Pedro J. Garcia, who became Miami-Dade’s first elected property appraiser four years ago in an upset victory, now finds himself in a similar spot, seeking reelection against a better-funded rival, state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
The two men have engaged in a tough campaign for the appraiser’s job, a little-known position that gets scant public attention but has widespread impact. The appraiser’s office determines how much each of the county’s more than 890,000 properties, both commercial and residential, are worth.
The catalyst in the race: the parking garages at the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark.
Last year, Garcia informed the city of Miami that it might have to pay property taxes on the four ballpark garages, which the city allows the Marlins to use in their entirety for every home game and other special events. That’s a private use, Garcia contended, and state law only exempted governments from paying taxes on property used solely for a public purpose.
Cue Lopez-Cantera. From Tallahassee, the outgoing House majority leader and Miami-Dade legislative delegation chairman pulled strings to exempt the city from having to pay up to $1.2 million in annual property taxes — despite a Florida House analysis questioning whether the move would be constitutional.
After the annual legislative session ended, Lopez-Cantera announced he would challenge Garcia.
Up until then, the political future had been unclear for the term-limited Lopez-Cantera, who despite working in his family’s real-estate business says he had never considered running for appraiser before the garages question arose.
“People started approaching me saying, ‘You’re fixing this problem, but look at this one,’” he said, dismissing the suggestion that he’s seeking the post as an opportunist. “This is not a soft landing. This is not a natural political progression.... I know what I’m doing in this issue.”
Garcia, however, has tried to paint his rival as “a politician” and himself as “a professional.”
“It’s crazy this time,” Garcia said of the campaign. “I don’t consider myself a politician. At least to me — it’s not easy.”
A married father of four and grandfather of 13, Garcia, 74, sought the appraiser’s post in 2008 after spending 10 years as one of 20 or so magistrates on the county’s value adjustment board, which decides cases after people appeal their property-tax assessments.
Garcia, who was born in Cuba, said he was a University of Havana student during the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, helping the Cuban exiles. Working a radio from a tiny room in a building his father owned, Garcia said he was in constant contact with U.S. operatives in Key West — until he lost all communications, presumably after the operation failed.
He came to Miami in 1962 with a fake passport, he said, and spent six years with the U.S. Army infantry in Fort Knox, Ky., before returning to South Florida.
By 1970, Garcia was a real-estate agent, his lifelong profession. His company, Exclusive Realty Corp., remains active, though business has all but shut down since he was elected to the full-time appraiser’s post, defeating state Sen. Gwen Margolis, at the time a former lawmaker and county commissioner.