The Miami Dolphins’ short-lived quest for a subsidized stadium renovation could have turned out a lot worse for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez: Voters could have handed him a resounding political defeat at the polls had they rejected the deal he negotiated.
But the Florida House of Representatives effectively canceled the referendum, for now shielding the mayor and county commissioners from much of the fallout.
Without a public vote, the politicians who supported the stadium deal cannot declare victory. But they also don’t face the prospect of seeking reelection after a potential loss.
“There’s no animosity toward me,” Gimenez said in an interview shortly after lawmakers concluded their annual legislative session Friday without taking up the bill necessary for the special election to take place.
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Gimenez required the referendum, which club executives had hoped to avoid. He also forced the team to make a nearly $4.8 million nonrefundable payment to cover election costs. The county will get to keep the more-than $1 million left over.
But despite those concessions, merely negotiating with the Dolphins has tarnished Gimenez’s reputation among some former supporters who liked him in part for stridently opposing public financing for the Miami Marlins’ ballpark.
“He’s a disappointment,” said former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who has criticized Gimenez on Spanish-language radio.
Martinez said the mayor “pulled a fast one” by reaching a “last-minute” deal with the Dolphins less than 48 hours before commissioners gave it tentative approval. “It doesn’t look clean,” Martinez said.
Though the mayor and commissioners are elected to nonpartisan posts, both Miami-Dade Republican and Democratic party leaders opposed the plan.
No major Democrat challenged Gimenez, a Republican, in his two mayoral elections in 2011 and 2012. At least one prominent Democratic-leaning group, SAVE Dade, supported him after he endorsed county policies to benefit same-sex couples.
“We helped elect him,” Democratic Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein said.
But, she added, that might change if Gimenez seeks reelection in 2016, as he has signaled he will do.
“As a Democratic Party, we expect to run a candidate against him next time,” she said, without naming any potential contenders.
Still, with reelection more than three years away, much could change for Gimenez. A referendum might have cemented the Dolphins deal — whether it succeeded or failed — as Gimenez’s legacy. Dying at the hands of legislators gives the mayor more wiggle room, said his pollster, Dario Moreno.
“If you were a Dade resident and you were for it, you can’t blame Gimenez, and if you were against it, you can’t blame Gimenez too much,” Moreno said. “Gimenez did all right.”
The mayor walked a fine political line on the deal. He said he would vote for the agreement, which would have raised the mainland county hotel-bed tax to give the stadium up to $289 million over three decades. But he also said he would not actively campaign for it.
In interviews, the mayor painstakingly explained — and praised — the deal. When he traveled to Tallahassee after commissioners approved the agreement, Gimenez spent most of his time talking about it.
Yet not even support from the mayor and a majority of commissioners could sway House leaders, who were also hearing from a divided Miami-Dade legislative delegation. The Dolphins’ experience highlighted what Tallahassee veterans have known for years: Local politicians often hold little sway in the state Capitol.
“The Legislature in general is not influenced greatly by some of the resolutions that we pass at the local level,” said Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a former state representative. “They’re just not.”
Democratic Rep. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, one of several local representatives who worked to thwart the Dolphins’ legislation, noted that commission districts don’t usually line up with legislative districts. Without overlapping constituents, lawmakers have less of an incentive to agree with commissioners.
“The fact that the county commission took a position on something doesn’t necessarily mean much in Tallahassee, where we represent our constituents in our districts,” he said.
The team’s fate was tied more to its insistence on having a decision before National Football League owners award the 50th and 51st Super Bowls on May 22 than to anything the Dolphins did locally, said Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Trujillo, perhaps the team’s most vocal opponent.
“They tried to rush it through the political process,” he said. “And we didn’t want to raise taxes in order to give it to a billion-dollar, for-profit industry.”
Gimenez, for his part, stood by his deal and attributed its demise largely to the fact that — in addition to the bed-tax hike — the Dolphins wanted lawmakers to approve a $90 million sales-tax subsidy over 30 years for the stadium renovation.
“The death knell to this bill was probably the state-sales tax,” he said, adding that he thought the team would have dropped that request in the face of legislative opposition. “That’s probably what doomed their efforts.”
The Dolphins have laid the blame on House Speaker Will Weatherford, accusing him of reneging on a promise to give the bill a floor hearing. Weatherford has denied making the pledge.
Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, citing internal polls, has said the team expected voters to sign off on the deal in the May 14 referendum. But the team, which had raised at least $1 million for its campaign, has not released any poll figures. Other surveys have shown public stadium financing remains toxic among voters in the wake of the unpopular Marlins deal.
The county elections department next week plans to release a tally of the votes cast before the election was canceled.
Gimenez dismissed suggestions that the Dolphins saga would affect his political future.
“A politician would have said, ‘No, I’m not going to do this,’ just strictly for politics. It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “But I’m not a typical politician. I do what I think is the right thing.
“At the end of the day,” Gimenez added, “I think I’m fine.”