X Mayor

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

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!

"I can tell you I walked the Three Kings parade with him," recalls Commissioner Hernandez, a Suarez ally. "I was very impressed by the way he was treated. He has the support of the people, and he's out there on the street every day. The other, former mayor [Carollo], is in his bunker. No one's even fucking seen the guy. He's not marching in the parades. He's not on TV. People are going to say, 'Where have you been the last 60 days?'"

Hernandez's support for Suarez is understandable; the commission chairman is a confirmed Carollo enemy who provided the boost Suarez needed to defeat Carollo in the runoff. (And in the process brought himself under equally intense scrutiny in the absentee ballot fraud investigation.)

But even those in Carollo's corner raise concerns about the former mayor's disappearance from the public eye. "Why don't we see him?" asks Commissioner Regalado, a radio commentator. "That's the question in Little Havana. That's what I hear from the people I talk to every day on my program. Why is he not coming out? Why doesn't he respond to telephone calls? Why doesn't he answer letters?"

Joe Carollo doesn't want to talk about the imminent court hearing. In fact, he doesn't want to talk about much of anything these days. At least not to the press. Just getting him on the phone required labored negotiations with his two attorneys, Kendall Coffey and Dade County Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller.

Why is the former mayor keeping such a low profile? "First of all, I'm putting all my time into the upcoming case," he explains, "in order for us to be successful, to win that case. That's what I need to be doing." And second of all? Carollo won't elaborate. He fears that any comments he makes to a reporter could anger the judge. Public appearances could give the impression of grandstanding, he worries.

Like Xavier Suarez, Carollo brags that he sleeps only a few hours each night. As soon as he awakens, he begins pouring over documents and ballots amassed at his Coconut Grove home and elsewhere, searching for the inconsistencies and patterns that could substantiate his voter fraud claim against Suarez.

His investigation resembles the one conducted by the Herald, though the newspaper has greater resources than does his small team of volunteers. Both parties are asking the same questions: Does this voter live in the city? Is that signature authentic? How many ballots did this particular person witness?

Former FBI agent Hugh Cochran quarterbacks Carollo's actual investigation, directing the team of field workers who physically track down voters to see if they live within city limits. (Cochran will likely testify at the hearing as an expert witness.) Documents expert Linda Hart analyzes ballot signatures; just one week after the November primary, she claimed in court documents to have found at least 197 suspicious ballots out of 895 examined. Overall, 4740 absentee ballots were cast in the primary.

Further help comes from Charles Intriago, the publisher of a respected national newsletter on money laundering and a friend and neighbor of Carollo. Intriago has been working the press, writing a Herald op-ed column, and encouraging 60 Minutes to undertake a story about Suarez. (Reporter Steve Kroft interviewed Suarez, Warshaw, and Hernandez last week.) "It's a small little army of dedicated people," Carollo says.

Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney, leads the legal team. He labors for free out of loyalty to Carollo, who gave him work with the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority after Coffey lost his previous job in a well-publicized strip club scandal. Along with Geller, he's hashed out a legal strategy that he hopes will return Carollo to office. "If we are right, then the wrong person is serving as mayor," Coffey explains. "We believe that the core remedy called for is a declaration that Carollo is the mayor, based on the machine count. That is overwhelmingly the remedy that is specified in successful absentee ballot challenges in Florida."

In a 1978 school board election in Liberty County, Florida, challenger Harrel Bolden won the machine count by eighteen votes but lost the election after his opponent clobbered him in absentee ballots by a two-to-one margin. Bolden proved in court that between 10 and 30 percent of the 381 absentee voters had sold their vote. Six years -- and numerous appeals -- later, the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that Bolden's opponent had won unfairly and should be removed from office.

"When substantial fraudulent vote-buying practices are clearly shown to have been involved, the election must be declared void," Florida Supreme Court Justice Ben Overton wrote for the majority. "Failure to do so will cause the electorate to lose confidence in the electoral process, destroy the willingness of individuals to participate, and thereby allow our government to be controlled by corrupt influences."

That's the case law. If Judge Thomas determines that voter fraud has occurred, and if he bases his ruling strictly on the supreme court precedent, he will undoubtedly throw Suarez out of office and reinstate Carollo.

But at least one impartial lawyer has a problem with that scenario. "To remove an officeholder by court fiat really disenfranchises those good people who legitimately voted," argues Thomas Spencer, a Miami attorney. Spencer is particularly qualified to render an opinion. He represented Nilo Juri, the losing candidate in a Hialeah mayoral election also tainted by absentee ballot fraud. The similarities between his case and Carollo's are striking.

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."

Both Suarez and Carollo have much to fear from an open election. After weeks of the two of them slinging mud at each other -- debating, really, which one of them is crazier -- a third candidate could enter the fray with a notable advantage.

"People are still against Carollo, and Suarez has not made too many friends in the 50, 60 days he's been in office," Humberto Hernandez reasons. "I think if a third candidate came in, he'd be a viable option."

Hernandez's name is often mentioned. Like Raul Martinez in Hialeah, Hernandez remains popular in his district despite a litany of legal troubles. He returned to the city commission in November after a five-month absence begun after federal authorities indicted him on 23 felony charges of bank fraud and money laundering. What's more, Hernandez has run for office so regularly he would probably have little trouble reassembling his campaign machinery. And he has never disguised his desire to sit in Suarez's seat.

But Hernandez insists he won't toss his hat in the ring right now, despite his ambitions. "The timing is wrong with me," he says. "I've got to get rid of this other mess first."

