Miami's Francis Suarez Wants to Be Strong Mayor

Miami's Francis Suarez Wants to Be Strong Mayor
Photo by Michael Campina
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It's just before 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in October, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is glad-handing with constituents at the Shenandoah Park recreation center. He shakes hands with a couple of uniformed cops and plants a kiss on an older woman's cheek. Dressed in a trim navy suit, he strides to the front of a cluster of folding tables to pitch the crowd on a bold idea: He wants to become a strong mayor in the mold of New York City's Bill de Blasio or Chicago's Rahm Emanuel.

Suarez, who with his slicked-back hair and expressive face could pass for a soap opera star, rests his hands on the table before him and delivers a short speech about how the change would make the mayor more accountable to voters. "When you go to the mayor's office and you want something done, then that person should have the authority to do it for you," he says. "And if the person can't do it for you, then you should have the ability to hold that person responsible."

He wraps up by asking the group of 40 or so to "place your confidence in me" and support an initiative on the November 6 ballot that would grant him broad powers to shape the future of Florida's premier city.

A line of people with questions soon forms. "One of my concerns is, we need less government, I think; we need less consolidation of power," a bespectacled man named David Winker says. "Do we need a more active city government; do we need power consolidated?"

The mayor gives a terse shake of his head. "It's not a consolidation of power," he says.

"A hundred percent it is," Winker insists, prompting another denial from Suarez, who claims it's simply a shift.

Though the charismatic young mayor represented this community for eight years as a city commissioner, and at least a few faces are familiar, it's not exactly a friendly crowd. There are questions about potential conflicts of interest with his outside work as an attorney. There's anger over grass being replaced with artificial turf in Brickell, complete with painted protest signs. And there's a surprise appearance by political gadfly Al Crespo, who grills the mayor on why he wants to keep the city manager if he'll be a strong mayor.

It's not only in this room that Suarez's gambit to take control of the city's $1 billion budget and its 4,000 employees has proven controversial. Thousands of citizens have received mailers that shout, "Don't be fooled. Say no to strong mayor." They were funded by Miami-Dade Residents First, a PAC belonging to someone who's long been a Suarez friend: Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. An anonymous Twitter account with the handle @littleboymayor says Suarez "loves to dream big while drinking lots of milk so [he] can be a super strong mayor someday." A chorus of critics questions the more than $1 million that has flowed into the effort from contractors, real-estate firms, wealthy donors, and others.

Many a leader has broached the strong-mayor idea in the past. In fact, Suarez's father, Xavier, Miami's famously nicknamed "Mayor Loco," tried before him. And though mayors with executive powers rule governments across Florida — from Jacksonville to Orlando to Hialeah — the switch has never succeeded in the state's cultural capital.

The 41-year-old Suarez, not even a year into his first term as mayor, scored a victory just by getting the question on the ballot. He did so despite lawsuits filed by Commissioner Joe Carollo, a longtime nemesis of his father who fought previous strong-mayor measures; and Bruce Matheson, who in 2016 succeeded in blocking the expansion of the Crandon Park Tennis Center. Suarez is adamant that what he's now calling an "accountable mayor" system would create a more efficient and stable Miami government.

"When residents elect a mayor, they expect the mayor to be able to solve their problems," he says. "They expect, when they go see the mayor, the mayor to be able to take care of things. But what they don't understand is that the mayor is not in charge."

This Republican son of Miami's first Cuban mayor, with formidable fundraising abilities and as-of-yet untold ambition, is widely considered a rising star. With the election just a week away, it'll soon be clear whether his star will continue to rise or be knocked off course by a humiliating loss at the polls.

Francis Suarez is held aloft by his father, Xavier.
Francis Suarez is held aloft by his father, Xavier.
Courtesy photo

When his father was first elected mayor, Francis was just 8 years old. Miami was embroiled in the turmoil of the cocaine cowboy era, and Xavier Suarez put in long hours trying to pull the city out of one of the most difficult periods in its still-young lifespan.

