The first time Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his chief reelection rival, County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, faced off, it was a sleepy affair, held over breakfast after a late-night Miami Heat playoff game. The two men agreed on most everything.
A month and a half after that first forum, and in the throes of campaigning for the Aug. 14 election, Martinez and Gimenez tried to crystallize their attacks against each other at an hour-long debate Friday hosted by the Latin American Business Association.
They were egged on by a boisterous, dressed-for-happy-hour crowd of more than 100 people gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, who generally sat on opposite sides of the room: one for Gimenez and one for Martinez. The Martinez side tended to be louder, though the association does not plan to endorse a candidate in the race.
Martinez, the challenger who has raised far less campaign money than the incumbent mayor, was quick on the draw after Gimenez gave his stump speech centered on reforming county government and cutting spending and taxes.
“The board of county commissioners was the one who rolled back the rates,” Martinez said, taking at least partial credit. “Not everything that’s being told to you is the truth.”
Martinez went after two of the actions that Gimenez touts as signature achievements: lowering the property-tax rate and cutting his salary as mayor.
He pointed to the mayor’s proposed tax rate, which commissioners approved Tuesday, that is 2 percent lower than last year’s. Because of higher property values and more money coming in, Miami-Dade will have to advertise a tax increase, as required by state law — even though Gimenez’s proposed $5.9 billion budget is down from nearly $6.2 billion last year.
“This, right now, is not being advertised as such until September” after the election, Martinez said of the tax-increase notice.
If Martinez believes lowering the tax rate is a tax hike, Gimenez countered, “then he voted to increase taxes six times during his tenure as a commissioner.”
Then, Gimenez added, “I still don’t believe the state definition.”
“An elected official that doesn’t believe in the law — go figure,” Martinez said. His supporters cheered.
Martinez later suggested Gimenez was not being straight about lowering his salary as mayor because “he didn’t take a pay cut” compared to what Gimenez was making in his previous role as commissioner.
Gimenez shook his head and scoffed.
“The mayor is somewhat more than the job of the commissioner,” he said. “The previous mayor was making more than $320,000 in salary and benefits. I cut my salary in half ... to lead by example.”
Gimenez got in a few jabs of his own. When Martinez criticized the mayor’s proposal to impose a controversial healthcare contribution on county employees — which Martinez said was unfair because workers already paid for a portion of their health insurance — Gimenez remarked on an earlier decision by commissioners that Gimenez opposed when he was on the dais.
“We probably wouldn’t have been in this mess in the first place had he not voted a few years ago to give police officers a 13-percent raise,” Gimenez said to applause.
Later, Martinez criticized Gimenez for asking the commission to approve up to $5 million for water-damage repairs at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. A portion of the money will pay for a forensic engineer to investigate the cause of a broken storm pipe that failed; Martinez said Gimenez’s administration should have brought in the project contractors to determine fault before seeking the expenditure.
“That would probably be the dumbest thing we could do,” Gimenez retorted, saying a contractor would be loath to admit fault and the county would not collect money for the repairs in time for the opening of the fall season.
Early on in the debate, Gimenez trumpeted the endorsement he received Friday from the Hialeah mayor and all but one member of the city council, a year after a heated race between Gimenez and former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina.
The debate began on a somber note, with a moment of silence for the victims of the movie-theater shooting the night before in Aurora, Colo. The first question moderator Michael Putney, the political reporter for WPLG-ABC 10, asked the rivals was about gun control.
Both recognized their limited ability to impose new gun regulations. Martinez called for more enforcement of existing laws, and the two men said they oppose the Florida Legislature’s effort to keep doctors from asking patients about gun ownership in a law known as “docs and Glocks.” The law was recently struck down by a Miami federal judge.