To Jim Cason, Coral Gables is moving in the right direction and his reelection as mayor will propel the city forward.
To his opponent Ralph Cabrera, the well-heeled city is ignoring residents’ concerns about crime and a wave of development that includes two condo towers that tip at the city’s height limit.
A tale of two cities? In this election season, yes, indeed.
Cason, 70, is running for a third two-year term in Tuesday’s election. He had said he wasn’t going to serve more than four years, but now says he’s critical to attracting investment to the downtown core.
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“We have 97 initiatives underway to improve the quality of life in the city. This commission has transformed Coral Gables, and being an internationalist, that’s my specialty,” said Cason, a retired diplomat and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. I like to say Ralph’s vision is that of a sniper’s vision: very narrow and focuses on one or two things. He doesn’t tell you what his vision is for the future.”
Cabrera, 56, says Cason’s administration has ignored the residents’ chief complaint: crime. The former commissioner — he served on the dais for 12 years before terming out in 2013 — is playing off the city’s recent spate of high-profile burglaries. His campaign posters call “For a Safer Coral Gables.”
He also has criticized Cason for stuffing his campaign coffers with contributions from developers and real estate investors who want to curry favor with the mayor.
“It may be considered legal, but it is certainly personally unethical,” said Cabrera, an insurance company executive. “When you accept money from people who are coming before you, you are giving the public the impression that you are now beholden to those people.’’
Cason said the campaign contributions won’t affect his leadership. “I’m a person of integrity. All kinds of people donate because they want me to win. They want me to carry out the good works in our city.’’
As of Friday, Cason said his campaign has raised $157,190; many of those donations are $1,000 maximum-limit contributions from developers, architects and construction companies. Cabrera has raised $91,310, mostly in $50, $100 and $250 increments, mainly from residents. He has some business donations of $1,000 apiece — property and investment firms, small business owners and a McDonald’s franchisee.
The mayor’s seat is one of three of five commission seats being contested Tuesday. Longtime commissioner Bill Kerdyk Jr. is stepping down after 20 years because of term limits. His departure has six people contending for his seat, while incumbent commissioner Frank Quesada is battling one candidate.
Although the campaigns have taken on a trenchant tone — particularly among the six vying for Kerdyk’s seat — the nastiest battles have been waged in the mayor’s race. Cason and Cabrera ran against each other in 2013, with Cason commanding about 71 percent of the vote.
This time around, Cason and Cabrera have attacked each other at debates, through campaign emissaries and in ads. In the latest salvo, Cabrera filed a complaint Friday with the Miami Ethics Commission, boasting in a news release headline: “Ralph Cabrera denounces how Cason’s Campaign is fixing potholes for votes.’’
Much of the acrimony has centered on crime.
Coral Gables has had a recent string of burglaries that have been well publicized. Residents grew so agitated that commissioners called a special meeting last Sept. 11, a nine-hour session where constituents ripped the city’s crime stats, booed officials and hoisted homemade signs when Cason spoke, saying “Who Cares.’’
Cason says burglaries are going down. Cabrera says the city has a crime problem, and Cason has ignored it.
Cabrera said: “I’m not going to sit here and argue about crime going up or down. The issue needs to be a priority for the mayor’s office. [Cason] has been disinterested and unwilling to recognize the problem.’’
Cason said: “He should get a doctorate. He’s so good at doctoring things. He’s a blatant liar. He’s just trying to scare people into thinking there’s a crime wave.”
Residents have noticed the negative campaign.
“Public service is about loving your community and the people who live there. It’s not about what the other person can’t do; it’s about what you can do,’’ said Mary Young, a Gables resident of 22 years who lost to commissioner Patricia Keon two years ago. “What I’ve seen is definitely not in the spirit of what I think an election should be about.”
The city has several ambitious projects underway to give a facelift to its dowdy downtown, including the $18.1 million Streetscape, which would make Miracle Mile more pedestrian friendly with wider sidewalks, outdoor cafes and more trees.
Cason thinks the project is critical to attracting young people to the city. Cabrera is for it, but argues the city’s two aging parking garages behind Miracle Mile should have come first.
The two also take two different positions on the Mediterranean Village, a $500-million project that includes a 184-room luxury hotel, more than 300,000 square foot of office space, restaurants, stores, a gym and two condo towers that the developer, Ponce Agave, had to scale back to meet the city’s height limits.
Cason says the complex off Ponce Circle will bring new residents, new revenue and new life to the Ponce and Miracle Mile corridors.
“If it’s done well, it’s going to bring in people from all over the world into Coral Gables,’’ Cason said.
Cabrera is concerned about increased traffic, density and the project’s impact on surrounding residential neighborhoods.
“I don’t want it to look like Brickell,’’ Cabrera said.
The campaign’s drama peaked Friday when Cabrera’s campaign filed a complaint with the Miami Dade Ethics Commission. In a letter to Joseph Centorino, the commission’s executive director, Cabrera contended “staffers from Mayor Cason’s political campaign are holding themselves out to be agents of the city and are actively identifying constituent complaints and then using the Mayor’s public office to generate official action by the Coral Gables Public Works Department in an effort to garner votes.’’
