MAYOR X

There are good reasons to vote August 31, but the county mayor's race isn't one of them. Here are five reasons why.

More than a few county residents would seem to agree -- interest in forming new, small cities has never been stronger. Neither has this sentiment: Big government equals bad government.

That view may be innate among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who've moved here from Latin American countries cursed by corrupt, authoritarian rulers. But soon enough local distrust is earned by the actual performance of Miami-Dade's own politicians and bureaucrats.

The impulse toward more intimate forms of self-governance is also propelled by romantic notions of being able to reach out and shake your public officials by the shoulders -- something that is virtually impossible in an organization as large as Miami-Dade County. "They can speak to the city manager here," Gibson notes. "They can navigate the government much easier. When I go to church or the grocery store, I'm always stopped wherever I am."

(from top left) Carlos Alvarez, José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Maurice Ferré, Jimmy Morales
(from top left) Carlos Alvarez, José Cancela, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Maurice Ferré, Jimmy Morales
In search of defining issues: Which candidate thinks MIA runs smoothly? Which one wants to increase the number of citizens without health insurance? Who advocates public corruption? Do any candidates say we don’t have enough traffic congestion?
In search of defining issues: Which candidate thinks MIA runs smoothly? Which one wants to increase the number of citizens without health insurance? Who advocates public corruption? Do any candidates say we don’t have enough traffic congestion?

The rich people got out first: Key Biscayne in June 1991, Aventura in November 1995, Pinecrest in March 1996, and Sunny Isles Beach in June 1997. (The predominantly black, lower- and middle-class town of Destiny failed to materialize around Pro Player Stadium in 1996, but its successor, Miami Gardens, became a city in 2003.)

The residents of these wealthy towns produced more tax revenue than they received in services, and so the county budget has suffered as they've left and taken most of their money with them. Oddly, though, there was no proportional reduction in the size of the county bureaucracy.

In 1998 the county belatedly decreed a temporary moratorium on incorporations. When that was lifted by the courts in 2000, the county socked new cities with so-called mitigation fees and other obligations, such as contracting to use the county police force for the first three years of their existence. Yet in just the past four years, four new cities have been born: Miami Lakes in 2000, Palmetto Bay in 2002, and Doral and Miami Gardens in 2003. Other secession-minded areas such as East Kendall, the Redland, and the Falls have thus far failed to incorporate, but no fewer than nine communities are now working on plans to attempt incorporation. Meanwhile a number of cities, including Miami, North Miami, Doral, and Miami Springs, are seriously considering annexation of surrounding unincorporated areas.

The power of the old Dade County began to erode, at least symbolically, when voters changed its name for marketing reasons. In 1997 Dade County became Miami-Dade County, weirdly at exactly the same time the City of Miami was reeling from bankruptcy and facing an activist effort to abolish it altogether. "There is a magic to the name Miami," county Mayor Alex Penelas told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel after the name change passed. "Quite frankly, no one knows what Dade County is."

Seven years later, Penelas's words have proved prophetic. His political fortunes have fizzled while those of Miami Mayor Manny Diaz have skyrocketed. Penelas himself is largely to blame, having squandered the considerable power and influence he'd gained. His political machinations produced little in the long term but left a record of weakness and lost opportunity. When the Marlins played the Yankees in the World Series, it was Diaz rather than Penelas who sat with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. More recently, well-placed sources say Penelas had to tap Diaz to privately lobby county commissioners regarding the latest cobbled-together scheme to build a stadium for the Marlins.

Today the office of county mayor seems an awfully pathetic thing for the politically ambitious pack of candidates slavering to fill it. Tomorrow, however, it will be even more pathetic. The City of Miami will be booming and garnering publicity worldwide. Miami-Dade, on the other hand, will continue withering away, leaving its mayor with lots of time to stare out his windows on the 29th floor of the county government building, from which he can see all the way to Miami City Hall on Dinner Key. -Rebecca Wakefield

3. There Are No Issues That Distinguish One Candidate from Another

Every political race is based on issues, right? Why else would people run for elective office? What could possibly motivate them to kiss slobbering babies and grovel for campaign money like shameless panhandlers? To take a stand on the issues! Without important, substantive civic issues, what would distinguish one candidate from another?

When it comes to the county Mayor's Race 2004, it turns out that's a very good question.

Determined to unearth an answer, we dug into the five leading candidates' Websites; we studied their TV, radio, and print ads; we listened to them make speeches; we even interviewed them. Some big issues actually did emerge. Traffic. Growth and development. Healthcare. Miami International Airport. Corruption.

And soon it became clear what we were looking for: The forthright mayoral candidate who had the courage of his convictions, who didn't think we had enough traffic congestion, who hoped to see tract homes and strip malls stretch from here to Fort Myers, who honestly didn't give a hoot about the 500,000 local folks with no health insurance, who fervently believed MIA is working just fine, and who had a game plan for increasing public corruption.

We kept it simple and to the point: On what significant and specific issue do you differ from your opponents?

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