Suspended Homestead mayor faces verdict of voters

 

Special To the Miami Herald

When Steve Bateman was arrested on corruption charges and then suspended from his post as mayor of the of Homestead, his enemies in this politically polarized city cried “Good riddance!”

Maybe that was premature.

That same week, Bateman filed paperwork to run again, suspension or no. Next Tuesday’s primary election figures to be an intriguing test of voters’ tolerance for alleged criminal misconduct. Bateman is one of four candidates on the mayoral ballot.

In advance of the voters’ verdict, the 58-year-old Bateman has been omnipresent on the campaign trail, waving signs, shaking hands and insisting that the criminal charges will never stick.

“I am 100 percent innocent,” Bateman told the Miami Herald as he and more than 20 of his supporters, all clad in red T-shirts bearing the message “Steve Bateman for mayor,” waved signs at motorists traversing Krome Avenue during rush hour.

He is one of three Miami-Dade mayors arrested and suspended over the summer, but the only one currently trying to reclaim his job through the ballot.

The state attorney alleges that Bateman used his mayoral office to secure an undisclosed job with a healthcare outfit, Community Health of South Florida Inc. that needed favors from the city. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez complained that he met with Bateman The job paid $125 an hour.

That arrangement. In the aftermath of Miami Herald and CBS4 reports on the secret job, CHI fired Batemen. After he was charged by the state attorney’s office, Gov. Rick Scot suspended him from office, a job that paid $6,000 a year .

Bateman said the suspension and criminal charges are “just another hurdle to jump before the election.”

If he is resilient, his supporters are even more so.

They say media reports of Bateman’s arrest have only presented one side of the story. Their side?

“Was it a secret job? No. He is allowed to work. Obviously he can’t live on $6,000,” said 42-year-old Larry Meno.

Meno and many other Bateman supporters say they are more concerned with infrastructure and safety in the city of more than 60,000 residents than with headlines that have delved into the CHI deal and other areas of alleged influence peddling.

Vanessa Rodel said the city needs more cops. Chris Carder said Homestead must upgrade its sewer system. Her son, John Carder, said Homestead needs to refurbish its power plant in an effort to lower residents’ power bills.

They all said Bateman is the one to tackle these projects.

“A lot of people have come, conquered and taken what they can from Homestead,” said Chris Carder. “But Mr. Bateman has actually stayed here and tried to do some work. I want to see kids grow up and have a better place to live. If we can’t fix the infrastructure, then we can’t really build and we can’t move forward. You have to have roads and sewer systems. Big businesses don’t come to cities that are broke. … Would you build a house if you will not be able to flush your toilet?”

One of Homestead’s ongoing problems is a moratorium on some construction caused by a pump station that is currently functioning at maximum capacity. That has stalled pending new businesses, including a children’s crisis center proposed by CHI.

L. and J. Mallary, husband and wife who live in the poorest and least developed district in the southwest area of Homestead, said their power bill is too high. They pay about $325 per month for their electric, water and sewer bill.

“But he will work to lower the electric bill,” said the wife.

John Carder, who hosted a meet and greet event at his home for Bateman Thursday night, said he has been in talks with the suspended mayor to start a project that would allow Homestead’s power plant to use sustainable energy, eventually cutting costs to residents. Carder is one of the two principals of Future Energies International, a Miami firm that uses renewable and alternative power-producing technology.

At the meet and greet, about 10 people sat in a semi-circle around Bateman and discussed city issues.

“I am telling you the taxpayers are begging for more police officers,” said Bateman. “That department’s morale is really low.”

Adding more cops to the force seems to be one of the few issues on which all four candidates for Homestead mayor agree.

Running against Bateman: former Councilman Jeff Porter; the Rev. Joseph Sewell; and Mark Bell, who is the husband of County Commissioner Lynda Bell.

At a recent mayoral candidates’ debate, Porter said Bateman has brought “turbulent times” to Homestead.

“If Mr. Bateman were to win the election, Gov, Scott would remove him from office the very next day,” Porter said.

Indeed, the office of Florida Gov. Rick Scott said that is exactly what it plans to do.

“Floridians deserve to be represented by people who are 100 percent committed to serving them,” Scott said in an emailed statement to the Herald. “The mayor needs to focus on his family during this legal battle and let someone else step up to serve the people of Florida.”

And yet, Bateman supporters were not backing off.

“Just because you are suspended that doesn’t end it for you,” said Meno, 42. “Once all the facts are out, he will be re-instated. All this has been a politically driven sabotage.”

Added Chris Carder: “I really do believe we are witch hunting here. If the citizens of Homestead give him enough votes, it is only fair that the governor lets Homestead citizens make their own decisions.”

The two candidates with the highest number of votes will advance to the general election Nov. 5, unless one receives greater than 50 percent, in which case that person becomes mayor.

Read more Miami-Dade stories from the Miami Herald

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