Coral Gables’ election cycle is solidifying, with two candidates running for the mayor’s seat and six vying for two open commission seats.
Hopefuls have until Feb. 22 to qualify for the April 9 election.
But the mayor’s race between Jim Cason, 68, the incumbent mayor and a retired U.S. Foreign Services Officer, and Ralph Cabrera, 54, a term-limited commissioner and president of Cabrera Benefits Group, a commercial insurance brokerage and benefits firm, gained traction in September when Cabrera held his campaign kick-off before 350 supporters at the Hyatt Regency.
Cason, who defeated four-term mayor Don Slesnick in the 2011 race, intended from the start to begin his campaign in January.
On Wednesday night, more than 100 supporters gathered at the Gables home of Tom and Debbie Korge for a cocktail fundraising reception for Cason, who repeated a vow he had made in his first race.
“I first ran and said I want to be mayor for four years. Two years is too short and more than four years and you’re a professional politician,” he said as supporters mingled and munched hors d’ouevres. “That’s it. I will have had 44 years of public service and then I’d like to go in some other direction.”
Cason listed some of his goals for a second two-year term.
“In four years I want to see the finances of the city improved. We’ve done a lot, but there’s more we can do. I want to build up reserves, want to lower taxes in another round. I want to see the Streetscape program downtown and the Neighborhood Renaissance projects substantially completed. I want to see the supertanker turning in the right direction and on a good course.”
Former Gables officials, including Chip Withers, who served on the commission for 20 years until his term expired in 2011, and Jack Eads, who served for 13 years as city manager under mayors George Corrigan and Raúl Valdés-Fauli before retiring in 2001, turned out for Cason.
Korge, an attorney who chaired the city’s Planning and Zoning Board for seven years, ran against Cason for the mayor’s seat two years ago. He finished third after Cason and Slesnick. Wednesday, he stood by Cason’s side as the mayor laid out his plans for a second term.
“Tom and I did have almost the same positions on every issue and going into the debates we would complement each other on the points we made. We did think alike,” Cason said.
“We felt comfortable with him after the election over the work he was accomplishing in the city,” said Debbie Korge. “We’ve seen changes with the whole zoning process. The Biltmore issue has been resolved and other burning issues. Jim has specific goals and objectives to accomplish and to change it now would put us one or two steps back.”
Withers had left office just as Cason became mayor. He said he supports the mayor over fellow commissioner Cabrera, who has spent 12 years on the dais.
“I like his vision and the direction the city has taken,” Withers said. “I’m pleased with what has taken place the last couple of years and I’m pleased with his support of the city manager.”
Cabrera, and fellow term-limited commissioner Maria Anderson, have been critical of City Manager Pat Salerno. Last year, Anderson, with a vote from Cabrera, unsuccessfully tried to fire the manager. At commission meetings Cabrera often clashes with Salerno, referring to the manager as a subordinate who is out of line.
Cason, a former diplomat, often quells the conflicts.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Cason said of Salerno. “He’s looking for the best for the city and trying to move things along. He has a right to speak under our charter. He may participate. He can’t vote but we hired him to be city manager and this is a city manager form of government.”
At his campaign kick-off in September, Cabrera — who is supported by Slesnick — said the Gables was at a crossroads.
Slesnicksaid he chose to support Cabrera because Cason had lived in Coral Gables for only a year when he first ran for mayor. In addition, Slesnick prefers Cabrera’s aggressive style over Cason’s more diplomatic approach.
“He gave me a hard time sometimes, but that’s why he was elected, to speak up for his constituents,” Slesnick said at Cabrera’s kick-off. “In government, relationships shouldn’t be arm-in-arm, merrily-we-roll along, on every issue. We respect each other’s opinion.”
For his part, Cason welcomes the challenge from Cabrera.
“You’ve got to run against somebody. I beat Slesnick, an incumbent of 10 years, after living here a year. Seems people are happy. I feel optimistic.”
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