In the Miami mayor’s race, none of the choices is good. But Miami has to pick anyway | Editorial

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Miami is not an easy city to govern. It has deepening inequities, an urgent need to address climate change and divisive politics that continue to cripple the city, as we’ve seen with the debacle over the short-lived tenure of Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo. It needs a leader who can help map out a future that includes everyone in the city, not just the well-off.

In the race for mayor, the choice has become exceedingly difficult, for the Miami Herald Editorial Board and for voters. Mayor Francis Suarez is the only candidate with the experience and knowledge for the job, but his behavior during Acevedo’s termination has been so lacking that, even if we had no other concerns about him, we are hard put to look past it.

There are four other candidates, plus one more who has just been found ineligible to run. None has held office or displayed the sort of hard work and investment in the city — sitting on boards, working in government or long-term activism on community issues — that shows they are serious about the issues and equipped for public office.

Who’s running?

Two candidates, Max Martinez, a digital sports show and podcast creator and producer, and Marie Exantus, a former call-center representative and a student at the University of Miami, bring new energy to important, quality-of-life issues for regular Miamians, such as wages, climate gentrification and public transportation. Still, neither is ready for public office.

Voters also will see on the ballot the name of Mayra Joli, an immigration attorney who ran for Congress in 2018 and the Coral Gables City Commission earlier this year. But on Oct. 15, a judge ruled that she is not eligible to run for the mayor’s office because she had not lived in the city for a year prior to qualifying. But Joli’s name remains on ballots because they already had been printed. Joli, who became internet famous as the smiling, nodding backdrop for then-President Trump during a Miami town hall in 2020, said she plans to appeal.

Another candidate, Anthony Melvin Dutrow, has done no discernible campaigning, raised almost no money and wasn’t available to be interviewed.

And then there’s Francisco “Frank” Pichel, a private investigator arrested Oct. 1 on charges of impersonating a police officer in the Florida Keys. His arrest is linked to the Acevedo fiasco — and, perhaps, the mayor’s race.

In Acevedo’s burn-the-place-down memo on his way out the door, he accused Pichel of working to gather “dirt” for Commissioner Joe Carollo, among others. There’s also a police internal-affairs investigation into claims that Pichel was surveilling — and perhaps photographing — Suarez and his security staff at a rented house in Key Largo on Memorial Day weekend, as the Miami Herald reported. Carollo — chief architect of the fire-Acevedo campaign that resulted in Suarez’s public comeuppance — has denied the allegation that Pichel was working for him.

The situation is complicated, but the conclusion isn’t. This is not a field of mayoral candidates that gives voters any real alternatives. And that’s bad news for Miami, given the past few weeks of Suarez’s tenure.

Tech and the mayor

We have wondered for the last year how much of the young energetic mayor’s vision for a new Miami was actually about burnishing his own national image as the future of the Republican Party. But now we have bigger questions about his leadership abilities and commitment to the city based on his weeks-long silence as his hand-picked police chief was under sustained attack by city commissioners, followed by his blame-ducking news conference once the chief was doomed.

Suarez, 44, has been on a roll for a year, a cryptocurrency-loving, tech-bro-embracing, “Cafecito-Talk”-ing evangelist for a city on the rise, an image-conscious CEO as much as a mayor. His efforts have pushed Miami to look toward a future where it is known as more than a sunny tourist playground. That’s a good thing. Even if you believe tech isn’t the answer — and we are not at all sure it is — Miami must evolve if it is ever to create new opportunities for more people.

Is there any real economic impact from all the buzz, though? So far we only have limited numbers from various sources, including the county, LinkedIn and the market-data website Pitchbook, which paint an incomplete, if generally positive, picture. It may take until the spring, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its occupational employment figures, to draw better conclusions.

Outside experts, such as Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, say there are indications that “something” — though difficult to quantify — is happening in Miami’s tech scene. In a Miami Herald story, he noted a net-positive flow of 1,778 people had moved from the Bay Area to Miami in 2020.

But let’s just deal with a basic set of numbers Suarez gave the Editorial Board. He said the new companies coming to town are creating about 8,000 jobs. When we asked for the source, the mayor’s campaign supplied spreadsheets listing companies and jobs that totaled about 7,400, later accounting for that discrepancy by saying the spreadsheets were not fully up to date. Fine, but the more important issue is that those are projected jobs. Current jobs in Miami listed on those spreadsheets added up to 2,120.

That’s not nothing — but it’s also not 8,000. This town has been burned way too many times by job promises that don’t come true. You want to earn trust in this town? Start with being forthright about the figures, even when they aren’t as pretty as you might wish.

Suarez may have become known in New York and California, but he needs to demonstrate — right now — that Miami is his first priority. And that doesn’t mean doing interviews about Bitcoin upstairs in his office while his police chief is being flayed alive in the commission chambers down below. Here’s an idea: How about using that national spotlight to draw attention to some hard issues right here at home?

Leading through influence

We understand that the mayor’s position comes with very limited power — he has no vote on the commission. (His attempt to create a “strong mayor” position for himself, in which he would run day-to-day operations of a city with a $1 billion budget, was voted down in 2018.) That certainly makes it harder to lead. But he can veto legislation. He can hire or fire the city manager, which gives him some leverage. He can also exert influence by brokering deals, as he did last month when he helped commissioners reach agreement on how to divvy up $137 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan.

