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Written by Erik Bojnansky, BT Senior Writer   
October 2017

It’s a slam dunk for VERY well-funded Francis Suarez as Miami’s next mayor

SSuarez_1omeone painted the message “No Thru Street” on a large piece of plywood and leaned it against a fallen tree sprawled on a residential road in Miami’s Silver Bluff neighborhood. Behind it lay another tree, so massive it stretched across the entire street.

Three days after Hurricane Irma’s winds ravaged South Florida, 20 or so cheerful millennials from the non-denominational Wynwood-based Vous Church approach the twisted foliage. Some of them, armed with machetes, begin to hack at branches while others drag limbs to the curb. A few homeowners with chainsaws join in, so does the driver of a tow truck.

Suddenly there’s a loud buzzing hum, then a pop. A mushroom cloud of smoke rises from an electric pole near the intersection of SW 22nd Terrace and 22nd Avenue. As birds loop through the smoke, power lines slowly fall to the ground.

Within minutes, police have cordoned off the downed wires. And just a few minutes behind them, here comes Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez, chauffeured in a black SUV. He’s wearing a black-collared firefighters union shirt, and shades that match his black crop of hair. As commissioner for District 4 -- an area that includes Silver Bluff, Coral Gate, and Shenandoah -- Suarez joins the churchgoers briefly and thanks them for coming by to help a neighborhood they don’t live in.

“We rely on your help and...unfortunately, we don’t have the resources right now to be doing this,” Suarez says to the group. “You can tell that if we don’t do this, people can’t get through here and the FPL trucks that we need to power these homes will not be able to get through here.”

He warns the volunteers not to touch the trees near the downed power lines: “I don’t want you guys to get hurt, and I don’t want to make a good situation of you guys helping into a bad situation.”

It’s been a busy few days for Suarez. He spent three nights at the city’s emergency operations center near Overtown, as Irma approached. While the storm lashed Miami, he patrolled the city with police, reporting outages and falling cranes. A candidate for mayor of the City of Miami in the November 7 elections, at one point he posed beside one of his own campaign posters for a Miami Herald photographer while winds howled.

Suarez_2

On September 12, two days after the storm, Suarez had spent the daylight hours handing out ice and food to Miami households. That evening he ran 3.5 miles with the Baptist Health Brickell Run Club as part of an Irma relief food and fund drive. And then he was at it again, giving ice and water to residents of a nursing home without power.

“He’s omnipresent,” jokes Commissioner Ken Russell, who arrives to help cut trees in Silver Bluff with a 36-inch chainsaw. It’s his way of thanking Suarez for delivering 600 meals to elderly residents in Coconut Grove, Russell’s constituents.

The son of Xavier Suarez, former City of Miami mayor and current District 7 county commissioner, Francis Suarez has been described by his colleagues as a man with tremendous energy. That energy comes in handy. As the 40-year-old Suarez puts it, he has five jobs: “I’m a commissioner. I’m a lawyer. I’m a father. I’m a husband -- and right now, I’m also a candidate. That’s kind of like another job.”

A big part of his job as a candidate is raising money -- lots of it. It’s a task at which he excels. He’s raised $3.2 million, a new record for a City of Miami campaign. That figure includes more than $1.2 million in his mayoral campaign account and nearly $2 million he has solicited for Miami’s Future, a political action committee (PAC) that was established in February 2015, nearly a year before he announced his mayoral candidacy (his second) back in January 2016.

It’s an impressive figure. And it’s overkill. The three other candidates for mayor are not only unknown to most voters, they haven’t raised anything close to significant cash. As of press deadline, only Cynthia Mason Jaquith, an activist affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party, reported raising any money at all: $102. The two other candidates -- west Coconut Grove resident Williams Alfred Armbrister Sr. and JetMiami COO Christian Canache -- both reported raising $0.

Suarez’s election is assured, confirms Sean Foreman, chairman of Barry University’s Department of History and Political Science.

“He would have to have some sort of epic failure of traumatic proportions to keep him from winning this race,” says Foreman. “None of the other candidates has the mojo. They don’t have the name recognition. They don’t have the money in their campaign accounts. And they don’t have the clout to defeat Suarez if he makes a mistake on the campaign trail.”

Suarez did watch his first mayoral campaign implode. In January 2013, with two years still left on his second term as commissioner, he announced he was running for mayor against incumbent Tomás Regalado. By that July, he’d raised a campaign chest of more than $1.3 million. Mayor Regalado, who was dealing with controversies involving a former police chief, city staffing, and a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of the city’s finances, had raised only $449,468.

Suarez_3Then Suarez’s own campaign was hit with controversies that included two of his campaign aides, including his own cousin, being convicted and sentenced to a year of probation for illegally requesting 20 ballots online. Suarez himself was cleared of any wrongdoing, but the damage was done. Citing the imminent birth of his first son, he dropped out of the race.

