Coral Gables commission candidate Tony Newell took aim at his five opponents running for the Group V seat in the last debate before the April 14th election.
“I don’t want to waste your time, so let’s clear the air. Every time they say that they don’t have a conflict, they’re implying that I do,” said Newell at Tuesday’s debate, held at the University of Miami.
Newell is among six candidates running for the seat held by Bill Kerdyk, who will term out after 20 years and whose family has served on the commission for more than seven decades. Besides Newell, 32, a general contractor, the candidates are: Ariel Fernandez, 34, a PR executive; Jackson Rip Holmes, 63, property manager; P.J. Mitchell, 41, attorney; Sandra Murado, 45, attorney; and Jeannett Slesnick, 67, real estate agent.
“Not one drop of ink has been devoted to my opponents. I could have sent mail out tying Ariel Fernandez to David Rivera, which would sink his campaign. I could take an ad out in the Herald that says, ‘Who is Sandra Murado and what type of self-described activist isn’t quite active enough to serve one single day on one city board?’ And with Jeannett, I can say, ‘Wow, you want to give power to someone to reshape property in the morning so she can resell it at night?’ I can get nasty too, because that’s what they’ve been doing.’’
Debate moderator Juan Mendieta, director of communications for Miami Dade College, took the floor: “I guess it’s out of his system, very good.”
But it wasn’t long before Fernandez and Murado addressed Newell; both have been vocal about being “interest free” in the Gables.
“I take offense by the comments made by Mr. Newell, in violation of the rules of this debate,” said Fernandez, who was former U.S. Rep. Rivera’s district director from 2011 to 2013. “But the truth is that I do not have any ties that would affect my ability to do my job as commissioner of the City of Coral Gables.”
Rivera, a Miami Republican who was elected to Congress in 2010 but lost in 2012, is under federal criminal investigation as the suspected mastermind of a federal campaign-finance scheme. He has twice been identified by a federal prosecutor in open court as a "co-conspirator" in the case, but has not been indicted.
Meanwhile, Murado was quick to correct her competitor, too.
“For the record, I would like to point out to my esteemed opponent, Mr. Newell, that I did serve on the Parks and Recreation Board from 2011 to 2013,” she said.
But the most offbeat conversation was an international one.
Mendieta: “With the normalization of relations in Cuba, what is your position on a consulate in Coral Gables?”
“Wow, I didn’t realize we were running for Congress,” Fernandez said. “ I would not support having a consulate office in the city of Coral Gables.”
Holmes: “I’m with Ariel on that.”
Newell: “Over my dead body.”
Mitchell: “I believe the Cuban Americans built Miami-Dade County, no!’’
Murado: “The opening of an embassy is determined by the relationship between those two countries.”
Slesnick: “Emphatically, no. It would have to be elsewhere.”
Then it was time for the Group VI candidates —a debate that wasn’t nearly as heated. Incumbent Frank Quesada, 35, attorney, is seeking his second, four-year term, running against longtime resident Enrique Lopez, 62, a lobbyist.
Quesada and Lopez talked about street lighting in the city, a concern that many residents have expressed.
Lopez says increasing the number of street lights would make the Gables look like a theme park.
“I don’t want it to have a Disney look,” Lopez said. Quesada said more street lighting reduces crime.
Lopez said if he’s elected, his priority would be to address the “overdevelopment frenzy,” referring to the up and coming Mediterranean Village project. Developed by Agave Ponce LLC, the $500-million project would rise on the former Old Spanish Village site on Ponce Circle, just a few blocks south of Miracle Mile. It would encompass almost seven acres and would include a high-end hotel with 184 rooms, 314,000 square feet of office space, restaurants, stores, a gym and a multiplex cinema. The project would also include three residential towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses.
Quesada said he would continue working on the traffic master plan.
The night ended with Mayor Jim Cason, 70, and former commissioner Ralph Cabrera, 56, running for the mayoral seat. The conversation was a constant back and forth, similar to their first forum.
Among many topics discussed, development was a biggie.
Cabrera said he doesn’t support the Mediterranean Village project, while Cason did.
Unfunded pension liability was “the elephant in the room,” according to Cabrera. “It needs to be wrangled and controlled,” he said.
Cason later said if he continues as mayor, he would like to extend the trolley to Saturdays.
Cabrera responded that he was there when the city started the trolley: “Jim wasn’t here.”
Cabrera, an insurance executive, sat on the commission for 12 years. He lost to Cason, a retired diplomat, when they ran against each other for the mayoral seat two years ago. Cason is seeking his third, two-year term as mayor.
Cabrera said that working on and expanding the parking garages off Miracle Mile should have come before Streetscape, an $18.8 million project on the Mile and Giralda that would give the streets a makeover— wider sidewalks, public art displays and open plaza areas along Miracle Mile.
Cason: “If we don’t fix it, it will be a miracle if anyone walked on our Mile.”
Cason later jumped into crime, saying the numbers are down in the city. Cabrera then said his opponent is “the only person that doesn’t think there’s a crime issue in the Gables.”
Cason fired back by saying that Cabrera was absent 127 times during his time as commissioner. He added that he has attended more than 5,000 events in Coral Gables, a statistic he cites at every political event.
Cabrera supporters raved that if Cason attended 5,000 events, Cason would have had to attend about 3.5 events a day as mayor.
“That’s just math,” Cabrera tweeted.
According to Cason’s city calendar, thousands of those “events” were meetings held in his office, not events in the actual community. Some of those meetings were with his campaign manager Jorge de Cardenas, the city’s IT department and television interviews, among others.
The forum then came to a close with each person having two minutes to give their final statements.
“All I ask is for five minutes of your time to vote for me, and I’ll give you two more years of service,” Cason said.
Cabrera wrapped up by saying he will be a “practical and reality-oriented, transparent, fiscally responsible” mayor.