Mostly, though, what Suarez has is the power of the bully pulpit, magnified by his new-found status. Could he hammer home the lack of affordable housing? Could he become just as ardent a spokesman on sea rise as he is on cryptocurrency? Low wages? Racial justice? Even, dare we hope, transportation?

On the issue of Miami’s homeless, he says has a plan to reach what he calls “functional zero.” Could we see more urgent action on that — instead of Carollo’s attempts to criminalize homelessness? What about the city’s financial inequities? Miami’s homeownership rate of 30% is far too low, and rents are continuing to rise.

Suarez, an attorney and former city commissioner elected mayor in 2017, says he has worked on nuts-and-bolts issues as mayor — the opening of the The Underline and other parks, grants to encourage Black and female entrepreneurship and help fund anti-violence groups, new street lighting and a plan, partnering with Miami Dade College, to allow high school students to earn associate’s degrees in tech fields to help grow local employees for the jobs expected. He touts the city’s safety, including a lowered homicide rate, but notes that it went up in 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

He rightly points out that a large portion of his tenure as mayor has been dominated by the COVID pandemic, and we like that he’s sometimes been willing to take a stance that challenges the GOP. During the first surge of COVID, he ordered people to wear masks in public, which was the right thing to do. But then he undermined that message when he appeared in photos unmasked at a restaurant that was later shut down briefly because it had violated county COVID rules. He’d had COVID and recovered months earlier. But still, Do as I say, not as I do? That’s not a quality we look for in a leader.

He does have goals for the city apart from tech. We know he wants a $1 billion soccer stadium and commercial complex built on a city golf course, but that deal remains undone. During an interview with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, he mentioned other goals for his next term: revamping the Gusman Theater downtown, getting the years-long fight over the Coconut Grove Playhouse’s future resolved, turning the Miami Marine Stadium back into the gem it once was. We’d like to see those plans move forward.

The city’s very busy mayor sometimes lacks follow-through. Suarez talks about climate change, but was called out by an activist when he was absent from a series of monthly meetings on resilience that he had initiated. He declared a climate emergency in 2019 and set a goal of reducing the city’s carbon emissions by 2050, though he hasn’t released a final version of the plan. He’s an attorney with multiple jobs beyond being mayor, and has refused to disclose his client list, another thing that causes concern.

And during the wave of protests in Cuba this summer, he suggested that, “What should be contemplated right now is a coalition of potential military action in Cuba,” and called air strikes an “option” that should be explored. He later told the Herald he was not advocating for air strikes or any specific form of military intervention.

The police chief mess

And now there’s the implosion of the former Miami police chief. Suarez secretly recruited Acevedo from Houston as a change-maker, calling him the “Tom Brady or Michael Jordan of police chiefs” and bypassing the normal hiring process, an act of hubris that has come back to bite him hard. After just six months, the brash chief was forced out, done in by his own miscalculations in a community he didn’t understand and by entrenched Miami factions who could not forgive him for being an “outsider” who wanted change.

In a conversation with the Editorial Board on Oct. 1 — hours before a Miami Commission meeting in which Carollo continued his wrecking-ball assault on Acevedo’s career — Suarez refused to say whether he stood behind the chief. He said that he was involved behind the scenes, though not attending commission meetings. He brought up the chief’s “tremendous amount of credentials,” noted that the chief had done things he apologized for and added that he had been “very supportive of the chief from the beginning.” But he would not say what he wanted to happen to Acevedo, concluding: “We’ll see how this gets resolved.”

In the end, it’s Suarez who brought Acevedo in without preparing a path forward for him. Yet his news conference after the chief’s public execution came off as a self-serving attempt to brush aside his own part in what is becoming an enormous setback for the city. He also said he backed Acevedo’s firing — once it was inevitable.

Today, the city is mired in the same old political feuding. Instead of a crypto-capital, Miami has been looking far too much like a hot mess. It’s tiring. And really disappointing.

All of that adds up to a serious problem for a mayor who likes to stay safely above the fray. But more than that, it’s a problem for voters. If they return him to office Suarez needs to demonstrate that he’s in it for Miami, not himself.

For those who think we should opt out of choosing a candidate at all, we say this: Democracy requires participation. The voters have to pick someone. Protest votes for unqualified candidates are simply a way of letting others make the real choice. The same with choosing not to vote at all: You’re abdicating your responsibility as a citizen.

Suarez changed the conversation about Miami with his tech talk by posing a now-famous question to the tech community: “How can I help?” We have a response.

If you aspire to be a generational leader, someone whose influence on Miami is more than a momentary blip — or worse, a negative — you need to focus on the job much more than the image. Come up with a way to manage Carollo, who is functioning as the de facto mayor and controlling the narrative to the detriment of the entire city. Get the commission to work on things that matter. Use your celebrity platform for real and lasting change that benefits the regular people of this city, who already feel left out of any progress.

We don’t know if Suarez will ever be able to do enough to make up for the last few weeks. But Miamians need to see that he is acting on their behalf, not his. After all, he wanted this job. If there were even a slightly better qualified alternative candidate for mayor, we would recommend that person. But there isn’t. For Miami mayor, we think the only choice for voters is FRANCIS SUAREZ.

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