Suarez now calls it a learning experience. One lesson: the best way to win an election is to scare away any competition. Raising tons of cash is a great way to do that. “You have a big war chest,” says Foreman, “and anybody considering making a run has to think twice about it.”

This time Suarez doesn’t have to worry about Regalado, who is termed-out. And two potential competitors, both long rumored to be interested in a run for the mayor’s seat, opted against it. One was termed-out District 3 Commissioner Frank Carollo. The other was Frank’s brother, Joe, another former mayor of Miami, who was first elected as a city commissioner in 1979.

Joe Carollo, once a political rival of Suarez’s dad, maintains that he never seriously considered a mayoral run. Instead, he is running for his brother’s District 3 seat, which covers East Little Havana and part of the downtown area, against six other contenders, including Zoraida Barreiro (wife of county Commissioner Bruno Barreiro) and Tomás Napoleon Regalado (Mayor Regalado’s son).

“I believe Francis will do an excellent job,” Joe Carollo tells the BT. “And with me as a commissioner, he’ll have someone who has the experience and the knowledge to make sure we’ll all do a great job for the next administration in the City of Miami.”

The donors to Suarez’s campaign and PAC include retirees, unions, attorneys, engineers, permit expediters, a couple of casinos, outdoor advertising companies, gas distributors, electricians, small-business owners, and many real estate developers.

Suarez_4The largest source of money to Suarez’s PAC is $301,832 from his old electioneering organization, The Future Is Now. Suarez explains that the money came from unspent contributions left over from his canceled 2013 mayoral campaign and a 2015 unopposed reelection campaign for commissioner.

There have been plenty of other very large donations to Suarez’s current PAC, Miami’s Future. Topping the list is a $70,000 contribution from Midtown Opportunities LLC, owned by real estate investor Alex Vadia. (By law, contributors can give unlimited amounts of money to political action committees; they also must identify themselves.)

Contributors who wrote checks to Miami’s Future for $25,000 apiece include MasTec, the construction and engineering firm owned by the Mas family, whose late patriarch, Jorge Mas Canosa, led the Cuban American National Foundation; philanthropist Daniel Lewis; Robert Christoph, owner of the RCI Group, a company that runs the Miami Beach Marina and is bidding to manage Virginia Key’s marinas; and companies affiliated with the OKO Group, a real estate investment company owned by Russian businessman Vladislav Doronin.

Other big contributors to the Suarez PAC include $23,500 from Pinnacle Housing Group executives, an affordable-housing development company that’s being scrutinized by the federal government for allegedly inflating building costs; $23,500 from Drive Development, a company that specializes in building modern homes in Coconut Grove; and $20,000 from the Del Ray family, owners of the Executive Fantasy Hotels adult-themed motel chain in Hialeah. Still other donations: $17,000 from Worldwide Amherst Media, an outdoor advertising company; $15,000 from Miami Design District developer Craig Robins; $15,000 from high-rise developer Camilo Miguel Jr.; and $15,000 from the land-use law firm of Shubin & Bass.

Flagstone Development Group, a company led by Turkish businessman Mehmet Bayraktar which is now suing the city after being evicted from developing Watson Island, gave $14,000 long before litigation started. The Genting Group, which someday hopes to build a casino where the Miami Herald building once stood, gave $5000.

Some donors preferred to give bundles of checks directly to Suarez’s campaign account, often via family members and obscure limited liability companies. Under state law, the maximum a company or individual can give to a candidate’s campaign account is $1000. It’s through this method that Michael Simkins and his partner, Marc Roberts, who are interested in developing the so-called Miami Innovation District in Park West, bundled about $16,000 in checks.

Suarez_5_SAMPLEAdam Walker of Boardwalk Properties pulled together $15,000. The Melo Group, run by an Argentine family of prolific rental housing developers, gave $14,000. And downtown property owner José Goyanes gathered around $11,000.

Some contributors gave generously to both the PAC and Suarez’s campaign. Those donors include $40,000 from Moishe Mana, a developer who aims to transform downtown Miami and much of Wynwood. RNG Overtown, a New York-based company managed by Paul Rizzi, whose investors aspire to build a mixed-use apartment project in Park West, gave about $39,000.

Aabad Melwani, who is fighting to retain control of Virginia Key’s marinas, gave roughly $38,000. Developer Tibor Hollo and his family members gave $30,000. Two executives from J. Milton & Associates, Pablo Arteaga and Rex Barker, bundled around $33,000 in checks. High-rise developer Manuel Grosskopf gave about $29,000. Rok Enterprises, a downtown real estate company, provided approximately $28,000.

Little Havana-based Magic City Casino, whose owners hope to build a card room and jai alai fronton in Edgewater (see “Poker Face,” July 2017), contributed around $23,000. Skyrise Miami developer Jeff Berkowitz gave $20,000. Astor Development, which once sought to sell land near Coconut Grove to the City of Miami, handed over $20,000.

The Related Group, founded by condo king Jorge Pérez and Stephen Ross, gave some $13,000. Lynx Construction Management, a company that has built public schools and local government facilities, gave more than $17,000. And Crescent Heights, headed by developer Russell Galbut, contributed $20,000.

