It's Lonely at the Top

Xavier Suarez's first incarnation as Miami mayor didn't go that well. The Harvard-educated lawyer came into office in 1985 with a host of proposals and a promise to control the city commission's notoriously circuslike meetings. But he neglected to bring along the ability (or perhaps the willingness) to patch together a coalition of his colleagues on the dais, a flaw that crippled his administration. In 1993, having passed no major reforms during his three terms in office, a deflated Suarez announced that he would not seek re-election because he'd prefer to spend more time with his family. And on Dinner Key the Big Top played on.

Suarez's return to the mayor's chair on November 14 coincided with an important change in the city's charter. No longer will Miami's top elected official essentially be relegated to the status of a mere commissioner. When citizens went to the polls to approve a proposal to elect commissioners by district, they also voted to grant real power to the occupant of the top post. And from day one Suarez wielded that power like a cudgel. In a dizzying first two weeks, he canned a half-dozen high-ranking bureaucrats, including Ed Marquez, the city manager. He appointed his ally Humberto Hernandez as commission chairman and gave him Marquez's old office at city hall. While Hernandez was moving into that prime chunk of city hall real estate, the new city manager, Alberto Ruder (officially still the most powerful person in the government), found himself sitting at a nondescript desk in the back of the mayor's office suite.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Suarez's power grab is meeting with resistance. The oversight board appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles chose not to meekly dissolve, as Suarez had hoped. The Dade State Attorney's Office began investigating whether several of the drastic personnel moves -- including Suarez's bungled attempt to dismiss Donald Warshaw, the city's police chief -- violated Miami's charter.

All the controversies were duly reported in the Miami Herald, the newspaper Suarez denounced during his campaign, and the newspaper whose editorial board backed Suarez's opponent in the election and the subsequent runoff. On November 22 alone, five different Herald reporters contributed to Suarez-related stories, all of which were of a critical nature. The barrage of bad press grew so thick that on Tuesday, November 25, Suarez visited One Herald Plaza to lobby editors for more favorable coverage. (As dawn broke the day before, two off-duty police officers had watched as the mayor, clad in a bathrobe, leaped out of a car shouting, "What are these people trying to do to me?" as he hunted down a yellow Herald box. "I need to find a newspaper!")

There was more dissension among the ranks of the city commission. In their first meeting since the election, commissioners showed a distinct willingness to buck Suarez's agenda. "He can't do it by himself," Willy Gort cautioned before the meeting. "He still needs a coalition." That fact became evident early in the proceedings when Hernandez, newly installed as presiding officer, failed in a bid to fire City Attorney A. Quinn Jones.

Hernandez has never masked his desire for revenge against Jones, who fired him in 1994 from the post of assistant city attorney. (Jones himself had won his job three years earlier over the objections of then-Mayor Suarez.) Now, in anticipation of what would transpire when the commission took up its first major order of business -- whether to renew Jones's $139,000 contract for one more year -- Hernandez supporters filled the front center row of the commission chamber. The commissioner's wife, his uncle (John Lasseville, a prominent pollster and political consultant), and Spanish-language radio personality Marta Flores giggled as they passed around a copy of a two-and-a-half-year-old New Times newspaper story critical of Jones. Up on the dais, the city attorney stood alone, absently fingering a new black leather chair. Asked if he thought he'd have a chance to settle into it, he muttered, "Not quite. Not quite."

Hernandez smoothly moved through the invocation, the pledge of allegiance, and other small business to arrive at his main event. But before he could ensure Jones's demise by way of a commission vote, Arthur Teele jumped in.

"I am not prepared to vote on Mr. Jones," declared Teele, the former county commission chairman who was recently elected representative of Miami's newly created District 2. "I don't have sufficient basis to form an intelligent opinion on his ability as an attorney." Teele called for the vote to be deferred until late January, a motion seconded by Tomas Regalado. As Hernandez sat ashen-faced, Teele asked Willy Gort to form "a committee of one" to evaluate any other possible candidates for the post, a committee Hernandez softly asked to join. When she arose to leave the chambers, Marta Flores stuck out her tongue at Teele.

But Teele wasn't finished yet. First he grilled Alberto Ruder. "Mr. Ruder, do you have a resume?" Teele asked -- a swipe at Suarez, who had appointed the long-time parks director without the commission's approval, which is required by the city's charter. Then he called Warshaw to the podium to explain the curious circumstances under which he was asked to leave the post of police chief. He also made certain that Suarez's legal adviser be approved by the commission at its next meeting, even though the pro bono appointee, Jeffrey Bartel, is already working.

"This commission has certain duties and obligations," Teele crowed as old-guard commissioner J.L. Plummer silently probed the roof of his mouth with an index finger. "I do not intend to be a rubber stamp under this charter."

Even as Teele was insisting that city business be conducted in the open, the mayor was barricaded in his second-floor office, scanning a resume handed to him by Ignacio Vazquez, a chief in the Metro-Dade Police Department. At lunchtime a caterer lugged in foil-covered plates and beverages. Half an hour later, spokesman Oscar Gaetan emerged to address the reporters who had gathered in the tiny foyer waiting for the mayor to make an appearance. No comment at this time on the potential new candidate for police chief. No comment on the first meeting of the commission. Not even any comment on the lunch, other than to say that the mayor has to eat just like everyone else.

When the TV cameras blinked off, Gaetan pulled aside a certain New Times writer. "He knows you're here and he really wants to talk to you," the spokesman divulged. "Why don't you try to get ahold of him on Friday?"

As Friday morning was turning from sunny to overcast, this writer arrived at Suarez's residence to see two of the mayor's young daughters loading a car for what they said would be a family vacation to the Keys. Francis, Xavier's eldest son, invited the writer inside for a glass of ice water. As Francis was filling a glass in the kitchen, the mayor bounded down a spiral staircase and firmly grasped the writer's arm. "How did you get in here?" he demanded. "We've got to get you out of here or you're going to witness a family crisis." He led the writer outside, past a glistening blue pool and through a back gate.

"You made a mistake," Suarez scolded his son, who was following with the water, ice cubes tinkling against the glass. "You should have never let him inside." His son laughed and said he was just trying to be polite, but the mayor's glower was undiminished. "All media," he replied, "are the enemy."

He had no comment on any topic at this time, the mayor announced. Quickly closing the white iron gate, he wished the reporter good day and retreated, presumably to spend more time with his family.


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