But Xavier was always a committed father. So one night in March 1990, he excused himself early from a Coconut Grove town-hall meeting. He told the crowd he needed to help Francis prep for a seventh-grade geography test. About a week later, the Miami Herald published his score: an 85.

"I guess it's a B, but not a high B," the mayor told the newspaper. "Frankly, for all that effort, I thought he would do better."

Francis Xavier Suarez grew up in a strange sort of spotlight. Born October 6, 1977, he was the first child and only son of Xavier, a Harvard-educated lawyer whose family fled Castro's Cuba; and Rita, a Havana-born schoolteacher who stayed home with Francis and his three younger sisters. The couple raised their children in Little Havana and the Roads, Catholic and proud of their Cuban roots.

While Xavier Suarez was mayor, Francis and his sisters Olga, Anna, and Carolina were sometimes trailed by police officers. After the senior Suarez condemned the drug cartels that back then were wreaking havoc on the city, his son says, police received a tip that a sicario had been sent to kill the mayor. Cops were posted outside the children's classrooms.

"When you're a kid, you don't really appreciate the threat," he says. "Because you're a kid, it's kind of, like, cool in a way, but I think it's fair to say that there were kids that were not too thrilled about it."

The younger Suarez excelled at math but was an average student at the Catholic La Salle High School, more interested in basketball and hanging out with a wide circle of friends whom he had met in preschool and kept for life. Like his dad, he was a point guard. "He was an exceptional basketball player even though we used to always play with him because he was a little shorter," says Vince Lago, one of those friends and a current member of the Coral Gables City Commission. "He made up for it in his tenacity and work ethic."

The boy's first job was at Miami Seaquarium, where he cleaned the animal enclosures. "He would come home and smell terrible," his mother recalls. Later he worked at a city-sponsored summer camp named for a Cuban-born rowing coach, Nestor Carbonell.

Francis and others who knew him back then insist he never rebelled against the heightened scrutiny he faced. Instead, he tried to be "extra-careful," his mom says. But she recalls one run-in with law enforcement around 1991. Francis, then 14, asked if he and a few friends could go to Alex Wainwright Park for a paintball fight. Not knowing exactly what that meant, she assented. She was making burgers for the group when her husband called. "He says, 'Where's Francis?'" she remembers. "And I said, 'Oh, they're playing with the paintballs at the park.'

And he says, 'Yeah, with the SWAT team.'" Mistaking the boys' paintball guns for real guns, someone had called the cops.

"Everything was resolved, but that's a story we tell all the time," Rita Suarez says, laughing at the memory.

A defining moment for the family — and a bizarre, destabilizing time for the city — came in 1998. Xavier Suarez, who'd returned to private law practice in 1993 after his first stint leading Miami, ran for the job again in 1997. He beat incumbent Joe Carollo by 155 votes in the general election and 2,859 votes in the runoff. Carollo sued, and four months later, an appeals court found Suarez's victory was the result of fraudulent absentee ballots. Francis, then a 20-year-old sophomore at Florida International University, was dragged into the mess, forced to testify in court about whether the "F. Suarez" signature on several ballots was his.

"We asked him the legitimate question, 'Is this you?'" Carollo lawyer Ben Kuehne told reporters at the time. "He says, 'No.' I believe him when he testifies under oath. I have no reason to question his veracity."

A bright leader once nicknamed "Mayor Pothole" because of his close attention to constituents' concerns, Xavier Suarez in his brief second go-round behaved so unusually that his antics made national news. After he made a late-night house call to Edna Benson, a 68-year-old retired city employee who had written him a critical letter, Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen dubbed him "Mayor Loco." Suarez was waving the letter; Benson was holding a pistol. "Another chaotic week ends," the columnist wrote in December 1997, "leaving Miamians to wonder how long before the white-suited men with butterfly nets come to take the mayor away."

The nickname stuck. Suarez struggled to find new work after his ouster, and the family had to sell their home in the Roads. They briefly moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Miami Beach. Francis moved into his grandparents' house in Little Havana. He took the negative press and the sudden turnaround hard, his mom says: "He kisses the ground his dad walks on."

