Press Relations the Suarez Way

For the past month Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez has been inviting members of the media to meet with him in an effort to improve his rather strained relations with the press. So far he has met with reporters and editors from the Miami Herald and executives from local television and radio stations. Last week it was this paper's turn to sit down with hizzoner.

Editor Jim Mullin, staff writer Robert Andrew Powell, and I arrived at city hall not knowing what to expect. We had heard tales about how some of these meetings had gone. Would the mayor break down in tears as he did on at least two other occasions with reporters, or he would he fly into a rage and storm out of the room as he had during previous encounters with the city's press corps?

Last week Channel 4 televised a series of man-on-the-street interviews in which people were asked their opinion of the mayor. Not surprisingly a majority said they thought the mayor was nuts. One person wanted to know what the mayor was smoking -- and where he could buy some.

In these past two months Suarez's weirdly erratic behavior has been matched by his political ineptness. Time and time again he has set goals and then undermined his chances of achieving them. A few examples:

*Goal: The mayor wants to appoint his own police chief.
Suarez's strategy: He publicly insults the popular current chief, Donald Warshaw, prompting the public and the city commission to rally around Warshaw, thereby making him untouchable.

*Goal: The mayor wants the governor's financial oversight board to approve his five-year fiscal recovery plan.

Suarez's strategy: He refuses to attend the oversight board meeting at which his plan is being discussed and instead appears on a radio program attacking the integrity of board members -- attacks which are heard by one member as she is driving to the meeting.

*Goal: The mayor wants the governor to abolish the oversight board.
Suarez's strategy: He announces to the press that if the governor does not accede to his demands, he will release damaging and embarrassing information about members of the governor's staff.

*Goal: The mayor wants the legislature to abolish the oversight board if the governor won't.

Suarez's strategy: He flies to Tallahassee and insults a key member of the Senate by repeatedly calling him "Senator Cabbage" to his face and in front of other members of the Senate who must decide if the city is in stable hands.

*Goal: The mayor wants more favorable coverage from the Miami Herald.
Suarez's strategy: He leaves a voice-mail message for one of the paper's executives threatening to pull the city's advertising if the paper's reporters aren't "nicer to me."

When Xavier Suarez joined us in his conference room, he immediately mentioned a column I had written a week earlier in which I referred to him as being egomaniacal. As he shook my hand, Suarez tried to pronounce the word. After stumbling over it several times (and never actually getting the entire word out), he dropped the subject and turned to more pertinent matters. "If I can do three minutes on the city's accounting," he began, and then launched into an hourlong monologue on why he believes there is no fiscal emergency and why the oversight board should be abolished. He was not persuasive.

After Mullin and Powell asked a series of policy questions, I brought up the issue of his management style and whether he might be more effective if he weren't constantly attacking people such as members of the oversight board and the governor's staff. "I have not done that," he protested. "I have not done that." He scrambled to find an essay he'd written, which he hoped would be published in this paper. Once he located it he read us a passage, as if the fact that his words were on paper gave them more weight: "At each step of the way I have quietly endured criticism, some bordering on disrespect, by board members and staff."

When we pointed out that he has hardly endured anything "quietly," that he has repeatedly disparaged the oversight board in radio and television interviews, he grew frustrated. "I'm telling the media how I think about things," he insisted, and repeated a charge that one of the board members, Maria Camila Leiva, has a conflict of interest because she is the executive vice president of Miami Free Zone Corp., a privately run international trade mart.

The city has its own free-trade zone, the mayor pointed out, so suppose the city needed to spend several thousand dollars on that enterprise. The oversight board would first have to grant permission for the expenditure, which would put Leiva in a position -- at least theoretically -- to block approval. As a result, her own business might benefit.

Such a situation might indeed constitute a conflict of interest. And Leiva might well recuse herself from any vote. Who knows? It hasn't come up. But what has Suarez accomplished by attacking her? Is it even wise to attack a oversight board member? "Let me turn the question around," he countered. "In asking me that question, you are following the Miami Herald's agenda and the Miami Herald's view of the world. Don't you think it is more fair for you to investigate the things that I have suggested with the conflict of interest?"

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