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.

So what in hell is up with the crazily ambitious 195-page book, A Unified Theory of God, Mind & Matter, published in 2005? The one that reads like scattershot Kierkegaard, junior professor, and sesquipedalian starched shirt? The one that's ranked around 2,770,082 on the Amazon Bestsellers list?

After his mayoral career ended abruptly, Suarez says, he filled his free time with writing while restarting his law practice. And trying to solve the mysteries of the universe. Six years ago, he released the result: an aggregation of his thoughts on physics, religion, God, and science. Suarez calls it his "theory of everything."

Over his tuna salad at Habana Vieja — just down the block from La Cuevita — Suarez tries to explain. It all started with lunches with a favorite godfather named Ignacio, he says, the "last true polymath mind I ever knew." They'd discuss everything from architecture to algebra. Suddenly faced with a life outside politics, Suarez wanted to answer the big questions himself.

"So I one-upped Stephen Hawking," he says, munching on a cracker.

Alas, the book is so unreadably dense it's difficult to say if he's right. (Want to tackle this sentence to see if the secrets of the universe are inside? "The mentioned third saltation in the order of things, from elementary particles to complex cells, is the one that has... advanced the concept of irreducible capacity." No? Didn't think so.)

"Elementary particle cells" aren't the only things to worry about with Suarez's return to politics. County records show that dozens of developers contributed to his $200,000 campaign war chest — from GOP kingmaker (and frequent ethics-rules skirter) Sergio Pino to megamall pusher Jeff Berkowitz to magnate Mark Siffin, whose attempts to build a 40-story digital billboard near the Adrienne Arsht Center were recently rebuffed.

When the commission inevitably considers allowing homes to be built in the Everglades yet again, whose interests will Suarez be looking out for? "I'm mostly interested in affordable-housing developers," he says. "Those other guys, they only started giving me money when it became obvious I was going to win."

After lunch, Suarez asks for a quick detour out of the parking lot to drive through a nearby intersection. "You see that?" he asks, shaking his head. "They need a four-way stop there. The neighbors say somebody's going to get killed really quick."

Moments like that provide some hope. As one of 13 commissioners, he might just look out for his constituents. But then Suarez gets a distant look in his eyes. He's got bigger plans than street signs.

"I'm working on an evolution book now that I'll soon publish, and I'm already starting my next one, to unify a bunch of different economic theories. I'm dabbling in media. I'm hoping to start a nonprofit," Suarez reveals, his sonorous voice growing more excited. "These next two books, they're going to one-up de Tocqueville and Darwin."


KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink