A Tale of Two Mayors

Next Tuesday, for the fourth time in their political careers, Maurice Ferre and Xavier Suarez will appear on the same ballot, their futures left to the fancy of an electorate that in the past has been both loving and cruel to each man. On three separate occasions -- in 1983, 1985, and 1987 -- Ferre and Suarez bitterly fought one another for the mayoralty of Miami. Now they are vying to see who will be the indisputable leader of all of Dade County, with its 2.1 million residents and its four-billion-dollar annual budget.

Other contenders are in this race, most notably Alex Penelas and Arthur E. Teele, Jr., but the long-standing rivalry between Suarez and Ferre -- their distinctly different views of government and their personal animus toward one another -- makes this latest grudge match a political treat. It is highly unlikely that both Ferre and Suarez will advance to the next round. Having spent more than one million dollars, it appears (given recent polls) that Penelas has bought himself a slot in the October 1 runoff, leaving the others to battle for the second position. In the cases of Suarez and Ferre, this represents a well-worn path.

Ferre became Miami's first Hispanic mayor in 1973. The product of a wealthy Puerto Rican family, he was a developer and property owner who looked at downtown Miami and saw the future. Initially it was his desire to own that burgeoning skyline, but when the family's $600 million concrete business went bankrupt in 1976 following a recession, he settled for the role of political architect, the man who would motivate others to build.

By encouraging the proliferation of skyscrapers, Ferre shifted Miami's tax base. The government, once dependent on the property taxes of individual homeowners, now drew its largest block of revenue from the corporations that had settled in the city's core. Lost, however, in Ferre's drive to build was an understanding that a municipality is more than just the sum of its largest buildings. It is actually made up of people whose needs are far less grandiose and visionary -- people who want their garbage collected regularly, their streets well maintained, and their neighborhoods kept safe from criminals.

In 1983 Suarez challenged Ferre for the first time. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Suarez had run for Miami's city commission twice before and lost. But he believed Ferre was vulnerable, and with the financial backing of millionaire car dealer Norman Braman, he challenged the five-term incumbent. Ferre, who carried the Herald's endorsement, won easily with 55 percent of the vote, thanks to an overwhelming turnout in the black community (which gave him 96 percent of its vote). (This was also the year of Joe Carollo's legendary double cross. After calling a press conference with Ferre to declare his support for the mayor, Carollo instead denounced Ferre, who sat dumbfounded only a few feet away.)

What a difference two years would make. During the intervening period, Ferre fired City Manager Howard Gary, a black, which prompted a nearly successful recall effort by the city's black leaders. He was also fined $70,000 for illegal campaign contributions he had received in December 1981 (a fine he didn't bother to pay until two months ago). By 1985, when Ferre was up for re-election to a seventh term, he faced opposition not only from Suarez but from Raul Masvidal, a Cuban-American banker.

"It is time for a change, a profound change that can come only by ousting Maurice Ferre," the Herald wrote in its 1985 editorial supporting Masvidal. "The sad fact is that Maurice Ferre has become not one man but two. One is a charming, persuasive, urbane, occasionally visionary believer in and evangelist for Miami's potential. For all that this Maurice Ferre has achieved as mayor, grant him due credit. The other Maurice Ferre is venal, vindictive, obsessed with remaining in office at all costs. It is this persona, alas, that seeks a seventh term." Ferre finished third that year, unable even to make the runoff. Blacks, who had turned out for Ferre in droves in 1983, defected en masse to Masvidal, who went on to lose to Suarez in the runoff.

And so Suarez became the city's first Cuban-born mayor, and his visionary leadership had him looking no farther than the blue slips of paper he kept tucked in an office binder. On each slip was a specific problem he had noticed or that had been called to his attention by a citizen. A Flagler pothole, a broken traffic light on Biscayne, an empty lot strewn with garbage in Little Havana -- these were his priorities. As mayor, the joke went, Suarez made a great public works director.

In 1987 Ferre and Suarez went at it one more time. In a three-way race nearly identical to this year's county contest, Ferre, Suarez, and Teele all entered the fray. Still in shock that voters could have preferred Suarez to him, Ferre believed that after two years of Suarez's myopia, they would welcome him back. He was wrong. Though he beat Teele, at the time a relative newcomer to Miami, Ferre lost to Suarez in the runoff.

After eight years in office, Suarez decided not to seek re-election in 1993, and concentrated instead on his family and his law practice. He seemed bored by politics, says Christopher Warren, a professor of political science at Florida International University. "Suarez never showed himself to be a particularly aggressive leader," he adds. "He was never someone who had a strong agenda. A lot of people thought he had a significant future in politics, but he has never been able to show that this is something that drives him, that this is in his gut."

That ambivalence is apparent today. "I've been surprised his campaign hasn't been more effective," says Warren, who has been at FIU since 1980. "There is something curious about his persona. He is seen as someone who is supposed to be bright, and having graduated from Harvard you would think he should have all these ideas, but he doesn't seem interested in coming up with them or in articulating them in a thoughtful way."

Instead, in political forum after political forum, Suarez harangues his opponents, citing a litany of commission boondoggles: an ineffective sound barrier at the airport, a tracking system for Metro buses that doesn't work, trees that mysteriously shrink. He declares that if he had been on the commission, he would have prevented all of these mistakes. Suarez's negativism, of course, has the enviable benefit of hindsight. More significant, however, is his inability to say what he is for.

"He's trying to seize on discontent, but by itself voter discontent is rarely enough," observes Warren. It is also difficult for Suarez to run effectively as a political outsider as he was mayor of Dade's largest city for eight years. And he is having trouble running as an accomplished technocrat because his opponents consistently are able to tar him with the arena debacle. (It was under Suarez's smaller-is-better brand of government that the construction budget for the Miami Arena was slashed, thereby rendering it obsolete just eight years after it opened.)

"I'm a micro-manager," Suarez said recently during a candidates debate, "and I'm proud to be a micro-manager." He has promised that if he is elected mayor, he will never conduct a national search to fill a county position. And he has railed against the high salaries of county staff, particularly members of the county attorney's office, who he said could be replaced by far less expensive recent law school graduates.

Suarez's Perot-like oversimplification of government has a folksy appeal that is unrealistic in practice. His own campaign is proof. Eschewing the help of political consultants, Suarez supervises every aspect of the effort, and until recently balked at raising or spending a significant amount of money. The result: He was dead last in the Herald's most recent poll.

The same year Suarez left the mayor's office, Ferre mounted a comeback from political oblivion and won a seat on the newly expanded county commission where, once again, he has basked in the role of visionary. Now he's given up that to run for county mayor.

Ironically, despite Suarez's and Ferre's differences, they both draw the same type of voter, notes Dario Moreno, another political science professor at FIU. "They both appeal to middle-class-and-higher Anglos and Latins," he says. "Neither of them are populists. Ferre is a patrician, a Latin aristocrat. Suarez went to Harvard and is the son of a college professor." Moreno warns that both Ferre and Suarez could be in serious trouble on election day, because not only could they split this vote, but it is also the segment of the population most likely to stay home and not vote at all.

Although nearly a decade has passed, the rhetorical jabs between Suarez and Ferre remain the same. Suarez attacks Ferre for living in the future. Ferre belittles Suarez for being a mindless technocrat. Even most of the players remain the same. "Can you believe it?" Moreno laughs. "Even Joe Carollo is back.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede