X Mayor

Legal experts and insider politicos agree: Voter fraud will soon force Xavier Suarez from office. Then What?

Five-time Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez was attempting to return to office in 1993 after a forced hiatus brought on by a felony conviction. His opponent, Nilo Juri, narrowly won the machine vote but lost the election because of Martinez's two-to-one advantage in absentee ballots. Juri sued in circuit court, like Carollo, seeking to have the election overturned.

After two years of legal jockeying, Juri won his suit. Judge Sidney Shapiro concluded that enough ballots were fraudulent to call into question the entire election. "The evidence presented has convinced this court that there has been substantial fraud which adversely affected the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of the ... election process," Shapiro noted in his six-page ruling.

Although the Liberty County ruling was already legal precedent, Shapiro did not overturn the election. Instead he ordered a new election between Martinez and Juri. Martinez won easily. "What happened in Hialeah is legally not as important," Coffey insists. "It's instructive, but what really controls a Dade circuit court judge is the law books. Hialeah is not in the law books."

The Hialeah case is a troublesome precedent for Carollo, though. Coffey believes a new election would no longer be a fair fight: By the time voters return to the polls, Suarez will have enjoyed at least several months in office -- solving problems for constituents, launching new programs, and talking on the radio. "Look at it from Carollo's perspective," Coffey instructs. "If Suarez were allowed to run as an incumbent in the new election, obviously there would be a dramatic difference in the landscape than what existed in November. Allowing the benefits of incumbency to remain in a new election is wrong."

But given the dynamics of Suarez's reign, it's not clear that his incumbency is anything but a handicap. He earned a national reputation as "Mayor Loco" after only two months back in office. He may have been praised as he walked through Little Havana in the Three Kings parade, but residents of Liberty City hissed more than they cheered as he marched in last week's parade honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Every day he remains in office is another opportunity to screw something up," says Phil Hamersmith, Carollo's political consultant for the November campaign. "Every day, he gets on television and radio and hurts himself with his stupid actions and remarks. It doesn't matter if he walks the streets [on his La Guardia days] or even if he comes over and cleans your house.

"Suarez needs to come out and behave absolutely perfectly for the next two months, starting today," Hamersmith adds. "He needs to address his behavior, to admit that he was under a lot of stress, and to insist that he's better now. That's what he has to do, and we all know that's not what he's going to do."

In the last two weeks, however, Suarez has notably ratcheted down his manic behavior. On a trip last Wednesday to Tallahassee, he didn't refer to anyone as "Senator Cabbage," as he had previously labeled Orlando Sen. John Ostalkiewicz. Garcia-Pedrosa remains in office, now having served longer than any of the four previous city managers under Suarez's watch. No new extortion threats have been phoned in to the Miami Herald (at least none that have been reported). In a memo distributed earlier this month, Suarez instructed members of his staff to call reporters at least once a week to promote new mayoral initiatives.

"I'm convinced that Xavier knows he's going to be in another election," Tomas Regalado says. "That's why he's so calm. Xavier the candidate is so calm and Xavier the mayor is another person. The other night he agreed to an interview on Radio Mambi at 12:30 a.m. I mean, a candidate goes on the radio at that time, a mayor does not."

Whatever the merits of incumbency, Suarez could remain in office for quite some time, at least theoretically. The Bolden case in Liberty County took so long to reach the Florida Supreme Court that when Bolden finally prevailed, the term of office for the position he sought had expired, and he never served. The Hialeah case took two years to resolve, a fact not lost on Suarez's attorney in this matter, Joe Portuondo, who has publicly threatened to tie up Carollo's case in appeals. (Portuondo did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this story. In an article in the Daily Business Review, he called the lawsuit "stupid" and said it had been filed by "sore losers.")

Attorney Thomas Spencer sees things moving much more quickly. "The object of the exercise is to get it done as soon as possible," he says. "Once a judge makes a decision in court to order a new election, the loser would have to appeal ... to stop the election. An appellate court is unlikely to stop anything if the trial court has done its job, which I believe would be done." Spencer predicts the polls could be open as early as March.

If he were the judge in the Miami case, and the voter fraud were proven, Spencer says he'd order another election. But he wouldn't limit the field to Carollo and Suarez. Nor even the five candidates who ran in the primary. "To just throw the entire process out, to just open it up to anybody -- that would in fact probably be the right result," Spencer offers. "A judge is looking for the will of the electorate. And in this case, if the [new] election were just between Carollo and Suarez, that would not be the full will of the electorate."

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