In the complaint, he cites a Facebook post by Julio Ignacio De Castro, a Cason campaign volunteer, who has been walking through the neighborhoods on behalf of the campaign, asking residents if they have any complaints about the city.
According to De Castro’s Facebook post: “… we have to report all holes in the ROW [right-of-way] and busted sidewalks to Mrs. Cason. This is how PW [Public Works] knows were [sic] to send the repair crews.’’
Reached Friday evening, De Castro, 70, a retired civil engineer, confirmed he wrote the post. He said the mayor gives him a clipboard with addresses to ask residents if they have any complaints. From there, he and the campaign volunteers take photos, fill out a complaint form and “send it to Carmen,’’ Cason’s wife, De Castro said.
“I got my sidewalk fixed two weeks ago,’’ he said. “For 20 years I’ve been asking, and nothing has happened. When Cason took over, my sidewalk was fixed.’’
Cabrera, in his news release, said: “This is wrong on many levels. Mayor Cason is basically saying, ‘If you vote for me I will fix your sidewalk.’ This conduct is unethical and possibly illegal.
“This wreaks of dirty Latin American politics. Mayor Cason may have worked there and may do business there now, but that’s not how we do things in Coral Gables.’’
Cason said he sends campaign volunteers to the neighborhoods to get a sense of how people are doing. He said the complaints are sent to his wife, Carmen, who “calls them into Public Works and they get fixed.’’
When asked about city money being used to further his campaign, Cason said Cabrera’s campaign was overstating the issue. Said Cason: “It would be negligent if we didn’t fix them’’ [the sidewalks and potholes].
Some residents have also criticized Cason for saying he has attended more than 5,000 events during his two terms as mayor. Cabrera’s supporters noted that would break down to Cason attending 3 1/2 events a day as mayor.
According to Cason’s city calendar obtained by the Miami Herald, thousands of those “events” were meetings held in his office, not events in the community. Some of those meetings were with his campaign manager Jorge de Cardenas, the city’s IT department and television interviews.
“I stand by that number,’’ Cason said. “Look up the definition of ‘event.’ It means coming together for a purpose. I never said ‘outside events.’ Yes, a lot of them are in the office, but I’m a full-time mayor, and I will stand by that.”
Molly Gail, a Cabrera supporter who held four crime-watch meetings last year, said Cason “never showed up to a single crime-watch meeting.’’
“For one of those meetings, he was going to come, but an hour before we got a message from his office telling me he had a scheduled ribbon cutting. So you’re telling me that a ribbon cutting is more important than coming to a crime-watch meeting in the midst of all this? He left me feeling that he has no value for me and the 150 other people of my crime watch group.’’
Andres Murai, a Gables resident of 35 years, says Cason has been involved and approachable.
“Mayor Cason listens to every resident,” said Murai, 71. “He listens to all on an equal basis and then he makes his decisions. Cason has brought stability and sound financial management during his years in office.
“At this particular juncture, Cason is the person who can guide the city for the next couple of years and complete what he started four years ago.”
Just like the residents, former and current commissioners have different takes on the two.
Former Commissioner Maria Anderson served 12 years with Cabrera and two years with Cason. She supports Cabrera. “Ralph has a keen command of the facts and has real achievements. He has a love and understanding for the city’s people, and puts the best interest of this city first. I believe that’s what has been missing at City Hall.”
Kerdyk, the vice mayor, thinks Cason would be the city’s best choice.
“The city is moving in the right direction, and Jim provides that steady hand of leadership that we need,” Kerdyk said.
Former Mayor Don Slesnick, who was the city’s mayor for 10 years before losing to Cason in 2011, isn’t saying who he’s supporting. (His wife, Jeannett, who owns a real estate firm, is one of six vying for Kerdyk’s seat.)
But, he notes, the tenor of this year’s campaign does not befit Coral Gables: “The whole thing is disgusting to me. It gets more and more negative by the day.”
About the candidates
Occupation: Insurance executive
Education: Bachelor’s in business administration, Florida International University
Years lived in Coral Gables: 49
Public Service: Actors’ Playhouse, Advisory Board; Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center Association, Board of Directors (1998-2001); Coral Gables Business Improvement District, Board of Directors (1999-2000); Coral Gables Rotary Club, member (1995 to 2009); Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce, Board of Directors (1998-2000); Florida International University Alumni Association.
Occupation: Mayor, retired diplomat
Education: Bachelor’s, Dartmouth College; master’s, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.
Years lived in Coral Gables: Six
Public Service: Former U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay; Chief of Mission, U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba; Deputy Chief of Mission, U.S. Embassies in Honduras and Jamaica; Political advisor to the commander of NATO’s Supreme Allied Command, Atlantic; Director of Regional Affairs, U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs; Served in U.S. embassies in Portugal, Italy, El Salvador, Panama, Uruguay, Bolivia and Venezuela.