoff. "Why do you want to do this? To be mayor?"

It's the perfect question, and it hangs in the air fatter than any Wiffle ball pitch. Why give up an apparently lucrative law practice to return to the bush league of Miami politics? Why march door-to-door to present a platform that promises a new Miami, seemingly disowning your own participation in the past? What is the motivation, really?

So piercing is the boy's simple question that Suarez freezes. He gazes down at his miniature inquisitor of furrowed brow and blank face. With the pause growing ever more pregnant, the boy's father finally offers an answer: "Because it's important."

The reply rouses Suarez from his stupor. "Because it's important," he echoes.

As New Times goes to press, Xavier Suarez remains the front-runner in the mayoral race. His door-to-door labors, he is convinced, will bear fruit, as will a radio campaign that he boasts has already "buried" Carollo. Of course, like Alex Penelas in last year's county race, the sitting mayor has raised more money than Suarez (though the gap is much narrower, $351,715 to $286,092) and is expected to launch a massive, and potentially crippling, television blitz.

"Actually, that's an interesting thing," Suarez says as he strides away from the Wiffle ball game, television the farthest thing from his mind. "Most people, they don't know that to jump higher, they have to work two muscles in the leg. There are two muscles: the calf, which is the soft springy muscles, and the Achilles tendon, which is the hard spring. Most people only work out the calves, but they don't work the Achilles tendon, and so they still can't jump. And you know the only way to work that out? Stretches. I'll add weight and lift myself up 100 times, three times a day. Oh, I can't tell you what a great feeling it is, to be able to jump so high. Like everybody else, they jump normal height for a basketball player, maybe two feet off the ground. But to be able to continue on after that, to go a good 'nother twelve inches above them, to watch them stop as you float past them -- oh, I'm telling you, that's the greatest feeling in the world."

A volunteer in a pick-up truck interrupts his daydream, swerving around the corner and stopping at the curb. Inside the cab hangs a clean dress shirt, neatly pressed, for Suarez to don before the next event, a small fundraiser at the Spanish restaurant Malaga. The mayoral hopeful removes the shirt from the hanger and buttons it as he hops into the passenger seat. "We'll do lunch!" he calls out as he's driven off, still entranced by visions of himself soaring ever higher.

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