Miami-Dade commissioners elected Esteban “Steve” Bovo chairman on Tuesday, tapping the conservative former state lawmaker for a powerful post that controls the flow of county legislation for Florida’s largest local government.
Bovo won the election in an 8-5 vote, assembling a coalition of commissioners from the left and right. His lone opponent was Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor now serving on the county commission. Key support for Bovo came from Audrey Edmonson, a liberal commissioner Bovo picked to serve as vice chair of the commission. Both posts carry two-year terms.
Before the vote, Bovo, a Republican who represented Hialeah in the Florida House from 2008-11, said he would demand urgency from colleagues.
“We don’t get elected to pass the buck,” said Bovo, who represents District 13 on the commission. “We get elected to address the issues before us.”
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Joining Edmonson in voting for Bovo were Jean Monenstime, the current commission chairman, Bruno Barreiro, Sally Heyman, Dennis Moss, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto. Sosa nominated Bovo for the chairmanship slot. Voting for Suarez, an independent, were Daniella Levine Cava, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Barbara Jordan and the commission’s lone newly elected member in 2016, former commissioner Joe Martinez. Jordan nominated Suarez.
The chair election pitted one of Miami’s county commissioners against one representing Hialeah. It also followed the commission’s unofficial practice of altering the position between a Hispanic and black member. (Monestime was the first Haitian American elected to preside over the 13-member board.)
Bovo currently serves as vice chairman of the commission, as well as head of the commission’s transit committee. He used that post to champion a plan to create an east-west commuter line on existing cargo tracks running parallel to State Road 836.
While that initiative enjoyed early support, it faded to the background when Mayor Carlos Gimenez and others announced a broader effort to expand rail countywide in the so-called SMART Plan. Bovo was the rare dissenting voice against the SMART plan, which he said encouraged studying the transit problem at the expense of action.
Closely watched by County Hall insiders, the chair election meant a win for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has faced criticism from Suarez over the years. Suarez, who holds the mayor’s former commission seat, briefly pursued his own mayoral run in 2016 before opting not to challenge Gimenez. Bovo is considered a Gimenez ally, and also is widely assumed to be preparing a 2020 mayoral campaign when term-limit rules would bar the incumbent mayor from seeking reelection.
Term limits enacted by voters in 2012 also will keep Bovo and five fellow commissioners from running again in 2020, the first wave of board members impacted by the change. Bovo cited the new rule as a reason for accelerating decisions under his tenure, and Gimenez struck a similar theme in an interview. “I think we all have a sense we need to move things forward,” Gimenez said.
The chairman election also will mean a sharp shift in the political profile of Miami-Dade’s commission chairman. Monestime was a top Miami-Dade surrogate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign, while Bovo is a close ally of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and Bovo’s wife, Vivian, works in the senator’s office. When Bovo was Monestime’s pick as vice chairman two years ago, Rubio came to the commission chambers to preside over Bovo’s swearing-in ceremony.
As commission chair, Bovo has authority over the agendas for the 13-member board’s twice-a-month meetings. He also gets to restructure the commission’s committee system and select new chairs — positions that traditionally are offered in exchange for support in the run-up to the chair vote.
Bovo said he may create a “policy council” to address broad issues with Gimenez’s administration in order to accelerate debates among commissioners. “Let’s address these issues,” he said, “and move them forward.”
In an interview, Bovo said the council would likely consist of committee chairs holding public meetings. Bovo said he expected to reward the commissioners who backed him with committee chairmanships. “I had seven colleagues vote for me,” he said. “I would probably be [selecting] seven chairmen. But I’m not set yet.”
In remarks before the vote, Bovo also raised the issue of youth violence and street shootings, a chronic crisis for some of Miami-Dade’s poorest neighborhoods. “I don’t know how I would be reacting if a child in my neighborhood was shot playing in the front yard,” he said. “And I don’t know how I would be reacting if it became an epidemic in the districts that I represent.”
Bovo said the commission needs to “empower families — mothers, fathers — to take back their neighborhoods” by boosting the county’s police force or “just giving them the moral backing so that they can become responsible for what goes on in their communities.”
“Not easy issues to fix,” he said. “I, for one, do not want to look at my children in the eye, 10 years from now or 15 years from now, and say that we failed to address the issues that are most pressing to our community.”
An earlier version of this article omitted Rebeca Sosa from the list of commissioners who voted for Esteban “Steve” Bovo as chairman.