Politics

For Joe Carollo, a stunning return to the limelight

 

The rise, fall and sudden return of one of the most colorful characters in South Florida’s political pantheon.

aviglucci@MiamiHerald.com

In the cauldron of instability that is Miami City Hall, one of the biggest pot-stirrers of all was former mayor and commissioner Joe Carollo.

In 10 years on the commission and a single full term as mayor, Carollo fulminated against communist sympathizers and foes real and imagined, spun elaborate conspiracy theories, turned vindictively on friends and supporters he thought had crossed him, and once even wound up grappling with another commissioner behind the dais during a meeting.

Critics considered him all but unhinged at times, but there were always those who insisted that Joe was just crafty, that there was substance to the man and sound instincts behind the antics. And, in fact, Carollo was not infrequently proven right: When he alleged that massive vote fraud swung the 1997 mayoral election against him; when, upon gaining the mayor’s seat on court order, he claimed his predecessors had left the city in a giant financial hole; and when he accused his own city manager of looting a charity.

Yet after every unlikely vindication, every time Carollo seemed to regain public favor, Crazy Joe would emerge to shoot Crafty Joe in the foot.

After earning widespread credit as mayor for helping stave off bankruptcy, stabilizing management and building up a substantial budget surplus, in 2000 he embroiled himself in the ethnically divisive case of boy rafter Elián González. Protesters began pelting City Hall with bananas on a daily basis after Carollo, who at every opportunity attacked federal efforts to return the boy to his father in Cuba, abruptly fired his police chief, William O’Brien, for failing to warn him of the Border Patrol raid on the home of the boy’s Miami relatives.

Carollo’s political career finally imploded along with his second marriage at the end of his mayoral term, when he allegedly flung a cardboard tea container at his wife’s head and spent the night in jail. On leaving office after losing his 2001 reelection bid, Carollo was, to all appearances, isolated and done politically.

Later, though, just before he dropped out of the public eye for several years, Carollo got even with the judge who awarded a big chunk of his city pension to his ex-wife, by conspicuously helping a challenger unseat the incumbent.

Now, as the 57-year-old Carollo embarks on what seems the unlikeliest of public third acts as Doral’s city manager — newly elected Mayor Luigi Boria shocked the local political establishment last week by plucking the former Miami mayor out of obscurity to run the fast-growing suburban city — observers, critics and his remaining allies are trading bets on which Joe will show up for work, and how long he will last.

Boria, who brushed off questions from a reporter on Thursday and Friday about how the mercurial former politician became an apparently trusted advisor, said he’s not worried.

“I have no reservations,’’ Boria said, noting Carollo’s experience in public office and overseeing a public budget. “It has nothing to do with trust. It has to do with one’s curriculum vitae … It has nothing to do with friendship. It has to do with one’s experience, one’s capabilities.”

Outwardly, at least, the Carollo who reemerged this past week looks grayer but otherwise little changed from the politician most voters last laid eyes on 11 years ago: stiff, formal, serious, speaking in a near-monotone no matter how inflammatory his words, and little given to smiling or small talk.

To some, his return to the public stage has been true to form, and not reassuringly so.

After helping Boria in his campaign, Carollo seemed joined at the hip to the new mayor, accompanying him to meetings and even joining him for family lunches at the mayor’s Doral home. The two met while attending an evangelical Christian church in Kendall, Alpha & Omega.

Carollo also engineered Boria’s selection of respected veteran government administrator Merrett Stierheim, who was retired, as interim city manager to assist in the transition and the selection of a permanent manager.

Carollo had turned to Stierheim before, bringing him to Miami as interim manager to help right the city when the courts awarded him the mayoralty following the disputed ’97 election.

This time, though, things did not end well. The 79-year-old Stierheim resigned after a raging dispute with Carollo over the weekend that he would not detail but said left him flummoxed.

On Wednesday, the Doral council unanimously approved Boria’s nomination of Carollo as the city’s top administrator, a move Stierheim publicly called a mistake.

On his first day as manager, Carollo called a news conference — an unusual move for a nonpolitical public administrator — to blast Stierheim, alleging he had made disparaging remarks about Hispanics’ ability to govern and that he’d referred to himself as “the great white hope.’’ Stierheim denied making the comments.

Clearly stung, Stierheim said Carollo deserved some of the credit for saving Miami from fiscal ruin, although the city was being run by a state oversight committee that had to sign off on every major decision. But he said he’s uncertain whether Carollo has the skills or temperament to serve in a strictly managerial capacity.

“He’s not dumb. He’s got smarts. No question about that,’’ Stierheim said. “But I question Joe’s ability to be a professional manager. He’s never been one. There is a clear dichotomy between professional management and politics.

“I will tell you this: they have an outstanding professional team in Doral. I hope so for their sake, but I have my concerns.’’

Carollo said in an interview Friday that Boria had offered him the job, but he declined, instead recommending Stierheim. He claimed Stierheim then “stuck a whole samurai sword’’ in his back, attempting to sow doubt in Boria’s mind about Carollo and taking actions like firing the police chief without consulting the mayor.

Carollo said he then felt obligated to take on the job when asked again by Boria, whom he said he trusts and admires and felt he’d let down by bringing in Stierheim. Carollo said taking the Doral job meant turning down a potentially lucrative business deal abroad.

