By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton has trouble understanding how anyone can take Xavier Suarez seriously. "He brought this city to its knees!" Winton cries. "He is an absolute opportunist, not to mention an irrational and dangerous man!" From his downtown Miami business office, an incredulous Winton recalls that Suarez had journalists all over the country, from New Times to the New York Times, contemplating the possibility he'd lost his marbles.
Over the course of 111 chaotic days in late 1997 and early 1998, Suarez indeed wreaked havoc upon Miami. Aside from those notorious episodes of bizarre behavior (making unannounced nocturnal visits to constituents, obsessing over the Miami Herald, insisting the city's budget crisis didn't really exist), his zeal for controlling every aspect of city government caused the Miami-Dade State Attorney to threaten his removal from office if he didn't behave. Not long afterward, a panel of judges made good on the threat, but for a different reason: His electoral victory had been the result of voter fraud.
But that was then. Now it's a different story. Suarez, never one to let humiliation stand between him and elective office, managed to win enough votes this past August 31 to end up in a runoff contest for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Commission. His 100 days of weirdness? Ancient history. And besides, to hear him tell it, he was only guilty of being a "head-strong idealist." The City of Miami, he says, is still not "ready for a true östrong' mayor in the mold of New York's Ed Koch or Rudy Giuliani. We have these self-perpetuating bureaucracies in local government that are very difficult to dislodge, making the mayor's job very frustrating."
Suarez, however, isn't hung up on the past. He's too busy stumping for that county commission seat. By all accounts it's an uphill battle against his opponent, former Miami city manager Carlos Gimenez, whose campaign has attracted plenty of money and a gaggle of influential supporters. Unfazed by the Gimenez juggernaut, Suarez thinks he has a good chance of pulling off an upset come November 2.
What an intriguing thought. Xavier Suarez -- the Midnight Rambler, Mayor Loco -- back in public life. And given the enhanced authority the thirteen county commissioners now enjoy, he'd be in a position of real power. A Suarez victory might be a dream come true for journalists in search of colorful stories, but it's a thought that deeply worries the clique of well-connected businessmen, lobbyists, and politicians who surround first-time candidate Gimenez. As for Johnny Winton -- it makes him apoplectic. "When it comes to evaluating candidates, voters seem to throw their brains right out the window," he says in exasperation. "It really shocks me how much of a following Xavier Suarez still has. People need to wake up."
Voters, alert or asleep, will send the winning candidate to county hall as their representative from District 7, replacing Jimmy Morales, who is running for county mayor. The district rambles along Biscayne Bay from the Brickell area south to the Snapper Creek canal and inland through South Miami, parts of Coral Gables, Pinecrest, and Kendall, plus a slice of Little Havana and all of Key Biscayne (see map page 29.) Overall it's an area whose voters are relatively prosperous and well educated, which leads Gimenez's campaign manager, Alberto Lorenzo, to feel confident. "At the end of the day," he says, "they will go with Carlos, who is a calm, low-key kind of guy. They want someone like Jimmy Morales, who is going to get things done and not bring too much scandal or controversy to the district."
Not surprisingly, Suarez supporters counter that if you're looking for controversy, look no further than the Gimenez camp, overflowing as it is with consultants, county contractors, elected officials, and those dreaded lobbyists. According to campaign finance reports, Gimenez amassed a $247,000 war chest for the August 31 primary compared to the paltry $66,000 raised by Suarez, whose campaign also received $75,000 in public-campaign financing. (To qualify for public money, candidates must collect a minimum of 200 contributions of $15 or more from individual registered voters. Candidates must also cap their contributions and expenditures at $150,000 in the primary and $100,000 in the runoff.)
Gimenez declined public financing and relied solely on private contribtions from an array of people with a stake in county government. For instance, high-powered lobbyists like Rodney Barreto, Courtney Cunningham, Eli Feinberg, Eston "Dusty" Melton, Brian May, and their spouses each contributed the $250 maximum allowed by law. Gimenez also benefited from the fundraising efforts of several influential Miami law firms, including his current employer, Steel Hector & Davis. (Gimenez is on leave from his job.) "Unless Carlos has a good reason not to take their money, I don't see why he should turn down contributions from the business community," says Jorge Luis Lopez, a Steel Hector attorney and Republican Party fundraiser.
Other familiar names who contributed the $250 maximum to Gimenez include architects PeterSpillis and Hilario Candela, whose firm does substantial work with the county; automobile magnate Alan Potamkin; developers Craig Robins and Michael Swerdlow. Less familiar but no less connected is Radames Villalon, vice president of a Miami International Airport vending company.