Callers to Tomas Regalado's program on Spanish-language radio station WCMQ-AM (1210) say it all the time: If there is another election, Regalado should run for mayor. The commissioner swears he doesn't plant these calls, but he does recognize that if an open election is held, he'd be well positioned as a candidate. With all of Suarez's mistakes, and with Carollo's controversial reputation, he could step in as a paragon of level-headedness. Will he listen to his callers? Will he run?

"No, I don't think so," he replies. "I don't think it's fair to the people of Miami to come out and probably do another sort of negative campaign, because that's what it would take. I'd have to say that, you know, you got a choice between me and two other people who in their time as mayor did things that are not normal, you know? It wouldn't be fair.

"Would I like to someday be mayor?" he asks himself. "Yeah, sure. But not this time."

In just a few months at city hall, former county commission chairman Art Teele has distinguished himself as the Miami commission's most active player. "I think he's trying to make as much movement as he can," says Hernandez, "because he wants to run for Congress, for Carrie Meek's seat." Teele knows that as a black man in largely Hispanic Miami, he has little chance of winning a mayoral election, but he is busy sounding out possible third candidates.

One exchange reportedly took place at Joe's Stone Crab restaurant, which Teele visited after the Orange Bowl parade. Running into Victor De Yurre, who was leaving the restaurant, Teele asked the former commissioner if he was interested in returning to Dinner Key, perhaps as mayor. De Yurre, who lost his commission seat to Carollo, politely demurred. Teele and De Yurre both declined comment for this article.

The name receiving the most play, though, is Maurice Ferre. "A lot of people have approached me," the former Miami mayor and county commissioner acknowledges. "I've had a lot of people call me in the last month. Some are asking if I plan to run. Some are encouraging me to run." He pauses to chuckle quietly. "Some of my best friends are encouraging me not to run. They're all saying, 'Don't let yourself get sucked in.'"

Despite the advice, Ferre is not ruling himself out as a candidate. He has infamous histories with both Suarez, who defeated him in a mayoral election in 1985, and Carollo, who has ambushed him politically (most famously when Ferre called a press conference in 1983 to announce that his mayoral campaign had received Carollo's endorsement. As the television cameras rolled and the blood drained from Ferre's face, Carollo withdrew his support and denounced Ferre for running what he called a "racist campaign of hate.") Moreover, he says he's terrified that a full four-year term for Suarez could undo the accomplishments of his own twelve years at Dinner Key, which began in 1973.

"I will see how things develop," he says. "I think it's just bad style to even think about it or discuss [running] until after the judge makes a decision. We'll see. My opinion is that the judge will follow the Hialeah precedent [and limit an election to Suarez and Carollo]. If he does that, why should I antagonize anybody?"

Hernandez recognizes Ferre as a strong contender should Judge Wilson open the election. "He lives in the city," Hernandez notes. "He falls under the residency requirements. He'd be a very interesting candidate. He'd probably be able to move quickly enough to muster enough money to run. If Ferre comes in, I think this election is up for grabs."

If the election is not open and there is simply a runoff between Suarez and Carollo, Suarez still has a good chance of winning -- despite a stain of absentee ballot fraud discoloring his political resume. Raul Martinez came back to defeat Juri in Hialeah. Hernandez came back to reclaim his Miami commission seat after Gov. Lawton Chiles kicked him out of office. Suarez is clearly banking on his core support in the Hispanic community, a faction that sees the embattled mayor as a victim of his political enemies and the inimical Miami Herald.

"I'm not telling you that Suarez is through," Phil Hamersmith concedes. "I won't tell you that he can't be charming. And I'm not telling you that Carollo isn't going to have to fight."

Suarez's most enthusiastic fundraiser from the November election, Sergio Pino, promises to back him if another election is called. "Of course!" declares the developer and former president of the Latin Builders Association. "I support Xavier and I support his agenda. I really think that if the Miami Herald left him alone, he'd be doing a great job."

In the odd universe of Miami politics, those Herald attacks that Pino bemoans may actually help Suarez come election time. "I think the Herald is doing its job," says Hernandez, no stranger to journalistic criticism. "By going after him, I think they've hurt him in the Anglo and black communities, but everyone knows [those communities] don't go out and vote. Fortunately for him, the Cuban community sees him as a victim. And that's who will vote.

"If you've been around here long enough, you know that nobody gives a flying fuck if you ran a clean campaign," Hernandez continues. "Nobody gives a shit if you were involved in absentee ballot fraud or what have you. The bottom line is that you won. People don't care about all this bullshit talk about ballot fraud. The bottom line is Joe has disappeared from the planet. Suarez is cleaning up the streets; he's busy meeting people while the other guy's in a bunker."

But some observers say that's exactly where Carollo should be. With Suarez on the front page every other day, Commissioner J.L. Plummer explains, it's smart for Carollo to remain out of sight. "Carollo's handling this perfectly," Plummer says. "He's doing exactly the right thing. He's lying low, concentrating on the trial. What does he need to stick his neck out for? If it came down to an election between Suarez and Carollo, I'd guess that Carollo walks in without a campaign."

Plummer stresses that his handicapping is nonpartisan. It's just that after nearly 28 years in office, serving under mayors Ferre, Suarez, and Carollo, he's developed a feel for the city's electorate.

In fact, those paying close attention at a commission meeting earlier this month might have heard Plummer commit a revealing Freudian slip. With the clock ticking toward lunch, Plummer attempted to tack one last item onto the morning agenda. From his seat on the far edge of the dais, he called for the attention of commission chairman Hernandez, who sits to Plummer's right. "With your permission, Mr. Mayor ..."

Hernandez pricked up his ears. "Um, that's chairman," Hernandez corrected quickly. "You said mayor."

Catching his flub, Plummer laughed hard enough to bounce in his padded leather chair. "Oh, it's just a matter of time," he cracked. "February's only a few weeks away.

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