The family has always maintained that Xavier, who was never charged with a crime, was treated unfairly. "I've known my dad my whole life, and my dad is probably one of the most intellectually sober and smart people that I've ever encountered," he says. "So to have somebody manipulate and mischaracterize him — it was sort of a harsh lesson in politics."

Yet it wouldn't stop father or son from jumping back into the fray.

Francis Suarez's father, Xavier, who was twice elected mayor of Miami in the '80s and '90s, tried before his son to become strong mayor.
Francis Suarez's father, Xavier, who was twice elected mayor of Miami in the '80s and '90s, tried before his son to become strong mayor.
Courtesy of District 7 Board of County Commissioners

In October 1998, less than a year after his unceremonial eviction from city hall, Xavier Suarez resurfaced with a bold new plan: a referendum to dramatically expand the mayor's powers and, in doing so, kick out Carollo, the man who'd taken the job from him. If it succeeded, Suarez planned to run again himself.

"They don't make straitjackets like they used to," Hiaasen wrote. "Mayor Loco is back!"

The elder Suarez backed a petition drive that collected 20,000 signatures to put the strong-mayor item on the 1999 ballot. His son handed out palm cards to residents. City commissioners, who were mostly sick of Carollo after he flung wild accusations of corruption and stealing at them, approved taking the question to voters.

That November, the strong-mayor measure actually passed by a 53-47 margin. But Miami never got its strong mayor, and Carollo was never ousted: A judge ruled the measure amounted to an illegal mayoral recall.

Francis Suarez finished FIU in the top 10 percent of his class and, after mulling a run for the state House, was off to law school at the University of Florida, where he graduated cum laude in 2005. It was the only time he's lived outside Miami, and he returned home soon after earning his JD. "I've always felt that Miami is part of my DNA," he says. The summer after graduation, the young lawyer met a striking event planner named Gloria Fonts, who had gone to his sisters' all-girls Catholic school, Our Lady of Lourdes. "He was very outgoing, very charming," she recalls. "And we shared very similar values." They married two years later.

He worked as an associate at Haley Sinagra Paul & Toland, where he specialized in commercial litigation, and then at Doctors Management Group, where he served as general counsel. Later he founded his own firm, practicing real-estate law.

Then, in 2009, the seat representing the Hispanic-heavy, mainly residential District 4, which includes the neighborhoods of Silver Bluff, Shenandoah, and Flagami, opened on the city commission. Francis, then 32, decided to run. Though his mother fretted about having to live through the drama that plagued the family after his father's removal from office, he was brought up to see public service as something noble. Wanting to be elected on his own merits instead of his dad's name, he says, he left his middle name out of campaign material.

Francis Suarez has pushed the strong-mayor initiative in radio interviews.
Francis Suarez has pushed the strong-mayor initiative in radio interviews.
Photo by Michael Campina

Though the two share similar ideologies, Francis has always been more charismatic than his reserved, bookish father. Far from being shy, the younger Suarez is comfortable striding into a room and offering hugs to everyone there. "I like to say that it takes me about five cups of coffee in the morning to even like myself," Xavier Suarez says wryly. "Francis wakes up liking people."

The aspiring politician wore out a pair of leather Cole Haan shoes while knocking on doors across the district, freely handing out his cell-phone number along the way. He squeaked out a narrow, 262-vote victory over former city economist Manolo Reyes to join the commission in the midst of another financial crisis. Two years later, Suarez Sr. finally made his comeback, unexpectedly winning election to the county commission. ("People believe in him again," his wife Rita says. "And he's an honorable person again.") Father and son represented some of the same parts of the city, including Coral Gate and the area around it. They also served together on the Miami-Dade Transportation Planning Organization.

