Bombastic, sometimes paranoid, often vindictive toward those he believed crossed him, but always colorful and often right, Joe Carollo seemingly ended his political career when he was fired as city manager of Doral in 2014.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, he’s back. This time he’s running for the District 3 seat in Miami that his brother is leaving this November — possibly to run for mayor.
“I put a lot of sweat, blood and tears of my life in the city,” Carollo told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “The foundation that was laid, I want to make sure it’s firm and we lay even a stronger foundation for the next 20, 30 years of Miami.”
Carollo, a 61-year-old Cuban exile, has been out of elected office for 15 years. But memories of the two decades he spent in and out of power on the Commission and as mayor are still vivid in the city, which has yet to see another politician quite like Carollo. Even today, he remains one of the most colorful characters ever to hold power in Miami.
I put a lot of sweat, blood and tears of my life in the city. Joe Carollo
When he files his papers with Miami’s city clerk, Carollo will enter a race that features five candidates already, including Alex Dominguez, Alfonso Leon, Miguel Soliman, Daniel Suarez and Zoraida Barreiro, the wife of Miami-Dade County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, who quietly filed papers to run on Tuesday. Other notable potential candidates: former District 3 Commissioner Joe Sanchez, former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, and Tommy Regalado, the son of the current mayor.
“I just bought season tickets to the elections in the city of Miami,” said Mayor Tomas Regalado.
First elected to the Commission in 1979 at the age of 24, Carollo was in office during the Liberty City riots and the Mariel Boatlift, events that altered Miami’s future. As mayor in the mid and late ’90s, he watched city officials indicted during the federal Operation Greenpalm kickback sting and helped steer Miami out of a financial crisis and scandal, perhaps his biggest accomplishment during all his years in office.
Even the way he won his second stint as mayor was unprecedented — coming after a state appeals court overturned the results of the 1997 mayoral election on the grounds that the race, which went in favor of Xavier Suarez, the father of current mayoral candidate Francis Suarez, swung on widespread voter fraud.
[The ’80s and ’90s] were among the 20 most volatile years in Miami’s history, with rioting, drugs and political instability. Paul George, historian
“Those were among the 20 most volatile years in Miami’s history, with rioting, drugs and political instability,” said historian Paul George.
But Carollo also earned a reputation as mercurial and even, some said, paranoid, leading his critics to dub him “Crazy Joe.”
He railed against communist sympathizers and at times turned against friends and allies. He could be unpredictable, like in 1983, when then-Mayor Maurice Ferré called a press conference at which he believed Carollo would endorse his reelection bid, only to watch the commissioner bash him instead.
Most famously, Carollo became embroiled in the Elián González saga and abruptly fired his city manager when he refused to get rid of Police Chief William O’Brien, who’d declined to notify Carollo of the federal raid that pulled the child from his family’s home and sent him back to Cuba. Afterward, protestors threw bananas at City Hall.
Carollo lost his 2001 reelection bid to Manny Diaz, the González family attorney, and disappeared from the spotlight for more than a decade before popping back up as city manager in Doral — a job that ended with him being fired as he accused then-mayor Luigi Boria of corruption.
Carollo is still pursuing a whistleblower claim in federal court.
Most recently, Carollo worked as a political consultant for the reelection campaign of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, an ally and supporter whom Carollo appointed as city manager in Miami during his time as mayor.
Now, Carollo wants back in the city representing a district that revolves around Little Havana, to the point that he says he is renting in the district and planning to sell his Coconut Grove home.
“Any legitimate poll would show I’m way up against anyone running for that seat against me,” Carollo said.
As for his campaign, Carollo said he wants to curb a suddenly escalating drug trade that through heroin and fentanyl alone has been blamed for at least 31 deaths in Overtown in the last two years, and has an economic development plan that will turn Southwest Eighth Street from something of a hollow tourist attraction into a thriving destination.
[Calle Ocho] is not Ybor City or Key West, it’s very limited. Joe Carollo
“We have a lot of tourists who go there in buses now but they don’t have a lot to do. Some end up being disappointed,” he said. “It’s not Ybor City or Key West, it’s very limited.”
He also believes Miami needs to connect downtown and Brickell with a tunnel and double the reach of its trolley system in order to begin to address its traffic woes. He wants to end the city’s red light camera program, which he calls a “fraud” on the public created to enrich lobbyists, and says he’ll push back against a trend in which new development is built and marketed toward foreign money instead of people who live and work in Miami.
“What’s being built, it’s all for foreign investors, for condominiums that local Miamians can’t afford. Not enough workforce housing is being constructed. In fact, very little,” he said.
Carollo said he won’t run for mayor because he can accomplish just as much on the Commission, believes a new generation should claim the post, and doesn’t want to get in his brother’s way should Frank Carollo indeed try to claim Miami’s top post — although his commission campaign will likely be a complication, regardless.