Miami-Dade County’s bitter, pricey mayoral race will go to a run-off vote in November, with challenger Raquel Regalado forcing incumbent Carlos Gimenez into a one-on-one contest with the two-term school board member.
“The people have spoken and they have rejected Carlos Gimenez,” Raquel Regalado told supporters in Spanish late Tuesday. “For years, many said ‘Raquelita Regalado’ could never do this. Well, here you have it.”
The race pitted the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado against a county mayor who came to office in 2011 and has presided over Miami-Dade’s recovery from recession to the expanded revenues that came from a second housing boom.
Gimenez, 62, who at 48 percent fell shy of the 50-percent-plus-one votes he needed to win outright, addressed supporters late Tuesday and promised “a clear victory” in November. “There’s a clear difference,” Gimenez said in the ballroom of the Hilton Miami Airport Convention Center. “And a difference in vision.”
Tuesday’s results upended polling by the Gimenez camp, which was confident enough of ending the race that it drained most of the record-breaking $4.5 million war chest in an aggressive ad, mailer and call-bank operation that touted the mayor’s five years in office and tried to brand Regalado as not ready for the job.
Regalado, 42, was outspent roughly four-to-one, but used her campaign to try and portray Gimenez as beholden to the lobbyists and county vendors who helped fund his reelection effort.
With more than 90 percent of the precincts reporting, Gimenez held just under 48 percent of the vote, well ahead of the 32 percent captured by Regalado. Gimenez aides pointed to the surprise showing of Frederick Bryant, a retired school teacher who spent $2,341 on the race and was running third, with about 9 percent of the vote. Alfred Santamaria, a former congressional aide who spent close to $400,000, was running slightly behind Bryant, with just under 9 percent.
Bryant was the only African-American in the seven-candidate race, and the Gimenez camp saw that segment of the electorate as key to winning outright on Tuesday. “I had a busy day today,” Bryant said Tuesday night. “It seemed like I was going to do pretty well.”
Heading into the primary, the Gimenez reelection effort reported less than $500,000 in unspent cash. The Regalado side reported about $115,000 remaining in its war chest. The run-off promises to unleash a flurry of fundraising on both sides in the dash to replenish coffers for the nine weeks remaining in the election.
November’s presidential race is sure to bring a flood of Democratic voters to the polls and scramble the dynamics of the low-turnout August primary. Donald Trump would certainly loom large in a November mayoral race between the two Republicans. Regalado has slammed Gimenez for his ties to the GOP presidential candidate, who golfed with the mayor before pursuing a management deal for a county-owned course, and whose Doral resort employs an Gimenez son as a lobbyist.
Gimenez, a former fire chief and Miami city manager, sought reelection as a steady administrator who cut property-tax rates, tamed the county bureaucracy and steered the county into more prosperous times.
Regalado, who is running to be Miami-Dade’s first female mayor, hinged her campaign on voter dissatisfaction with county government under Gimenez, whom she cast as a cautious bureaucrat who had failed to improve the quality of life in Miami-Dade.
The last time Gimenez ran for mayor was in 2012, when he sought a full term a year after winning the special election to finish the term of then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted in a recall. The 2012 race featured a similar dynamic as 2016: the incumbent faced only one challenger already in office, then-County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez.
Late Tuesday, Regalado was roughly matching the 31 percent Martinez captured in 2012. But Gimenez was well short of the 54 percent majority he secured in 2012. The difference so far: in 2012, the five lesser-known candidates captured 15 percent of the vote, while the five lesser-known candidates in 2016 were accounting for 20 percent of the vote.
This will be the first November run-off in a Miami-Dade mayoral contest since 2004, when Carlos Alvarez beat Jimmy Morales. Alvarez was reelected in 2008 but ousted in a 2011 recall. Gimenez took his place after winning a June run-off that year between him and former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina. Gimenez had finished second in the nine-person primary held the month before but ended up coming from behind and beating Robaina in the run-off. Gimenez won reelection to a full, four-year term a year later against Martinez.
The 2016 mayoral race officially took shape on March 9, 2015, when Regalado submitted her papers to run. She filed before any candidate, giving her 17 months to both make her case and try to sustain the extensive media attention that accompanied her formal announcement at county election headquarters in Doral.
At the time, she was riding high on two fights: The previous fall, Regalado led the opposition to a tax-hike referendum that Gimenez backed to fund a $390 million replacement to downtown’s aging, moldy courthouse. A month earlier, she and auto magnate Norman Braman filed a lawsuit to block a $9 million county subsidy Gimenez proposed for the Skyrise Miami observation tower planned for downtown’s Bayside Marketplace.
As Regalado joined the race, Gimenez and aides were preparing what would be the first budget of his tenure not defined by austerity measures. He took office in 2011 on the promise of a property-tax rate cut to undo the hike that helped drive Alvarez out of power. Gimenez won the cut and paid for it with a package of union concessions, payroll reductions and spending cuts that lingered through the county’s economic recovery.
That July, Gimenez declared Miami-Dade had “turned a corner” and unveiled a budget with a package of service expansions funded by higher property values. The theme continued a year later when Gimenez released his final, pre-election budget last month — a 2017 spending plan with a tiny tax-rate dip and a 4 percent raise for thousands of county workers. It was tied to a deal Gimenez reached with unions in 2014 that promised the 2017 compensation boost of property values exceeded his administration’s forecasts.
Polls suggested Gimenez entered the 2016 race as the front-runner but vulnerable. A May Bendixen Amandi survey for the Miami Herald and other media organizations found him ahead by 10 points among likely voters — a close enough margin that his campaign cited it when asking donors for an infusion of cash.
Fernand Amandi, a partner at the firm that conducted the poll, said that forcing Gimenez into a run-off resets the race, despite the incumbent’s double-digit lead over Regalado in Tuesday’s results.
“It means that now, anything is possible,” Amandi said.