Seated at a cluttered conference table in a cramped City Hall office that will be his for only a few more days, Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff stretches back in a chair, arms behind his head, and considers the question.
It’s a complicated question for a complicated man, and something he hasn’t had to discuss with any urgency since he rode an anti-establishment movement into elected office nine years ago. Since then, he has overseen two unprecedented real estate booms, endured one epic financial bust and starred in a series of political and personal controversies.
Now, after his latest drama ended with a plot twist — his wife’s aborted bid to win his commission seat — he’ll navigate life after City Hall. What he’ll do next is anybody’s guess.
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“I want to stay involved and engaged,” he answers. “Whether that means publicly or privately engaged, I can't answer that question right now.”
Many presume that Sarnoff, an attorney by trade and negotiator by nature, still covets a public position of consequence. His wife’s inability to draw 25 percent of the vote has been viewed in many circles as his own defeat. But he’s been known to surprise. After all, this is the guy who won a second term in office just days after publicly scuffling with a propane-huffing, crack-smoking stalker outside his house.
Plus, Sarnoff, a Democrat, touts his connection with Gov. Rick Scott, whom he endorsed last year to guffaws. And as of the first of the month, Sarnoff still controlled $225,000 in campaign cash stashed in an electioneering account, money he didn’t have to spend because his wife dropped out of an election she likely couldn’t win.
“We're in a good position to effect policy in the city of Miami,” he says about his campaign money.
While Sarnoff won’t say specifically what his plans are, a nine-year track record of being one step ahead suggests he may be playing coy. His chess-board gamesmanship is what helped him rack up accomplishments, enough to literally fill a book (he had one printed and mass produced and then personally walked it door-to-door this year).
During his tenure, the PortMiami Tunnel was approved and constructed, Museum Park was completed, and downtown evolved from a borderline disaster to a destination. He helped guide the city through a near-financial collapse, a period he says may have been his most enjoyable time in office due to the pressure and consequence. And in the last few weeks alone, Miami opened a movie and film studio and cut the ribbon on a seven-acre park in Coconut Grove.
“I thought Marc was tenacious in pursuit of his objectives,” said Commissioner Francis Suarez, often a collaborator with Sarnoff on the dais. “I thought that tenaciousness sometimes rubbed people the wrong way.”
Sarnoff’s penchant for being at the center of everything earned him foes. In his first few months in office, he went head-on with Related Group over their plans to build condo towers next to Mercy Hospital and was later sued personally by the developer over a memo he penned to himself regarding a conversation about alleged payoffs. That same memo also thrust him into the center of a racially charged political dispute.
At the time, though, Sarnoff’s tangles with Related Group were viewed by early supporters as part of a white-hat, anti-establishment persona. When Sarnoff won his first of two re-elections in 2007, Coconut Grove blogger Glenn Terry, at the time a Miami Herald Neighbors columnist, wrote that the commissioner was “fresh air in a town often polluted by politics.”
“I didn’t describe him as a shining knight in that article, but we really felt he was going to take on the dragons,” said Terry. “It didn't take long for him to become one himself.”
Over time, Sarnoff did embrace real estate interests. He mended fences with Related Group and raised more than $1 million over the last two years, plenty of it from developers who sought approvals from the city commission. He also developed what he says is an unfair reputation as arrogant and condescending.
Meanwhile, he also earned critics with a few missteps, including his inaccurate claim that RCA and television pioneer David Sarnoff was his grandfather. He began to clash with people in politically important Coconut Grove, where he lives, though Sarnoff says his most virulent critics are an angry group resentful that “Miami has passed them by.”
“You can make a few enemies in life but you can't make 200 or 300 of them,” said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, a Miami businessman and City Hall regular. “I could have seen Marc leaving in an elegant fashion, maybe lining up for a congressional seat at the next opportunity. But after [the election] last Tuesday? Nada. I see that as very hard.”
So, really, what’s next?
Sarnoff says he may try to reignite his law practice, maybe as a mediator. He’s always wanted to create a consulting company called “Sarnoff Solutions,” and says he learned in office that people value conflict avoidance. He says he has reached out to Gov. Scott to discuss the potential of filling some board vacancies, and he still sits as a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization.
As for what he’ll do with his campaign stash, Sarnoff remains coy. He also learned in office that it doesn’t make sense to talk strategy in the press.
“There’s more money than you think,” he says. Asked how much, he pauses and smiles: “I don’t remember.”