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Jose Garcia-Pedrosa wanted some reassurance. Before agreeing to become Miami's new city manager last month, he took the unprecedented measure of visiting all five Miami city commissioners and asking each the same question: Will my job security be affected by the fate of Xavier Suarez?
It's a question much of Dinner Key has been asking in recent weeks. In just two months the mayor's inflammatory antics, erratic behavior, and paranoid tirades have earned him the reputation of a man coming publicly unhinged. In December the Dade State Attorney's Office placed Suarez on probation for abusing his power after he illegally demanded the resignations of Police Chief Donald Warshaw and every city department head. Suarez's campaign faces accusations of absentee ballot voter fraud that will, in all likelihood, lead to the mayor's expulsion from office next month. Indeed, virtually every political insider and legal expert interviewed for this story believes Suarez's days are numbered.
Although Garcia-Pedrosa eventually took the manager's post, it wasn't without vigorous discouragement. "I told him, 'I think you're making a big fucking mistake,'" recalls veteran Commissioner J.L. Plummer of his meeting with the manager. "'Before taking this job you should wait until February 10.'"
On February 9, Dade Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wilson, Jr., is scheduled to begin hearing Joe Carollo's protest of the November mayoral election. Then-incumbent Carollo, who lost a runoff election to Suarez, contends that Suarez would not have even forced the runoff if not for the submission of fraudulent absentee ballots in the primary.
The Miami Herald has persuasively documented that numerous absentee ballots were cast in the primary by people who live outside of the City of Miami. Some voters were unaware they had voted at all. One ballot was cast by Manuel Yip, who has been dead for four years. Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators have already arrested Suarez campaign volunteer Miguel Amador because he allegedly offered to buy three absentee ballots from undercover agents. The Dade State Attorney's Office has convened a grand jury to examine the entire election.
If Judge Wilson deems that voter fraud took place, he has a number of options. He could overturn the election, throw the mayor out of office, and replace him with Carollo. Or he could call for another election. If Wilson does call for a new election, he could limit the candidates to Carollo and Suarez (the two men in the runoff), open the race to the five candidates in the primary, or invite all comers. Of course, the judge could opt to maintain the status quo. But the conventional wisdom around city hall -- among both Suarez supporters and foes -- is that the mayor's future is dubious at best.
"Suarez is going to lose the hearing," asserts former mayor Maurice Ferre, cautioning that his opinion is only an intelligent guess. "I think he's going to lose. I think there will be ample proof of voter fraud."
With the winds of change swirling, the political jockeying at city hall is escalating, albeit discreetly. Former commissioner Victor De Yurre has been sounded out as a possible third candidate. Political operatives court Ferre almost daily. Mayoral trial balloons are floating above the heads of commissioners Humberto Hernandez and Tomas Regalado, both aspirants.
Suarez remains remarkably circumspect about the upcoming hearing. ("I'm trying to keep low-key on this" is as much as he'll allow.) The normally loquacious mayor refuses to discuss the possibility of an election and claims he's not terribly concerned about his immediate future. With the vein-popping intensity that has become a hallmark of his second tenure (he served previously from 1985 to 1993), Suarez has instead steered interviews to the programs he intends to complete in four years, "just in time for re-election."
In action, though, Suarez resembles a politician on the campaign trail. He can be heard on Spanish-language radio every day, at all hours. He held a press conference to publicly patch up his differences with Chief Warshaw. Day after day he churns out new initiatives, blithely proclaiming his administration's intent to clean up city streets or to build a new baseball stadium. "We're going to be presenting so much good news that there won't be room for the bad," he taunted reporters as he bolted from one recent press conference.
When Suarez cruises the streets during his popular La Guardia Days -- regular Thursday field trips around the city -- elderly voters cheer him on. During one recent expedition, he ordered his driver to stop the car in front of a Little Havana strip mall. Flinging open his car door, Suarez bounded forward to a hero's welcome offered by the patrons of a dingy laundromat. "I need these days, to get outside and see the voters," he said, slapping the shoulders of a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times. "It's like oxygen to me." Stopping next near the Miami River at an overgrown lot a citizen had called to complain about, he told an impromptu crowd that he would make sure the property owner brought the land up to code. "AAdelante!" cried a leathery geezer as he reached for Suarez's right hand. Onward!