Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason, along with incumbent commissioner Frank Quesada and commission newcomer Jeannett Slesnick were victorious Tuesday night in the Coral Gables elections.
With 27 of the city’s 27 precincts reporting, Cason won 57 percent of the vote to Ralph Cabrera’s 43 percent. Quesada, 35, an attorney seeking a second four-year term, posted a commanding lead over Enrique Lopez, 62, an IT consultant and lobbyist: 73 percent vs. 27 percent.
And in the highly contested Group V seat, where six candidates vied for the seat once held by longtime commissioner Bill Kerdyk Jr., who termed out after 20 years in office, Jeannett Slesnick garnered 32 percent of the vote in the crowded field. Her closest opponent was Tony Newell with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Sandra Murado with 19 percent, Ariel Fernandez with 16 percent, P.J. Mitchell with 6 percent and Jackson Rip Holmes with 1 percent.
Cason, 70, a retired diplomat, was seeking his third two-year term as mayor, running against Cabrera, 56, an insurance executive who sat on the commission for 12 years before terming out in 2013. He ran against Cason in 2013, with Cason winning about 71 percent of the vote.
"I'm so happy that Coral Gables residents could see through all the lies and all the negativity and realize that our city is on the verge of greatness,’’ Cason said. “We're much better than we have ever been. I'm happy that optimism prevailed over nattering nabobs of negativism."
Said Cabrera: "We did the best we could. We had the opportunities to discuss very important issues. I hope the discourse will get positive results. Thank you to the voters that came out and supported me."
In the most contested race, Slesnick, 67, a Coral Gables real estate firm owner and wife of former Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, ran against Newell, 32, a general contractor; Fernandez, 34, a PR executive who had worked for ex-Rep. David Rivera; Holmes, 63, a property manager; Mitchell, 41, an attorney; and Murado, 45, an attorney.
“I'm thrilled, that the people believed in me and voted for me and that all the volunteers and supporters actually got out an voted and were part of the voting process,’’ Slesnick said. “It's wonderful that they believed in me."
The victors were helped with a strong absentee ballot turnout. In total, about 3,800 absentees were cast, a significant increase from the 2013 election when about 2,700 absentee ballots were cast, according to the Miami-Dade Department of Elections. Cason, Quesada and Slesnick won the absentees.
“I'm excited and honored that residents have chosen to have me for another four years,” Quesada said. “I believe the results are indicative of how residents are happy with the initiatives I've been working on and how the city is moving forward.”
Quesada said the first thing he will bring back to the dais is improving the traffic master plan.
The victories came after a nasty campaign season, with mailers filled with innuendos and cloaked behind groups that didn’t have to disclose their identities. Robocalls, social media attacks and a series of contentious debates colored the campaign.
The city has several ambitious projects underway, including the controversial Mediterranean Village project, a $500 million hotel/office/retail complex that includes two condo towers that tip at the city’s height limit and abut a residential neighborhood.
If passed on second reading in the next month, the project — developed by Agave Ponce LLC — would feature a high-end hotel with 184 rooms, 314,000 square feet of office space, restaurants, stores and a gym. The project would also include two condo towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses.
Cason says the complex will bring new residents, new revenue and new life to the Ponce de Leon and Miracle Mile corridors.
Cabrera had campaigned against it, saying it would bring too much density to the neighborhood, calling it another Brickell.
On first reading last week, the project passed 3-2, with Kerdyk and commissioner Vince Lago dissenting. Cason, Quesada and Commissioner Pat Keon voted for the project. Slesnick has said she is for the project, but just at the “right scale.’’
Cabrera ran a campaign focusing on the city’s recent string of burglaries, charging Cason with ignoring residents’ concerns about crime and development. Cason maintained that crime was under control and the city needed to develop new life to attract young people to the area.
Cabrera also attacked Cason for stuffing his campaign coffers with $1,000 maximum-limit checks from developers, construction companies and architects who wanted to curry favor with the mayor. Cabrera’s donations came mainly from individuals in $50, $100 and $200 increments.
As of Friday, Cason had raised $157,190 while Cabrera had raised $91,310.
Meanwhile, Newell, one of the challengers in the Group V race, said the hard-fought campaign taught him a lot: "I'm proud and honored to have been a part of such a hard fought, well fought, and competitive race. This has been a tremendously worthwhile personal experience, and I wish our new commission, and, most important, the city the very best.’’
The swearing-in ceremony will be held at 12 p.m. April 17 at Coral Gables City Hall, 405 Biltmore Way. It will be open to the public.