News Column

Miami-Dade Mayoral Race Gets Rough

June 11, 2012

Patricia Mazzei and Charles Rabin

When Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez proposed cutting a deal earlier this year to benefit the struggling company that wraps baggage at Miami International Airport, county commission Chairman Joe Martinez cued up a video of a meeting from two years earlier.

It showed then-Commissioner Gimenez, warning the firm that it would not be cut any slack if it failed to deliver on its lofty revenue projections. Yet here he was, appearing to do just that.

Gimenez, now the mayor, watched the video poker-faced from his seat in the chambers.

It was one of the first public salvos fired in the mayoral campaign, which has played out for months in ways both obvious and subtle on the commission dais.

Featuring Gimenez on the video was a mistake, Martinez says now. But as the fundraising underdog challenging the incumbent mayor, Martinez has not been shy about using his bully pulpit to capture the attention of television cameras.

The mayor favors a more low-key style. He's given plenty of interviews, most delivering a similar message about promises kept: He lowered the property-tax rate, trimmed the budget and merged county departments.

Gimenez has decried dais politics, like when Martinez and other commissioners who earlier had signed off on a lower tax rate loudly balked at imposing additional union concessions they knew would be necessary.

"The campaign from the dais started the day I became mayor," Gimenez said.

Martinez has said he would run for mayor since 2010, when he was appointed chairman. After the recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez last year, Martinez, first elected in 2000, flirted with running for the open seat, but decided to finish his term instead -- giving him a powerful launching pad for his current mayoral bid.

Five lesser-known candidates have also qualified for the mayor's race: Edna Diaz, Gary Johnson, Farid Khavari, Helen Williams and Denny Wood.

Political observer and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who supported Gimenez last year, said Martinez has "absolutely" used the chairman position to his advantage.

"He salivated when we had that vacuum of not having a mayor," said Martinez, no relation to the commission chairman. "He thought he was the king of the road at the time."

Now, however, Martinez says the commission chair is creating issues and making statements "he can't back up."

Case in point: When news broke that hundreds of county vehicles had been stockpiled in a county-owned parking garage for five years, records showed that Gimenez, Joe Martinez and other commissioners had been informed about the issue two years earlier.

Still, the Gimenez administration bungled the controversy by taking days to explain that the vehicles were there because of a decision by the prior administration. Meantime, Martinez wasn't shy about criticizing both adminstrations. Then he vowed to create a committee to look into mismanagement. Two months later, the issue is all but forgotten, though at the time Martinez looked like he was setting the agenda.

Raul Martinez scoffed at the chairman's reaction.

"Those cars were not bought recently," he said.

"He was on the commission. Where was he? Why didn't you ask the questions before?" he said, as if addressing the chairman.

Chairman Martinez, however, says the commissioners' role is limited to setting broad policies and not to managing county agencies.

"It's illegal to tell a department head what to do," he said. "You can do it in a public hearing, and direct it to the administration. But then it's up to the mayor.''

So far, Martinez has been quick to jump on Gimenez, while the mayor has mostly stuck to his track record.

When Gimenez takes credit for proposing the lowered tax rate, Martinez calls it misleading because the rate is ultimately approved by the 13 commissioners. And when Gimenez tells of how he streamlined government, cutting hundreds of positions and slashing executive benefits, Martinez again takes exception, saying "every single $100,000 salary is still there. Less responsibility, but same money."

"We really do have a difference: It's the management style," Martinez said. "It will lead to different results."

Gimenez, though less showy than Martinez, has not been blind to political optics. Mindful of the lessons of the Alvarez recall, one of the first things he did upon taking office was to cut his own salary in half. Pledging to "lead by example,'' he declined to take a car allowance or use a county driver.

But he lost points when he created deputy mayor posts without clearly explaining that he was merely renaming the job of assistant county manager. He filled some deputy positions with outsiders and paid them handsomely -- handing his critics easy ammunition.

Gimenez faced his greatest political risk when he faced down powerful unions with threats to lay off more than 100 police and corrections officers. It paid off, allowing him to balance the budget and tout his skills as the top leader of county government.

The mayor knew his stance would be politically unpopular, and would give Martinez, a former police officer, an even stronger leg up with the police union.

Commissioners balked at forcing the union concessions, but Gimenez vetoed their initial decision. Ultimately they reconsidered and agreed to a compromise that basically gave the mayor what he had sought -- without laying off law officers.

Gimenez also defends his advocacy in the airport baggage-wrapping controversy, disputing Martinez's suggestion that the mayor changed his position. Gimenez says it was better to lower the incumbent firm's payment to the county, with the trade-off of a shorter contract term. That way, the county didn't lose as much money and the service continued uninterrupted.

Martinez asserts that he offers bold vision, not just budget-cutting chops. He tried to show that last week by introducing "Trump Studio City," a Donald Trump-backed film studio he proposed for Homestead.

The surprise unveiling -- which Martinez argues had nothing to do with his mayoral campaign -- consumed more than an hour of commission time before fellow commissioners agreed to look into the idea.

Back in February, Martinez drew television cameras to County Hall by requesting a study on changing traffic signal timing to make intersections safer. The goal: to avoid the need for politically unpopular red-light cameras.

What's not certain is whether the County Hall machinations actually catch the public's attention.

"Who's watching those meetings?" asked former commission veteran Katy Sorenson. a Gimenez supporter"It doesn't get a lot of mileage."

In March, Gimenez's opposition to a land swap that would have moved the county fairgrounds outside of the Urban Development Boundary was answered with a letter from Martinez to the governor, advising him that commissioners have the final say on the decision.

Even the Marlins have become political fodder.

In April, Martinez put out a statement saying he was the first local politician to publicly condemn Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen for praising Fidel Castro during a Time magazine interview. The move by Martinez propelled local pols, including Gimenez, to weigh in. The mayor also denounced Guillen's remarks, but stopped short of demanding his resignation as Martinez had done.

The next day, after an apology from Guillen, a plane circled over the Marlins ballpark pulling a banner that read Joe Martinez apoya a la comunidad -- Joe Martinez supports the community. Martinez denied any connection to the banner.

To Gimenez, the political back and forth amounts to little of substance.

"I'm a damn good administrator, and he knows it," Gimenez said of Martinez. "He can't battle me there; that space is mine. He needs to look for other places where he can cast doubt on my ability. Most of those places don't actually have much merit."

Miami Herald staff writer Martha Brannigan contributed to this report.



Source: (c) 2012 The Miami Herald


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