In 2013, Francis ran for his dad's old job as mayor, challenging incumbent Tomás Regalado. Suarez's bid was well-funded and considered promising, but cut short by a few embarrassing gaffes. There was the administrative assistant he had to fire after her tweets about constituents — "Please get a life, a hobby, a lobotomy" — went public. Then, not long after that snafu, two people working for the campaign pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges for unlawfully submitting ballot requests online. The pair — Suarez's cousin and campaign manager, Esteban "Steve" Suarez; and a friend Steve had hired, Juan Pablo Baggini — had used two attractive young women to persuade people at a Brickell Cinco de Mayo party to request absentee ballots. The move violated Florida law: Absentee ballots may be requested only by a voter or immediate family member. Suarez and Baggini ended up on probation.

At a morning news conference outside his Coral Gate house, with his wife and his parents by his side, Francis announced he was dropping out. The stress over the campaign's missteps was becoming too much: He and his wife were expecting their first child.

"I got into the race for the right reasons," Suarez told the Herald at the time. "I got out of the race for the right reasons. I'm at peace with my decision. I've learned a lot from it."

He held onto his commission seat and continued to practice real-estate law, jumping to Alvarez & Barbera LLP and then to GrayRobinson PA. He became a CrossFit fanatic, participating in competitions and even installing a CrossFit gym in his house. (At one point, he could dead-lift 455 pounds, his dad says proudly.)

By 2015, observers were predicting Suarez would run for mayor again in 2017, when Regalado would be forced out due to term limits. By the time Suarez formally announced his candidacy in May 2016, he already had $725,000 in a political committee war chest that included donations to his past mayoral and commission bids.

This time, there would be no more amateur mistakes. Suarez ran as a 40-year-old father of two with eight years on the commission and promises of making Miami a city in its own right instead of just the "Gateway to the Americas." He spoke of expanding affordable housing, bringing in tech jobs, and making the city more resilient. He pulled in more than $3 million in donations despite the lack of any real opponents and the consensus among most that he was a shoo-in. He beat candidates Cynthia Jaquith, Williams Alfred Armbrister Sr., and Christian Canache with more than 85 percent of the vote, a percentage in which he takes pride. During his victory speech at the Omni Hilton on Biscayne Boulevard, he spoke passionately of creating "a Miami that is no longer a tale of two cities."

But elected to the commission in a runoff later that year was his father's old nemesis, Carollo, a vocal opponent of the strong-mayor measure that Suarez had twice pushed as a commissioner. Suarez set up a committee that assembled a proposal to change the city's charter and, by April, collected 20,000 signatures to put it on the November ballot.

Soon billboards of Francis' smiling face and the message "A strong mayor for a stronger Miami" went up across the city.

Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo sued the city to stop the strong-mayor referendum.
Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo sued the city to stop the strong-mayor referendum.
Courtesy of Facebook

Joe Carollo sounded a bit like Donald Trump — bombastic, self-righteous, hyperbolic — this past September when he stood in a Miami courthouse and told WPLG reporter Samantha Bryant why he opposes Francis Suarez's strong-mayor referendum.

"Very likely if this passes, he'll be the last mayor we have," the commissioner said. "Because the city of Miami would not be able to withstand what would come afterward. And I think we will soon see ourselves spinning into a bankruptcy."

Since he took office last November, Suarez has had his share of controversy: city cops busted for dealing drugs, a municipal golf course potentially transformed into a soccer stadium with acres of office and retail space, and the nation's premier electronic music festival, Ultra, booted from Bayfront Park. But perhaps nothing has divided the city and its leaders more than the strong-mayor referendum. It has also set the stage for a familiar city-hall power battle: Carollo versus Suarez.

"We've been watching this Suarez-Carollo family feud go on for decades," says Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University. "And so that's what makes this more complex. On the one hand, there's a legitimate issue over the structure of government in the City of Miami. And on the other hand, there's a power struggle between two longtime family foes. So it makes it harder for voters to separate out what's a good idea versus who do they like in this fight."

Until 1997, Miami had what's called a "weak mayor" form of government, in which the mayor sits as a voting member of the commission in a mostly ceremonial role. That year, voters agreed to make the mayor an "executive" who earns a higher salary and runs the city with a manager of his choice. Xavier Suarez was the first to lead under that system, though his term lasted just 111 wild days before he was booted from Dinner Key in the absentee-voter scandal. Carollo took his place.

