No More Mayor Loco

Xavier Suarez is still a little crazy after all these years, but in Miami politics that can be an advantage

It is almost too easy to make fun of Xavier Suarez. Miami certainly has suffered through its share of troubling political leaders, but only Suarez managed to have reporters across America, from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times, wondering in print if our mayor had lost his mind. His very name conjures up the chaos and wholesale corruption that defined city hall at the turn of the decade, an era best evoked by Suarez's March 1998 removal from office after an appeals court ruled his November 1997 electoral victory was the result of fraudulent absentee ballots -- some cast by dead men. That ouster, however, was only the high point of what had already been some of the most colorful four months in Miami's history.

"Look, any one of those stories could have a very innocuous explanation," Suarez patiently explains to Kulchur regarding the seemingly bizarre actions that drew national attention during his last brief mayoral tenure. "Was I quirky? Did I do some odd things? I'll tell you right now, yes. But everybody can find odd incidents in their lives."

Suarez would prefer to recall his earlier mayoral terms, running the city from 1985 to 1993, when he chose not to run for re-election and returned to his law practice. It was an administration that was comparatively uneventful, or at least as uneventful as any administration could be while Miami slid toward financial collapse and widespread poverty, held down one of the nation's highest murder rates, and was the site of semiannual race riots.

Most of all, though, Suarez would like to focus on the future: his hopeful return to politics as District 7's county commissioner representing Key Biscayne, Pinecrest, portions of Coral Gables, Brickell, and Coconut Grove, and a good-size chunk of Little Havana -- the seat being vacated by Jimmy Morales in his run for county mayor. "I just want to be one man out of thirteen," he stresses of his current bid to return to public office. "I'm not running for mayor."

Still those 111 days as mayor after the 1997 election are hard to forget. During that period, Suarez spent as much time making headlines with his personal behavior as with any of his policy initiatives. Sometimes his actions were puzzling: Faced with a $68 million budget deficit, Suarez simply declared that his own math showed no such shortfall. Sometimes his actions were weird: As Miami teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, Suarez flew up to Tallahassee to woo a state-appointed oversight board. His smooth negotiating strategy? Repeatedly call state Sen. John Ostalkiewicz "Senator Cabbage," refer to state Sen. Ron Silver as "Santa Claus," and when first introduced to Gov. Lawton Chiles, inquire about the governor's daughter's abortion as a conversational icebreaker. Sometimes, however, Suarez's actions were just plain bizarre.

After receiving an angry letter taking him to task for Miami's civic mess, Suarez decided a personal visit was in order. Hearing her doorbell ring late one December night, 68-year-old Edna Benson peered out the window of her Little Havana home to see a tall man, looking mad and brandishing a letter in one hand. Fortunately for Suarez, Benson recognized the figure as Hizzoner himself, and put down the loaded .38 pistol she kept for protection.

"What a lot of nerve showing up at that time of night, without the courtesy of a phone call," Benson later complained to the Los Angeles Times. "I said, & 'I'm not dressed, I'm on a long-distance call, and I don't have time to talk to you.' He went away. But really, I think this man is bouncing off the walls." Based on Suarez's erratic track record, more than a few observers would have found Benson perfectly justified in firing off a warning shot.

Suarez remembers that evening a bit differently. In fact he sees those entire 111 days in a drastically different light than most people. The crying jags during press conferences, the rambling outbursts, his declarations of being a "prophet" set to lead Miami to a "utopia"?

"If the newspapers like you, they play all those things up as wonderful," he explains with a sigh. "I came to believe that Miami was not ready -- and it's still not ready -- for an Ed Koch, a Rudolph Giuliani, a Fiorello La Guardia," the larger-than-life mayors who came to define New York City over the years. "And I realized that too late. You cannot fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. You cannot have a confrontation with the Miami Herald or New Times. My overebullience, my effervescence just didn't work in Miami."

And that night in Little Havana with Edna Benson?

"Admittedly it was a little on the late side, but it was not intrusive, it was not confrontational," he insists. Rather, it was part of what made him the self-proclaimed "People's Mayor," someone who reveled in reaching out to "touch people." A doctor friend was visiting him with a brand-new convertible, he recalls, and the pair went out for a breezy drive on "one of those great nights in Miami in the fall." His friend was familiar with the address of the letter-writer, whose bitter tone had lingered in his head all day.

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