He also said he has no doubt he’s up to the job.

“Judge me from here to a year or six months from now,’’ Carollo said. “I’m not perfect, but I know how to administer a city. All that I ask is, let me work. Look at my track record. I was a straight shooter. I handled the city budget with integrity. I am going to succeed in Doral.’’

One longtime Carollo ally, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, cautioned against underestimating Carollo’s abilities. Carollo appointed Gimenez as city manager in Miami to succeed Stierheim.

“As a boss, as the mayor, he was a good boss. As long as he trusted you, he let you do your work,’’ Gimenez said. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about Joe Carollo. He actually was instrumental in bringing back Miami."

Gimenez has also played an indirect role in Carollo’s political reemergence. Last year, a political committee supporting Gimenez’s reelection paid Carollo’s consulting firm $90,000 for advice on what the county mayor describes as “basic strategy,’’ although that role was not widely publicized.

Carollo had become active in politics again in 2009, albeit behind the scenes, when he helped his younger brother, Frank Carollo, win election to the Miami City Commission.

Subsequently, Joe Carollo began turning up regularly on Spanish-language radio and TV to attack newly elected Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, a veteran city commissioner and longtime political nemesis. While mayor, Carollo had alleged that Regalado abused a city gas card.

After Regalado’s election, Carollo began airing allegations that the new mayor had received campaign support from operators of “illegal’’ gambling establishments and foreign contributors. Regalado was eventually fined $5,000 by the county ethics commission because of shoddy campaign bookkeeping.

Carollo also vocally backed Miami police chief and Regalado foe Miguel Exposito in his drawn-out fight with the mayor over the legality of gambling “ maquinitas” — small-bore video slots. Carollo and Exposito claimed Regalado was protecting the maquinita industry.

When State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle did not pursue criminal charges over the campaign contributions or the maquinitas, Carollo set his sights on her. He advised unsuccessful challenger Rod Vereen, in whose attack-dog campaign tactics some political observers saw Carollo’s hand.

Carollo, who was born in Cuba, arrived in the United States, initially without his parents, as a 6-year-old Pedro Pan child, and grew up in Florida and the Chicago area. As a politically conservative young man, he worked for the presidential campaign of George Wallace, who made his bones as a segregationist governor of Alabama.

He was also one of the youngest recruits to join the county police force and, in 1979, at age 24, the youngest candidate elected to the Miami commission. He rapidly distinguished himself by clashing often, and with evident relish, with administrators, with then-mayor Maurice Ferre, and a police chief whom he publicly called “a two-bit punk.’’

In 1983, after what he thought was a political truce, Ferre called a news conference at which he believed Carollo was going to endorse him for reelection. Instead, in a double-cross many still recall today, Carollo walked up to the microphone and bashed the clearly mortified Ferre.

Carollo didn’t stop there. He compared a black city manager to Idi Amin and accused two stalwart conservatives, former United Nations Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and hard-line exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa, of ties to Communist regimes, in a successful attempt to kill a development scheme they backed for Watson Island.

The clash did result in one of Carollo’s signature achievements as commissioner: An amendment that requires voter approval of commercial contracts on waterfront city land if there’s only one bidder.

By 1987, voters had had enough, and Carollo lost his seat. He was out of office for eight years, losing two bids to regain his seat and a third try for the County Commission before again winning election to the City Commission in 1995. When Miami Mayor Steve Clark died in office months later, Carollo won a special election to replace him.

Shortly after he assumed office, a bribery probe netted City Manager Cesar Odio and Commissioner Miller Dawkins. After the tainted 1997 election, the mastermind behind substantial electoral fraud, Commissioner Humberto Hernandez, was indicted on fraud and money-laundering charges.

Carollo, by comparison, appeared a paragon of stability, though Donald Warshaw — his disgraced city manager, ultimately jailed for plundering a children’s charity — would later allege the mayor was pressuring police to investigate and keep tabs on city commissioners and political opponents.

In the waning days of his mayoralty, Carollo began squiring Hispanic showbiz starlets to events around town. He took Sabado Gigante bikini model Sissi Fleitas to an official reception for the king and queen of Spain.

After his defeat by Manny Diaz — ironically, the attorney for Elián González’s Miami relatives — Carollo largely slipped quietly into private life. He has declined to specify what he was doing or how he was making a living, but acquaintances say he tried his hand at promoting boxing and concerts by Hispanic singers at the old Flagler Dog Track, among other business endeavors.

Since 2001, he has been living in a big Coconut Grove house assessed at $785,000. At the end of 2009, he entered into an apparently ill-advised, 83-day marriage to Republican political operative and self-described “bad girl’’ Ana Alliegro. He quickly filed for divorce, stating in filings that he was scared of her.

Alliegro disappeared last year amid a federal investigation into her involvement in alleged campaign shenanigans by then-U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who lost his reelection bid.

Carollo’s political and financial fortunes, by contrast, were unexpectedly on the rise.

At Doral, where Carollo will oversee 277 workers, he will earn $144,000 a year in salary, plus benefits.

Miami Herald staff writer Christina Veiga contributed to this report.

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