The question was not whether Raquel Regalado should run.
At the Myers Senior Center in Little Havana, the only debate was over which office the school board member should tackle next.
About 40 seniors were at the comedor — a senior center that serves hot meals — for a Thanksgiving turkey raffle. Regalado was there to read the winning numbers along with her dad, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.
She was bombarded by supporters the moment she walked in.
“Everyone says you should aspire to the mayorship of your father,” one old man told Reglado.
“One hundred percent of the comedor supports you for the county, mi hija,” a woman told her.
There has been a buzz around Regalado ever since she went on a local radio show recently and announced that she’s weighing a run for mayor. She has a few options.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez is up for reelection in 2016. Tomás Regalado is term-limited in 2017. A successful bid would make her the first woman to hold either post.
The Miami native, 40, would bring plenty of advantages to a mayoral contest: strong name recognition, an eventful term on a widely-respected school board and polished media savvy. She is also fresh from a successful, high-profile campaign against a county bond that would have raised taxes to pay for a new courthouse.
“She does have a strong political future. She’s knowledgeable about issues, she’s not afraid to fight, and she’s open,” said Barry University political science professor Sean Foreman.
Although Regalado is among the first in line to informally express interest in two of South Florida’s most powerful offices, a host of other candidates is likely to emerge. County Commissioner Xavier Suarez has also said he’s interested in a campaign for county mayor. And his son, Francis, a Miami commissioner, may run again in the city.
Either race would likely be bruising, and Regalado does have weak spots opponents will likely zero in on, starting with past campaign-finance violations and limited administrative experience. While some local mayors are mostly figureheads, Miami-Dade’s is the top administrator of a massive bureaucracy.
County hall lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez, who was on the opposite side of the courthouse bond debate, also questioned her political clout on the courthouse bond issue. Polls showed it was doomed to fail even before Regalado got involved, he said.
“Single issues don’t propel you to the job,” he said. “You need to have an administrative background.”
Regalado made her first run for political office in 2010. An attorney and radio and television host with no previous education experience, she beat four other school board candidates without even a runoff. It wasn’t until a year into her term that Regalado, a divorcee raising two kids on her own, revealed a deeply personal reason for running: Her daughter, Isabela, has autism.
Regalado wrote in a Miami Herald op-ed that she ran, in part, because Isabela wasn’t getting the services she needed in a charter school.
Even before that revelation, Regalado quickly set herself apart from a school board of long-serving members who are mostly content to ride the success of their popular superintendent, Alberto Carvalho.
In fact, whenever mayoral aspirations were brought up, it was Carvalho’s name that was mentioned. He insists he’s not interested, saying he has a contract until 2020 that he intends to see out.
“I think she’s had a successful tenure on the school board, but people don’t pay much attention to the school board,” Foreman said. “She would have to explain what she’s done or what she’s accomplished. That would be easier for the superintendent. He gets a lot of credit.”
Still, Regalado has managed to emerge from Carvalho’s considerable shadow.
She partnered with the superintendent on a blitz campaign two years ago for a $1.2 billion bond for school repairs and technology upgrades. She wrote and recorded Spanish commercials. The bond passed overwhelmingly.
She also has been critical of school choice at the same time the district has championed it. More than half of the students in Miami-Dade now choose where they go to school rather than settle for the neighborhood school dictated by attendance boundaries.
Regalado took on the issue hard with the extremely competitive MAST Academy in Key Biscayne, saying so much choice had shut out some students from the school in their own backyards. She said she also worries about the impact on property taxes.
In the MAST case, Regalado pushed for a novel solution: allowing the city to pay for school improvements in exchange for local seats. The city of Coral Gables is now considering a similar arrangement.
Regalado has taken up causes even if it means crossing into another school board member’s district. There have been small acts, like visiting a school outside of her territory, or, more recently, proposing a new school that would siphon students from another member’s district.
“I don’t color within the lines,” Regalado told the Herald. “I should probably go back and talk to my kindergarten teacher about that.”
Regalado hasn’t felt confined to working within the school board, either. She’s quick to remind people of the district’s size — the fourth-largest in the nation — and the influence that can come with that.
By joining the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, Regalado worked to build a national reputation. Closer to home, she is frequently in Tallahassee to lobby legislators on education issues.
“She’s extremely effective in partnerships and working with others,” said state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez. “I know she was having conversations with a lot of the same folks I was, and those were people who were far-flung outside of Miami-Dade. That was something that I was like, ‘Oh wow.’”
Even before putting out her recent feeler on a possible mayoral campaign, there has been speculation about her political future. Her name was even floated as a candidate for Florida’s lieutenant governor.
Regalado spent a year as her father’s unpaid chief of staff at a time when corruption investigations were roiling city hall. That time by her father’s side may serve her well, said FIU political science professor Dario Moreno.
“It looks like she’s an equal partner with her dad, and actually her dad’s political advisor and point person.” Moreno said. “So I think that also give her status.”
That’s not to say there have not been major bumps in Regalado’s road into politics. There have been, for one, money issues.
Regalado was the treasurer of her dad’s 2009 mayoral bid. The campaign ended up paying a $5,000 fine for accepting money from foreign donors and $40,000 worth of discrepancies in total contributions. After her own campaign for school board, Regalado filed her final campaign report more than a year late. She was fined about $3,500.
“Learned that lesson,” she said. “This time around, I hired an accountant and a treasurer.”
Public records also show that Regalado lost her home to foreclosure in February. She told the Herald she turned over the deed and began renting when the mortgage became unaffordable. Part of her financial struggle, she said, was figuring out how to pay for expensive behavior therapy for her daughter.
“I couldn’t maintain this house and the insurance and everything that went with it,” she said. “It was either $50,000 a year in behavioral therapy, or it was pay for the house.”
At the Myers Senior center last week, silver-haired ladies and impeccably dressed gentlemen were already on board for Regalado to run — even if she hasn’t made up her own mind yet.
At one point, the raffle was interrupted by two men who stole the microphones to argue over whether Regalado should go for county or city mayor. She just laughed and kept reading numbers.
Regalado said she will decide in the next year whether to run. The decision, she said, will be based on two things:
“Where would my skill set be of best use, and how much can my family handle?” she said.
Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.