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.
"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."
Throughout his political career, Suarez has done best with grass-roots campaigns that give him face-to-face contact with voters. He's in his element when engaging people, and they seem to respond well to his gregariousness. In Cuban venues like the Latin American Cafetería on SW 27th Avenue just off U.S. 1, people still refer to him as nuestro alcalde, our mayor. Even opponents acknowledge Suarez's strength of personality. "He's definitely the better campaigner," says political consultant and former Miami mayor David Kennedy, a Gimenez supporter. "Gimenez is a little bit too withdrawn."
Suarez typically shuns the use of consultants and paid campaign staff, relying instead on a loyal handful of volunteers, chief among them his 27-year-old son Frances. "We'll be fine with our 60 non-paid volunteers," says the younger Suarez, explaining that their emphasis in the runoff is to target two groups of people: those who didn't vote in the primary but who are expected to do so November 2, and those who did vote on August 31 but skipped over the District 7 candidates. "There were a lot of under votes," the son notes. "We want those voters. If we can mobilize voters like we did in the primary, we can make it a close race."
During the meeting at Harambourl's home, Suarez hands out copies of a voter-registration list Andres Rivero provided him. It contains the addresses and phone numbers of voters in several District 7 precincts who cast their ballots for Rivero in the primary. "I'm sending those voters letters notifying them of Rivero's endorsement and asking them to vote for me," Suarez says. "I've also got volunteers calling them." Suarez hopes those voters, predominantly affluent Hispanics and Anglos, will complement his strong support among black voters in South Miami and west Coconut Grove. (In the primary, Gimenez won 10,706 votes to Suarez's 8050 and Rivero's 5059.)
Voter turnout November 2 is expected to far surpass the primary's 37 percent. Experts say the presidential race will draw between 60 and 70 percent of registered voters to the polls. Capturing as many Rivero supporters as possible will be essential if Suarez hopes for an upset, but the prospect of nearly twice as many voters means both candidates will have to work twice as hard. "Frankly, I don't believe Xavier has the time or money to do that," says Ric Katz, a consultant who helped Suarez become Miami mayor in 1985.
Nevertheless Suarez is brimming with confidence. "I've been on radio nonstop for three straight weeks," he says. "We've blanketed the Coral Way and U.S. 1 corridors with signs. Rod Jude has been calling Sierra Club members to get them out. Everything I hear is that I am doing extremely well. There have been a lot of people who have maligned me. There have been enough things done to me that would warrant an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, I hold malice toward none. I look forward to having a great working relationship with everyone."
What does Xavier Suarez have to do to win?
Lobbyist and campaign consultant
There is no "Colonel's secret recipe" that would give Suarez an edge over Gimenez. Unfortunately Suarez has had a bad run with the media. He can still count on his traditional Little Havana voting bloc, who still believe in him. But he won't be able to resurrect his image among the English-speaking voters who read the Miami Herald and New Times.
Lobbyist and political fundraiser
People underestimate just how smart the voting public really is. Especially in District 7. People know Xavier Suarez was an embarrassment to the City of Miami. There is no way he can win.
South Miami commissioner
Hit the streets and knock on doors. People always remember your face, and that might be the only time the voters will get that close to you.
Former Miami mayor and former District 7 county commissioner
If Suarez can sustain his two-to-one lead over Gimenez in the district's black precincts, take about 30 percent of the Anglo vote, and get between 55 and 65 percent of the Hispanic votes, then it's a dead heat. But that is going to be pretty hard to do.
He still has support among Hispanics in Miami so all he has to do is let them know he is on the ballot. But he has to get into areas of the county, south of Coconut Grove, where people have not seen his face. But knowing Xavier, he's probably already doing some of that. Meeting with voters is his strongest suit. But I don't think that is enough to win. He also needs to remind people about his first two terms as Miami mayor when he was a good guy and everyone supported him.
Lobbyist and campaign consultant
Xavier Suarez needs more Cubans to vote. People think this district is evenly split among Anglos and Hispanics. That's not always the case. For example, my son is Cuban American yet he's registered as an Anglo voter. So he needs to work the Cuban precincts. I ran Jimmy Morales's campaign in 1996. He won because he got 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote.
Publicist and campaign consultant
Xavier Suarez should buy a lot of television time and run a series of spots depicting conversations with Suarez where he can show that he is rational and that he has his act together. He's already starting from a negative position. I don't believe he has the time or money to pull it off.
Meet with as many voters as possible. That has always been Suarez's strength. He is more personable when he is on the campaign trail. But I don't know if he can overcome all the negative press he received during his last term as mayor.
Lobbyist and campaign consultant
Xavier Suarez has to solidify his base and then capitalize on Andres Rivero's endorsement by reaching out to his voting bloc. If he can turn out his voters and the people who voted for Andres, Suarez could have enough to win. He should also reach out to all the voters who didn't vote in the primary.
Jorge Luis Lopez
Attorney, lobbyist, and political fundraiser
In order to prevail, Suarez has to undercut Gimenez's integrity and show voters that he is the lesser of two evils. But that's not going to happen.
He's doing what he has to do by bombarding Hispanic voters with attack ads on Spanish-language radio and Anglo voters with attack mailers. He has to create confusion among voters regarding problems he created when he was mayor of Miami by placing the blame on Gimenez.
Eston "Dusty" Melton
Suarez needs to get a brain transplant and then go back to Harvard. But that may not be enough. The guy is just too wacky.
Miami City Commissioner
Xavier Suarez needs to tap his fountain of support among Hispanic voters in District 7. He should also tell voters that he is against the $2.9 billion bond issue and the runaway development going on in the City of Miami. Those are key issues that resonate with the voters.
Third place in District 7 primary
Xavier is moving up. He has a set of endorsements he didn't have in the primary, including the Sierra Club, which is going to help him win support among voters who are concerned about environmental issues and overdevelopment. He also ran a smart strategy in the first round by using most of his money exclusively on mass media. None of his campaign financing went to paid consultants. So he's running a leaner operation and can do more with his campaign war chest.
Kent Harrison Robbins
Attorney and Sierra Club board member
Xavier Suarez has to show people that he is a very personable, honest man despite all the negative things raised about him the last time he held political office.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner
If Suarez can effectively convey his message to the different constituencies in District 7, he can win.
Attorney and candidate's son
Continue with our plan of getting out the vote. We have an army of about 60 nonpaid volunteers. Most of them are young professionals like me who were very successful during the primary by simply thanking people for coming out to vote. We're also going after the people who didn't come out for the primary, and early voters.
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Miami City Commissioner
I don't see any way that Suarez could close the gap on Gimenez. I can't imagine any more people loading up on Bathrobe Xavier's bandwagon. Whatever he got in the primary is all he is going to get on November 2.