Xavier Suarez: Don't call him loco

Inside Habana Vieja, a neighborhood Cuban joint in Coral Gables, Xavier Suarez lifts a cracker slathered with tuna salad to his mouth while he spouts off about quantum physics. Then, suddenly, he stops midsentence and stares into the distance.

"That melody," he says, snapping his fingers slowly. "I... I know that melody..."

A canned organ tune echoes throughout the nearly empty restaurant. About 15 long seconds pass in silence before Suarez's eyes light up behind wide glasses and a smile creases his face. "'Edelweiss'!" he exclaims triumphantly.

Such supremely odd moments pepper a day spent with one of Miami's weirdest political legends, a tanned and trim 62-year-old who last month made a remarkable comeback by winning the chance to represent a county commission district that stretches from Brickell south and west into the Gables.

Mostly, he still sounds like "Mayor Pothole," the brilliant leader who guided Miami out of its mid-'80s economic funk and racial strife as the city's first Cuban-born mayor. But talk to him long enough and flashes appear of "Mayor Loco," the seemingly deranged guy from the late '90s who banged on an old lady's door in the middle of the night and insisted a $68 million budget deficit didn't exist — and more recently self-published a thick-as-an-Aristotelian-brick treatise seeking to unify all scientific and religious thought.

Which Suarez did voters just send back to county hall? Only time will tell. But as he steps into the power vacuum left by Carlos Gimenez's departure for the mayor's office, and the commission stares down at least a $250 million budget gap, we'd better hope for early vintage Xavier. Some observers, such as Merrett Stierheim — the former city manager and schools superintendent who long ago saved the subtropics from financial ruin — are skeptical. "When Suarez came back in 1997, the first thing he did was fire a city manager with a CPA who actually had a handle on fixing the budget," Stierheim says. "It was tragic."

The ninth of 14 kids born in Havana, Suarez immigrated to Washington, D.C., when he was 12 years old. He earned a full ride to Villanova University, where he would have made the basketball team if not for an awkward jumper, he swears ("Someone got me shooting with the wrong hand when I was a kid"). After earning a Harvard law degree, he moved to Miami when he was 26.

In 1985, the brainy immigrant became the national face of the Magic City's Cubanization when he won the mayor's seat. In his three terms, he had stumbles: honoring murderous cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh weeks before his arrest, for instance, and joining other Cuban leaders in refusing to welcome Nelson Mandela to town, sparking years of black boycotts. But "overall, Suarez deserves credit for bringing Miami out of a really difficult period," says local historian Paul George.

That all changed in 1997, when his career flew off the edge faster than a drunken Red Bull Flugtag pilot. In just 111 days as mayor, Suarez made a life's worth of bizarre headlines. Weeks after he banged on the door of Little Havana's 68-year-old Edna Benson, who had written him an angry letter — he scurried away when she produced a .38 handgun — columnist Carl Hiaasen lobbed a nickname that stuck: "Mayor Loco." And no wonder. Suarez insulted state leaders (calling a Polish-American politico "Senator Cabbage"), wrote the governor a bizarre note about the guv's daughter getting an abortion, and tried to argue away a huge budget gap. "Another chaotic week ends, leaving Miamians to wonder how long before the white-suited men with butterfly nets come to take the mayor away," Hiaasen wrote.

It wasn't long. A legal inquiry soon found dozens of suspect absentee ballots — including one vote from a long-dead resident — had been cast in Suarez's favor. A judge nullified the election and Suarez lost his seat, though he was never charged with a crime. Xavier and his wife Rita were devastated by the turnaround and by the "Loco" headlines, says his son, Francis, who's now a Miami commissioner. "We had to sell our house, and I had to move back in with my grandmother," Francis says. "But it gave me new respect for my father, because he didn't get bitter and he didn't take it out on anyone."

(Other than the Herald, of course. Xavier sued the paper and Hiaasen for libel. He lost.)

So what has the elder Suarez been up to since getting the boot from Dinner Key 13 years ago? It's a valid question, considering voters had only 60 days to consider his run last month. Suarez's opponent, "the Other" Julio Robaina — the ex-state legislator, not the Hialeah mayor — was out-raised more than three-to-one and barely made a wave in talking up the ex-mayor's past. Suarez waltzed away with 53 percent of the vote.

To talk about his postmayoral life and his plans as commissioner, Suarez met New Times at La Cuevita, a tiny, Spanish-tile-roofed house full of exilados just off Coral Way. The place has been his de facto headquarters since the '85 campaign.

While the home's owner, a petite elderly woman named Maria Haramboure, brews cafecitos and men in white guayaberas wander past, Suarez says he wants to simplify county government, noting that "there are more budget codes than there are county employees." He aims to concentrate on affordable housing and to fix the Transit Department, which is under federal scrutiny for gross mismanagement. He sounds eminently reasonable.

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2 comments
El_Bananero
El_Bananero

The camel is out of the barn. He did not do anything great at the city of Miami and he's not going to do anything as a county commissioner. The people of distrcit# 7 elected the wrong person.

Heat Man
Heat Man

Once crazy, always crazy, prhaps in remission, hopefully!

 
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