Last year, Carlos Gimenez took a gamble. And it paid off.
Gimenez, then a county commissioner, gave up his seat to run for Miami-Dade mayor after the recall of Carlos Alvarez. Gimenez, an awkward campaigner facing a smooth opponent in former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, was not expected to win.
But he did, filling the remainder of Alvarez’s term. Now, with a year of experience as the county’s strong mayor under his belt, Gimenez is running for reelection — this time, to a full four-year term.
First, he will have to defeat six rivals in the Aug. 14 election, chief among them Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, his old dais colleague and County Hall foil over the last year. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, there will be a runoff on Nov. 6.
For the self-assured Gimenez, his first year in office was a tryout to prove to voters that he can follow through on his plans to remake county government in the wake of much political turmoil.
“I know I’m the best candidate,” Gimenez said in an interview. “When you stack it all up, my administration in one year has done more than most administrations get done in eight.”
He listed his accomplishments: shrinking the county budget, lowering the property-tax rate (which he couldn’t have done without commission approval, Martinez likes to note), negotiating concessions from employee unions (including imposing a controversial, additional healthcare contribution from employees’ base pay) and reorganizing the county bureaucracy to 25 departments from 42.
His short tenure has not been without its critics. Commissioners who represent less-affluent neighborhoods have cautioned that continuously lowering the tax rate has diminished services in some of the neediest communities. Union leaders have questioned whether employees’ sacrifices were necessary and warned about depressed morale.
Gimenez said his goal is to bring stability to a county rocked by the boom-to-bust economy. The worst, he said, is over.
“I told employees, ‘You’re going to take this big pill once. Then we’re going to heal ourselves,’ ” he recently told The Miami Herald’s editorial board.
Before he can consider asking residents for more money, Gimenez added, county leaders need to restore trust in government.
“When people think that their money is being wasted, they don’t want to give you any,” he said.
Gimenez’s lessons in governing can be traced back to his three decades at the city of Miami.
The Cuban-born Gimenez, who moved to Little Havana with his family when he was 6 years old, joined the Miami Fire Department when he was 20. He climbed the ranks to fire chief, a job he held for nine years in the 1990s, and completed his bachelor’s degree at Barry University with an eye on becoming city manager. When he was named to the position, long known as a revolving door for administrators, Gimenez held on for nearly three years, steadying the city after a series of budget troubles and corruption scandals.
Gimenez, a married father of three grown children, then jumped to the County Commission in 2004, representing a district that stretched from Key Biscayne to Coral Gables to Pinecrest — including his home in Coconut Grove. As one of 13 commissioners on the board, he sometimes found the job frustrating. On the campaign trail Gimenez, 58, says being mayor is more akin to being city manager, rather than county commissioner.
“Every day there’s some new crisis that comes about,” said Gimenez, who, always the fireman, calls the daily problems that reach the mayor’s office “little fires.” “I came from the city of Miami, the capital of crisis.”
Martinez, a commissioner since 2000, and Gimenez both planned 2012 mayoral bids. Following Alvarez’s ouster, however, Gimenez accelerated his plans. Martinez waited to finish his chairmanship.
Since the bruising 2011 campaign for the nonpartisan mayor’s post, Gimenez has won over some of his former foes. Republican fundraisers and public figures who had endorsed his opponent Robaina shifted to Gimenez’s camp. And the Hialeah political establishment threw its support behind Gimenez last month. Up until then, the mayoral campaign had been relatively quiet.
Then came an explosive controversy.
Miami-Dade authorities last week arrested Deisy Cabrera, a suspected Hialeah absentee-ballot broker, for allegedly forging the signature on a ballot — a felony — and for being in possession of 31 ballots over two days, in violation of a county ordinance. The investigation into Cabrera was triggered by a private investigator, hired by a client whose name he will not reveal, who said he saw Cabrera going into the building housing Gimenez’s Hialeah campaign office.
Gimenez has firmly denied hiring Cabrera — and required a dozen campaign consultants to sign sworn statements saying they did not hire her or any other so-called boletera, or ballot broker. Martinez has said he believes Gimenez.
Gimenez said the episode has upset him because it is out of his control, and because he has run on his integrity.
“You’re guilty by association, and I had nothing to do with this,” he said. “My reputation means everything to me.”
Throughout the campaign, Martinez has portrayed Gimenez as a bureaucrat who lacks the personality and vision to lead one of the largest counties in the country. Gimenez, however, views himself as a man who likes to surround himself with people smarter than he is and “to be at the edge, stretch the envelope.”
“Most people don’t get me. They don’t understand me,” he said. “They just think I’m some firefighter.”
As a fire captain, he pointed out, he developed a new logistical system to dispatch Miami fire trucks that was in place for decades. He pushed for paramedics to perform more-advanced electrocardiograms from the field. And he worked with an architect to design “rescue scooters” for paramedics to be able to carry equipment and patients through the narrow passageways of the old Orange Bowl. (Sadly, he says, he did not patent his design.)
As mayor, Gimenez said he has reached out to information-technology companies, including Microsoft, Siemens and Cisco, to use the county to test new products that could make government more efficient.
“I like new things, and I hate the status quo,” he said. “I can’t stand it.”