Miami-Dade politics

Four candidates vie to represent Little Havana, South Beach on Miami-Dade commission


Three candidates are challenging Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro in his first race after a failed recall attempt two years ago.

About the candidates

Bruno A. Barreiro

• Age: 46

• Occupation: Miami-Dade commissioner; vice-president, Fatima Home Care, his family’s business; president, BABJ Investment Corp., a real-estate firm

• Selected political/civic experience: Miami-Dade commissioner, 1998-present; state representative, 1992-1998

Calixto Garcia

• Age: 56

• Occupation: Neuropsychologist; owner, Community Technological Institute of Miami

Selected political/civic experience: Vice-president, Senior Hispanic Coalition, an advocacy group, 2010-present; vice-president, Calle Ocho Chamber of Commerce, 2007-12

Luis Garcia

• Age: 66

• Occupation: State representative; retired Miami Beach fire chief

• Selected political/civic experience: State representative, 2006-present; Miami Beach city commissioner, 1999-2006; Miami Beach fire chief, 1996-99

Carlos E. Muñoz Fontanills

• Age: 76

• Occupation: Retired, worked as a veterinarian in Cuba and in human resources in New Jersey

• Selected political/civic experience: Candidate, U.S. Congress, New Jersey, 1996; involved in several Cuban exile organizations since moving to Miami in 2003

Bruno Barreiro has been in this position before, targeted for ouster from his Miami-Dade commission seat. Two years ago, a group of activists fell just short of collecting enough petition signatures to try to recall him.

This time around, Barreiro is one of four incumbent commissioners facing reelection and he’s in the sights of Norman Braman. The Miami auto magnate helped persuade state Rep. Luis Garcia to challenge Barreiro for District 5, which spans across neighborhoods along the Miami River, the Roads, Little Havana and the southern and eastern portions of Miami Beach.

Barreiro, in county office for 14 years, is counting on his widespread name recognition and his family’s deep Little Havana roots — they have long managed clinics and now own a home care agency on Southwest Eighth Street — to translate into victory in the Aug. 14 election.

“We haven’t made a buck and left town, moved to the suburbs,” Barreiro said of his family. And when activists launched their recall petition drive, he added, “You know who fought them? The seniors out there.”

In the Florida House, Garcia, a Democrat, represented many of the same neighborhoods as Barreiro. But he originally filed to run for U.S. Congress in southwest Miami-Dade against Rep. David Rivera.

Garcia’s plans changed after he had a public falling out with Democratic Party officials. That prompted Braman, who had previously approached Garcia to run for the commission, to step up his recruitment. And Garcia agreed to shift races.

“I’m running to do all the things they haven’t been able to do in 14 years,” he recently told The Miami Herald’s editorial board of Barreiro and other longtime commissioners. And his dispute with his own party, he said, shows “nobody controls me.”

Two other candidates are also seeking the seat: neuropsychologist Calixto Garcia (no relation), and retiree Carlos E. Muñoz Fontanills, who worked as a veterinarian in Cuba and in human resources for county government in New Jersey. They have raised few campaign dollars, but Calixto Garcia, 56, says that is not an indication of his election chances.

“The area, it’s deteriorating,” he said. “The two people that were responsible for this were Bruno and Luis, Luis at the state level and Bruno at the county level.... Everybody complains and no one takes a step forward. I thought I’d do something.”

Muñoz Fontanills, a 76-year-old who speaks little English and ran for U.S. Congress in New Jersey in 1996, says he opposes property-tax rate increases at all costs — “even if it means laying off police officers” — and if elected plans to legislate in Spanish

“If someone doesn’t understand me, they can find an interpreter,” he said in Spanish.

If none of the candidates wins a majority of the vote in the primary, the nonpartisan race would go to a runoff in the Nov. 6 general election.

The incumbent Barreiro has raised more in campaign contributions than any of his rivals, including more than twice as much as Luis Garcia, his main challenger. Barreiro also has the support of an electioneering communications organization, Transparency in Government.

Barreiro, 46, who was born in Clearwater to Cuban parents and raised in Miami, said he grew up around politics. His father campaigned for candidates; young Bruno said he volunteered for U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s first state legislative race. His older half-brother, Gus Barreiro, was a state representative and will also be on the upcoming primary ballot in a bid to return to the Florida House.

Yet the younger Barreiro, who is married and has two children, said he never saw himself as a candidate for office until 1992, when he noticed Tallahassee legislators involved in a healthcare debate were largely lawyers without firsthand experience in the industry. Barreiro, who attended the University of Miami for two years before leaving to work in his father’s HMO, ran for the state House as a Republican and won. He remained in the Legislature for six years before jumping to the county commission.

Of his years on the county board, Barreiro says he’s proudest of promoting constituent services and pushing for the half-penny sales tax to fund transportation projects. He also touts, among other things, legislation giving property owners a tax break for building a home addition to house elderly relatives and creating the Golden Passport, which allows seniors to ride Miami-Dade transit for free.

Garcia, a 66-year-old widower, is seeking a commission spot also after six years in Tallahassee. But his political origins lie in Miami Beach, where he was a firefighter, fire chief and city commissioner.

He grew up dreaming of being an architect and serving in the U.S. Air Force. But Garcia, who arrived in Miami from Cuba when he was 14, was not yet a citizen when he graduated from high school. And he eloped at 20 and had three sons by 24 — circumstances that kept him from the military and from being a full-time student. Instead, he worked in a grocery store and drove a Pepsi truck while taking night classes at Miami Dade College before he eventually joined the Miami Beach Fire Department.

The highlights of his city commission tenure, Garcia said, include raising fire-safety standards at Miami Beach Senior High School, broadening rights for domestic partners and banning discrimination against transgender people. In Tallahassee, Garcia was known for his feisty ways as part of the Democratic minority in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Barreiro and Garcia, who are not particularly friendly with each other, disagree on a variety of issues. Barreiro generally supports gambling; Garcia generally does not. Garcia favors two four-year term limits for commissioners; Barreiro does not.

And while Barreiro was the commission chairman who fought for the Miami Marlins’ new Little Havana ballpark in his district, Garcia criticizes the stadium financing deal for relying mostly on public dollars.

Sitting in his campaign headquarters across the street from Fatima Home Care, the family business where his district office is located, Barreiro defended the financing deal, citing other projects such as the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and AmericanAirlines Arena that also received public funding.

“I don’t see a backlash for the stadium, with all due respect, from the people, from the district,” he said. “There had to be substantial public funding for a stadium.”

When the issue came up at The Herald’s editorial board, Garcia scoffed and criticized the Marlins for not being more open with the county and the public: “They never opened the books.”

Barreiro also stands by his vote two years ago to raise the county property-tax rate — the vote that triggered the recall effort against him and other county officials, including former Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

The vote came after a majority of commissioners voted for union contracts that included pay hikes for police officers. Barreiro was one of two commissioners opposing the contracts. But after they had been approved, he said, he couldn’t in good conscience oppose the subsequent tax-rate increase because having to pay for the contracts without more taxes would have resulted in service cuts.

“I would take that vote [again] today,” a choked-up Barreiro told the editorial board.

Last month, Barreiro voted against Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s proposed tax-rate reduction — not because he wants a higher rate, Barreiro said, but because he would have liked proposed cost savings to come from different places in the budget — the fire department rather than libraries, for example.

Garcia, who says he would be more qualified to vote on the county budget from his years as fire chief preparing his department’s budget, said Gimenez’s overall proposal goes “in the right direction.”

“I don’t agree with everything he does, but I respect him,” Garcia said of Gimenez. “I think I could work with him.”

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