By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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"Xavier favors lobbyist reform at county government, holding the line on the urban development boundary, and curbing runaway development in the City of Miami," says Andres Rivero, who finished third in the primary, behind Gimenez and Suarez. Rivero has since endorsed Suarez. "Those are important issues to the voters in this district. Look at the people supporting his opponent and you have to wonder: Whose side is Gimenez really on?"
Former political rival Maurice Ferré says Suarez can capitalize on Gimenez's association with big-money special interests: "Xavier is positioning himself as an outsider while his opponent represents more of the same." It's an approach that may be working. The Miami chapter of the Sierra Club recently endorsed Suarez, based in part on the group's belief that Gimenez has sold out. In a press release, the Sierra Club stated that Suarez "is committed to policies that reduce development pressures on the Everglades and that discourage urban sprawl. In sharp contrast, his opponent is backed by the concrete lobbyists and developers." Local chapter chairman Rod Jude says Suarez has earned another shot at public office: "He has grown as an individual. He opposes the commercial development of Miami Marine Stadium on Virginia Key and the mega-yacht marina-hotel project on Watson Island, which we also oppose. He accepted public campaign financing, which we are in favor of. He is a viable candidate because he is not the special interests' candidate."
"I've heard him paint me as a guy who supports higher taxes," complains Carlos Gimenez, referring to Suarez's attack ads on Spanish-language radio. "I've heard him say I'm beholden to lobbyists and special interests. It's a shame that he's using taxpayer money to run a nasty campaign against me."
According to Gimenez, anyone who suggests he's nothing more than a stalking horse for Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, real estate developers, county contractors, and those dreaded lobbyists doesn't know the real Carlos Gimenez. "I have enough strength of character to know right from wrong," he declares. "I can't be bought with $250 campaign contributions. I can't be bought for any amount." Suarez, he says, has no strategy other than to smear him: "That's the only way he can win. But his attacks won't have any effect on voters because I have an impeccable record of integrity and honesty. I've never been involved in a controversy. My opponent can't say the same."
According to one of the lobbyists, it's to be expected that Gimenez would come under fire for taking their money. "Unfortunately lobbyists have become the stepchildren everyone likes to beat up on," grouses Rodney Barreto, one of the most successful middlemen to stalk the corridors of county hall. "But Carlos Gimenez is a stand-up guy. You should give him a little more credit."
Barreto's lobbying partner Brian May adds that Suarez's effort to demonize Gimenez will backfire. "People's image of Xavier Suarez is of the guy who embarrassed Miami," says May. "He has to convince people he's no longer that guy, so he's slinging mud at Carlos. I'm not so sure if voters in District 7 have an appetite for that stuff."
With the election less than two weeks away, many observers don't believe Suarez has the resources to overtake Gimenez's lead. According to a poll conducted by his campaign earlier this month, he is ahead of Suarez by fifteen points. "District 7 is a microcosm of Miami-Dade County," says campaign manager Alberto Lorenzo. "You have very affluent areas and you have very poor areas. You also have a very large Anglo constituency and a very large Hispanic constituency to reach out to. So it's very expensive to deliver your message. In the end, money -- lots of it -- decides who wins." How much money? Lorenzo estimates Gimenez will need to spend $150,000 in the runoff.
Since his mayoral reelection campaign in 1989, Xavier Suarez has been using Maria Elena Harambourl's modest home in the Shenandoah neighborhood as a kind of political clubhouse. Virtually every Saturday for the past fifteen years he and like-minded civic activists have gathered in Harambourl's kitchen to talk politics and savor her homemade Cuban coffee.
A family friend for more than twenty years, Harambourl agreed to transform her duplex into Suarez's ad hoc campaign headquarters because he didn't want to rent office space. "I was very reluctant to do that," Suarez recalls, "so I said let's just meet at Maria Elena's house on Saturdays."
"We like to call it la cuevita [the little cave]," Harambourl interjects. "Every Saturday we would all gather in la cuevita to fold envelopes, make phone calls, and conduct absentee-ballot drives. Since then we still come together, whether it's to work on a political campaign or to celebrate birthdays."
On this Saturday afternoon, as people around Miami-Dade County brace themselves for trouble from Hurricane Jeanne, it's all politics, with Suarez and his merry band plotting strategy for November 2. "While my opponent is probably worried with fundraising at a time when people are more concerned about the weather, we're moving full-steam ahead," says an upbeat Suarez. Earlier in the week Andres Rivero and the Sierra Club had confirmed their intentions to endorse Suarez. More important, he'd also received his second round of public campaign financing -- $50,000. "I must admit, qualifying for the matching funds was huge," he says. "I don't believe I'd have a chance without it."