Today about 67 percent of Florida cities have setups like Miami's, which are intended to keep politics from day-to-day operations with a professional manager in charge. Suarez says running things this way has caused instability and points to the fact that Miami has had 21 managers in 16 years. "That's not good in terms of consistency," he says, "in terms of creating a culture."

But Suarez's push has been dogged by critics led by his father's old foe. "He's got no background in managing a city," Carollo told the Herald. "He wouldn't know what to do."

Carollo sued the city this past September. He claimed the ballot language was misleading because it didn't make clear the mayor could receive a raise from $130,000 to about $300,000. (Suarez says he'll refuse the extra cash.) Carollo also alleged the process to get the item on the ballot was faulty, but a judge dismissed the suit in October.

Yet the controversy continues. Much of it centers on fears the mayor would become too powerful. Although other large Florida cities have strong mayors in charge, Suarez's proposal would give him unusual authority, says Barry University's Foreman. The mayor would oversee not only the police and fire chiefs and every other department head, but also the city attorney and city clerk. He would lead labor union negotiations and make recommendations about government contracts. And he'd have the authority to serve as commission chairman and name his own successor — even if he was recalled or suspended.

The extraordinary amount of power the mayor would wield led the Herald's editorial board to declare that, despite holding Suarez in high regard, "unfortunately, we can't support what, in essence, walks and talks like a power grab." In a video shared on social media, Miami filmmaker Billy Corben went much further with his criticism: He inserted images of Suarez into clips of dictators giving speeches and stamped words such as "tyrant" and "emperor" over a portrait of the mayor.

The charismatic young mayor was a city commissioner for eight years.
The charismatic young mayor was a city commissioner for eight years.
Photo by Michael Campina

In recent months, as the opposition has heated up, Suarez has shifted to calling the more powerful position not a strong mayor, but an "independent and accountable mayor," because, he recently told the Herald: "As a resident, you want to make sure you know who's responsible for the decision-making, and you want the mayor to be accountable."

Foreman generally likes the idea of a more powerful leader but has doubts about the measure that will go before voters. "I think strong-mayor proposals are a good idea for large cities like Miami," he says, "but this particular proposal seems to be an overreach."

Critics also question Suarez's plans to continue working at his recently acquired job as an attorney at the firm Greenspoon Marder. How will he run a city of Miami's size while maintaining outside employment? Suarez insists he already works two full-time jobs — as a lawyer and in his current role as mayor. He says he needs to keep City Manager Emilio Gonzalez on staff — with a $310,000 salary — to assist with the day-to-day while the mayor focuses on the big picture.

Suarez, who has $1 million to push the initiative, has been putting in long hours making media and homeowners association appearances to present his case. On a recent Tuesday, his day ended around 8:30 p.m. after two homeowners association meetings. The next morning, he was at Univision by 7:30 a.m. for a radio interview. Opponents of the effort have also been hard at work. Gimenez, who's spending thousands of dollars to defeat the measure, issued a strong rebuke of the level of power Suarez would gain.

"I find the proposed strong-mayor charter amendments to be not only an executive overreach, but also dangerous," he told the Herald in a statement.

As early voting began this past October 22, a second legal challenge was mounted against the strong-mayor question. Bruce Matheson, the wealthy heir to the family that deeded Crandon Park to the county and then killed expansion of the tennis center there, contends the measure violates the state's sunshine law. He calls it the "Secret Mayor Amendment."

The proposal exempts the mayor from part of the sunshine law requiring open meetings between elected officials. Matheson contends this change would "significantly diminish the mayor's accountability to the public."

If the referendum doesn't succeed, "it'll certainly be a setback to Suarez's political ambition," says Foreman, the Barry University professor, "but probably just a bump in the road."

Suarez shakes off much of the criticism, saying he doesn't understand why the thing is so controversial. "Unfortunately, the history of Miami is that when you're trying to do something good and beneficial, somebody will come out against it," he says. "Nothing can be done easily."

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