Why did these individuals and companies donate so much money? Barry University’s Foreman theorizes that because Suarez raised huge amounts early, it was easy for him to raise even more cash later. “People like to back a winner,” Foreman says.

And these contributors do expect something in return, Foreman warns.

“Why else would you put big bucks into a campaign?” he asks. “You want your phone calls returned and your ideas listened to.”

Suarez insists that campaign checks don’t guarantee his support. “It never influenced me in the past eight years of being a commissioner,” he asserts, “and it won’t in the future. I have voted against a lot of folks who have helped me many times.”

Suarez_6As for access, Suarez says his door is open to everyone, whether they’re real estate developers or retirees on fixed incomes. “I probably give greater access to those who have the least,” he states.

“Francis Suarez is very personable,” admits Foreman, “and that’s part of the reason he’s been able to raise so much money. It’s his personality. People like him.”

And he is known for giving constituents his cell phone number and e-mail, and being available to neighborhood activists, Foreman adds.

At the same time, Foreman can’t imagine any politician blowing off a significant campaign contributor. On the contrary. “If you give a lot of money,” he says, “then your calls get returned quicker.”

Some real estate developer donors may not like what Suarez has to say. Among his stated priorities is getting a handle on the explosion of new development taking place in the City of Miami.

“I think what’s happening is, the city has grown tremendously, 37 percent in the last three years -- that’s a little more than 12 percent a year,” Suarez says. “That puts a lot of stress on infrastructure. You have issues with gentrification. You have issues with traffic. People are concerned about that. And I think, as the city matures and grows and develops, you have to be sensitive toward those issues and you have to plan for those issues.”

He also intends to push for something else: more political power. For the past 20 years, Miami has had an “executive mayor” who can veto legislation, nominate the city manager, appoint the chair of the commission, present a budget -- and not much else. The mayor doesn’t even have a vote on the commission.

Since 2012, Suarez has advocated for a strong-mayor system, in which the city manager position is eliminated and the mayor directly hires and fires department heads and runs the city. Although the strong-mayor system was routinely rejected by his colleagues on the commission, Suarez says he intends to keep fighting for it.

“You want a mayor who can lead, who can give directives,” he says. “Right now, we have a system of government that creates a lot of dysfunction -- where the mayor picks the manager subject to ratification to the commission. The commission can fire him. The mayor can fire him. The commission can reinstate him. We’ve had almost as many managers as the Dolphins have had quarterbacks since Dan Marino.”

While Suarez is reluctant to describe any shortcomings of the Regalado administration, he says Miami’s citizens are eager for a younger mayor who listens to his constituents: “I think they’re excited about having a leader who is accessible. I think they’re excited about having someone who is young and energetic. I think they’re excited about someone who has a record of accomplishment that I have in areas that are important to them, like affordable housing and transportation, and about restricting and having reasonable development.”

Although he earns $58,000 a year as a commissioner, Suarez also works as an attorney specializing in real estate transactions and finance. (Suarez worked at Gray Robinson until September 26, when he moved on to the Carlton Fields law firm.)

The mayoral position currently pays $97,000 a year, although the salary is ultimately decided by the commission. When elected, Suarez says he’ll continue to practice law, at least initially: “My father was a practicing attorney during the eight years he was mayor.”

Suarez says that as an “executive mayor,” he doubts many conflicts of interest will arise. The city manager conducts the day-to-day oversight of the city, and as for legislation, except for the power to veto, the mayor doesn’t vote on anything.

But if the position were converted into a strong mayor position? Then, Suarez sys, he’d “strongly consider” whether or not to continue his law practice.

Of the $3.2 million Suarez has raised, nearly $1.4 million has been spent on campaign ads, polling, canvassing, and consultants. That figure includes about $22,000 that the Miami’s Future PAC funneled to other candidates inside and outside Miami, such as $2000 for the state senate campaign of José Felix Diaz (who lost to Democrat Annette Taddeo); $2000 for school board candidate Maria Teresa Rojas; and $1000 each for the reelection campaigns of city commission chairman Keon Hardemon (who faces no opposition) and Hardemon’s uncle, state Rep. Roy Hardemon.

But what will become of the more than $1.8 million still left? “Well, part of it is going to be spent on the campaign,” Suarez answers. “We have three candidates who qualified [to run] and we’re going to run a campaign.”

And the rest? That will be transferred, or kept in the PAC. “It’s a perpetual organization,” he explains. Those funds can then be used for Suarez’s reelection, or a move to another office.

“I don’t know what his future plan is, but it’s understandable that Francis Suarez is politically ambitious,” says Foreman. “Let’s say he serves two terms and is relatively successful. He’s still young. He’ll be courted for higher office.”

For now, Suarez says, he’s focused on getting elected, and guiding Miami’s future. “The future is bright,” he declares, “and the people are excited about it, and that’s what I get. That’s the energy I feel day in and day out.”

 

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