With about two months until Miami-Dade voters receive mailed ballots for the 2020 mayor’s race, candidates are ready to try and land some blows if given the chance.
Seven candidates fielded questions online Monday afternoon during a forum sponsored by the Miami Foundation, with newcomers promising a fresh approach to politics and veteran office holders urging the audience to blame others for unaddressed problems and lingering challenges.
The sharpest conflict came when Esteban “Steve” Bovo, one of three county commissioners running, turned to the other candidate with political roots in Hialeah and mocked the idea of former Mayor Alex Penelas returning for another stint in office.
He also targeted Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor, for a platform that includes permanent elimination of transit tolls and lifting tolls on roads across Miami-Dade.
“I hear one candidate talk about all the things he did in the ‘90s. … We had to literally elect a police director after eight years of Alex Penelas after the bad situation he left us with,” Bovo said, referring to Penelas’ successor Carlos Alvarez, who was recalled in 2011. “I hear my good friend and colleague, Commissioner Suarez, talk about free stuff for everybody. I don’t know when he became Bernie Sanders.”
The latest installment of the nonprofit foundation’s “Our Miami: The People’s Forums” captured a mayor’s race both upended and overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Rather than gather in an auditorium where they could interject and play the crowd, the candidates waited by their computer cameras for a chance to speak from moderator Nancy Ancrum, editor of the Miami Herald’s Editorial Page.
Ancrum challenged Penelas on his transit legacy from eight years as mayor between 1996 and 2004, asking if he promised voters “too much” from the half-percent sales tax voters approved in 2002, only to see most major transit projects attached to the effort never get built.
“Absolutely not,” Penelas said, blaming administrations that succeeded him for not securing the federal dollars needed to expand Metrorail. “The thought that that half-penny alone was going to fund all of those projects was not true. … Unfortunately what has occurred is that that money was grossly misspent … basically to balance the county budget.”
Three candidates seeking their first elected offices — Monique Nicole Barley, Robert Ingram Burke, and Ludmilla Domond — pitched themselves as the change Miami-Dade needs to finally tackle big problems.
“I’m running to end corruption,” said Barley, a law-firm supervisor. “I’m running to represent the under-served African-American community.”
Asked how Miami-Dade government can balance its budget during the pandemic, Burke said expenses must be reduced. “There’s definitely going to have to be some cuts,” said Burke, a former Miami police detective and frequent candidate for office who participated by phone during a visit to California. “We’re just going to have to minimize the effects of the cuts.”
Domond, a real estate agent, said she wanted to see Miami-Dade’s next mayor bolster public transit’s image in the community and position buses as favorite options even for people heading to South Beach for an expensive meal as they would in New York. “Right now you have the residents of Miami-Dade County feeling like it is a shame to use public transportation,” she said.
Daniella Levine Cava, the third commissioner in the race, received some heat when Barley accused her of only riding Metrorail for “picture purposes.” Levine Cava said she uses transit when it’s convenient while Miami-Dade needs to make it a priority for riders with no other options.
“Especially right now,” she said. “Our healthcare workers are commuting to Jackson by train and bus. We owe it to them, and they deserve, a highly functioning transit system.”
Races for Miami-Dade offices are officially nonpartisan, and all candidates compete in a single primary to be held Aug. 18. One candidate can win with more than 50 percent of the vote. Short of that, the top two finishers face each other in a runoff on Election Day.
Suarez, the father of Miami’s current mayor, Francis Suarez, used his closing comments to try and separate himself from two county mayors: Penelas and incumbent Carlos Gimenez, who is barred by county charter from seeking a third term in November.
He pointed to his nine years as a top foe of the mayor on the commission as what distinguishes him fromBovo and Levine Cava, who mostly voted to approve Gimenez budget proposals. “They basically stood with the mayor all these years. They’re business as usual,” Suarez said. “As far as Alex Penelas, he invented business as usual.”