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?"

I asked him to think about my question again. What does he want to achieve? Is his goal to expose alleged conflicts of interest or is it to work peacefully with the governor and the oversight board in resolving the city's financial future?

"That question is directed at you," he snapped. "That question is directed at the media. What do you want to achieve? Do you want to, as the Herald seems to be trying to do, frustrate my attempts to run the city and to streamline the city and to reduce taxes, which is a concept they find extremely distasteful."

A moment later he vowed, "I will not be deterred."
Suarez is loath to admit he has made any mistakes. During our interview he would acknowledge having erred only once since taking office. "If I had it to do over again, I would wait until I had a manager before I tried to push through streamlining reforms," he said, referring to his demand for the resignations of all department heads.

A hollow concession, inasmuch as he was forced into admitting this mistake by the State Attorney's Office, which found he had violated the city charter and which threatened to remove him from office if he did not acknowledge his error.

Stating the obvious, Suarez added, "Why get into all these hassles with the state attorney? It's not worth the fight. Do you think it was worth being put into the newspaper as having possibly violated the law in a civil and criminal way? Hell, no."

The candor was short-lived as he refused to recognize any other missteps on his part. "That's the biggest one you are going to get me to admit," he said.

Suarez is obsessed with the Miami Herald, so much so that he can barely speak on any topic for five minutes without interjecting something derogatory about the newspaper. His description of Herald reporters and editors: "Really, really, really arrogant and ignorant."

"The Herald," he continued, "has painted me as an individual who is, who is -- " He couldn't finish the sentence. As he paused and stared down at the conference table, you could imagine the words he was considering: crazy, incompetent, deranged. When he looked back up, his expression was dark. "You've seen how the Herald has painted me," he said in a low voice. "Why do I need to go into this? The point is I should be asking you the questions. You should be investigating some of these people who are taking potshots at me."

Abruptly changing the direction of the interview, Suarez began teasing Powell (whom he repeatedly referred to as Robert Andrew Lloyd Webber Powell) for visiting the mayor's house last November. Powell explained -- as he had at the time -- that one of Suarez's staffers had invited him. "You think that's normal, to go to the mayor's house on the Friday of Thanksgiving? And it is somehow weird for me to visit a lady at 10:30 at night?" Suarez inquired, referring to the now famous incident in which he showed up unannounced and uninvited at the woman's front door.

"Frankly, if you take both situations," he went on, "I think it is a little bit more of an invasion of privacy for a reporter to go to the home of the mayor on Thanksgiving Friday, okay -- whether [my staff] suggested it or not -- than for the mayor who tries to call a lady who writes a nasty letter and failing to reach her I go by her house at 10:15 and she comes to the door with curlers and the phone in her hand. I checked to see if the lights were on. He [pointing to Powell] obviously didn't check to see or to notice that we were all trying to pack and get out of town so we could have a couple of days of peace and quiet."

I tried to bring Suarez back to a more relevant issue -- the criticism that he has surrounded himself with aides who will not challenge his decisions or warn him when he is about to make a serious blunder. "That is not at all for your determination or for discussion today," he snorted in response. "I hire whoever the heck I feel like. You can evaluate us as a team. I don't tell you how to hire people for New Times; don't tell me how to hire people here. You should evaluate the sum product of what we do and let me internally function the way I want."

Suarez also did not want to discuss what advice he has received from friends and supporters. "It is absolutely no business of yours," he said. "But I will tell you, even though it is no business of yours, that most of my private counseling, most of my friends -- my wife, my family, with the possible exception of my son -- have counseled that I slow down. But I don't think that is the correct advice. I don't see any wisdom in it."

Later he added, "It's like the whole world is looking for a way to trip me up. Why is that? Can anyone explain that to me?"

The whole world may or may not be against him, but he has certainly captured its attention. Newspapers around the nation are now regularly carrying stories about Miami's "Mayor Loco." Shouldn't Suarez have taken into consideration how his actions would be perceived by the media and the public?

"That's a good point," he conceded. "What you are asking me is a very, very, very, tough question. In retrospect, if I had known that it would be an all-out blitz to discredit me, particularly by the Herald, I would have handled it differently. But I had no way of knowing that. We are just going on all fronts trying to do 30 different things at the same time, because there were 30 major things that were not being done. Now it's probably more. I thought that by doing many of these things at the same time I would ultimately convince people that these things ought to be supported."

The constant -- and increasing -- gossip about his psychological well-being was clearly weighing on him, but he refused to discuss its roots. "I'm not going to engage in speculation on that," he said, his voice barely rising above a whisper, "because what you do is that if I engage in speculation about that, you then write about it and it gives you fodder. And I realize that's not a good idea. I don't want people to talk about my mental state. I'm fine, thank you."

A related area of attention, to which Suarez himself has alluded, concerns his sleep -- whether he is getting enough rest and whether he has had to resort to sleeping pills. But when I asked Suarez how he has been sleeping, he grew belligerent. "I will not engage in any discussion about my sleeping habits," he said testily. "How about your sleeping habits? Are you overeating, by the way?"

Given my readily apparent girth, the mayor's question was an easy, if uninspired, dig.

"All the time," I replied. "Are you sleeping all right?"
"Are you overeating?" he asked icily.
"Yes. Are you sleeping all right?"

Suarez ignored my question and continued to probe my caloric intake. "Are you going to do something about it?" he asked.

"I'll try," I said, then waited silently for an answer to my question.
"My sleeping habits are a question for my determination and for that of my family and my kids," he answered.

He stood up, indicating the interview was over.

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