It may not have shown up on your radar yet, but there’s an election for mayor of Miami-Dade in about three weeks.
Why should you care? Because the mayor is the CEO and head honcho of the government closest to the 2.3 million people who live in the county. Because Miami-Dade government runs Miami International Airport and PortMiami, polices the streets and puts out the fires, issues (too slowly) permits of all kinds, gives you water when you turn on the tap and carries away waste when you flush the toilet. And the county does it all, and more, with a whopping $2.7 billion budget.
Oh, it also employs some 28,000 people. So, the boss of this huge and complex municipal corporation has an immense job, and how well he or she does it directly effects a couple of million people.
But judging from the general indifference I see out there, most Miami-Dade voters aren’t terribly concerned about who the next mayor will be, probably because they’re generally satisfied with the one they’ve got, Carlos Gimenez. He’s held the job for a year and, on balance, has made good on his campaign promises: He lowered taxes, forced major concessions from county unions, reorganized and downsized government a bit and avoided any major scandals — unless you call a couple of hundred brand-new cars and trucks sitting idle for years in a county garage. I’d call that gross mismanagement, but it predates Gimenez.
All in all, it’s been a blissfully uneventful year at County Hall, which may explain why voters are not excited by the mayor’s race. Voters used up all their angst when they removed Carlos Alvarez from the job last year. If voters are mostly indifferent about county government it’s because it’s working fairly well. The county’s credit rating is up, the books are balanced, the bureaucracy creaks along.
The only people who are deeply engaged in the mayor’s race are the county’s unions and their members, who constitute a sizable voting bloc. For the most part they appear to be solidly behind county commission Chairman Joe Martinez. He has stood behind them in their negotiations over the past year with Gimenez and voted against forcing them to contribute another 4 percent of their pay for health benefits.
That vote is a double-edged sword. When Martinez and his fellow commissioners approved the 2011-12 budget last September, they did so with a promise that they’d impose the employees’ contribution for health insurance if the unions didn’t agree to them in negotiations. The unions didn’t, but Martinez still voted against the budget (which barely passed, 7-6), ignoring the moral imperative he had earlier agreed to. He says his moral imperative was to county employees on whose backs the budget was balanced.
Martinez is a former Miami-Dade police officer with some real leadership skills. He’s enjoying his second term as commission chairman and doing a good job at it. He is, however, prone to occasional quixotic stands and loopy ideas. A huge movie studio in Homestead backed by Donald Trump? Sure, that’ll happen when I wake up one morning speaking fluent Farsi. Martinez recently also voted against giving the Arsht Center up to $5 million to repair water damage from a broken pipe even though the contractor and architect will eventually wind up paying for it. It was a bit of showboating on Martinez’s part, but since he as chairman votes last he knew it would pass anyway.
Ironically, much of what Mayor Gimenez has been able to achieve in the last year is because of his much-improved relations with the County Commission, where he served for six years. As a commissioner, Gimenez was often a somewhat irascible dissenter who found fault with the administration and his colleagues on the dais. To his credit, as mayor he’s dialed back his my-way-or-the-highway attitude and been surprisingly cooperative and respectful of the commission. And it is he, not the county manager, who now sits on the right side of the dais and presents the administration’s position and answers commissioners’ questions.
Gimenez is supremely self-confident, which comes off to some as arrogance. He’s kind of a quirky guy, easy to underestimate. He started out as a Miami paramedic and firefighter, rose to be fire chief and then Miami city manager. He set the city’s financial house in order, then retired and ran for the County Commission.
He has shown a talent there for delving into budgets and nosing out bureaucratic bull. He does not suffer fools gladly, but in the last year has been noticeably more tolerant and started listening to other opinions. He is, above all else, an honest, ethical person in a political environment where corruption has been pervasive.
Gimenez or Martinez? Fact is, either man could do the job. But Martinez must start persuading voters why his vision of Miami-Dade and his ability to achieve it is better than Gimenez’s. The election is Aug. 14.