It’s probably too early to be on your political radar, but the race for Miami-Dade mayor has begun. Incumbent Carlos Gimenez fired the first salvo in his re-election campaign when he gave his annual State of the County speech last week.
But it wasn’t an overtly political speech nor a self-aggrandizing one. The speech was a solid, workmanlike effort comprising shout-outs to county commissioners, attaboys for department heads, praise for a couple of altruistic county employees and a little bit of bragging by the mayor. He’s entitled.
After a couple of shaky financial years as Miami-Dade climbed out of the Great Recession, property taxes are now holding steady, unemployment is down (if a bit soft), cranes dot the skyline and Miami-Dade County government is running pretty well.
Crime is down in most categories ; libraries that were about to close not long ago are open; county parks continue to offer green space and great recreation.
The county’s two most important assets — PortMiami and Miami International Airport — are generating record traffic and self-sustaining income. MIA Director Emilio Gonzalez, in particular, has done an outstanding job.
But all is not joy in Mudville — mighty Carlos has whiffed on a few. He was very late in addressing our No. 1 problem, traffic congestion. But he has regrouped and made that a top priority. The mayor’s getting good help there from Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., among others, and recently recruited the capable Alice Bravo to head the Transit Department. Gimenez was also late addressing sea-level rise and climate change, but has gotten fully on board there, too, hiring a chief resilience officer to oversee environmental planning.
Other problems areas the mayor neglected to mention in his speech include a dilapidated main jail, a rundown criminal court building and an ancient civil courthouse that’s sucking up millions for repairs, but will never be able to meet the needs of those who use it. There’s also that funding shortfall at the Frost Science Museum.
So, yes, problems abound for the next mayor and solving them will take money, leadership and vision. Gimenez isn’t exactly a visionary, but he has shown an ability to look over the horizon and set sensible, workable priorities. His top priority is running an honest, open and transparent government. There’ve been a few glitches, but for the most part Gimenez has succeeded. About 30 people who don’t think so demonstrated outside the Miami-Dade County Auditorium where the mayor delivered the State of the County.
His fiercest critics include leaders of the Pets Trust, who accuse the mayor of failing to follow a nonbinding referendum and create a 100-percent no-kill pet shelter. The mayor says 90 percent of dogs and cats taken in are now saved.
Also demonstrating were cab drivers who dislike Gimenez for supporting Uber; members of several county unions who’ve taken their lumps in contract negotiations; and a contingent of Liberty Square residents who complain they’ve been shut out of having a say in which company will redevelop the aging and dangerous public-housing complex. “That’s absolutely false,” Gimenez said of the Liberty Square complainants.
If you want a mayor who’s a back-slapper and a suck-up, Carlos Gimenez is not your man. If you can live with a pragmatic, plain spoken and occasionally dour guy who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, then Gimenez probably is your man. He deeply believes in public service: “Service above self,” he often says. He’s been a public employee for 40 years, starting out as a 20-year-old Miami firefighter and paramedic. He rose to become the city’s fire chief, city manager, then Miami-Dade commissioner and, since 2011, county mayor. He wants the job for another four years.
So does Raquel Regalado, an attorney, broadcaster and member of the Miami-Dade School Board. She’s a thoughtful, accomplished person who says Gimenez is “out of touch” with the needs of Miami-Dade’s middle-class working folks. “This State of the County speech shows just how out of touch he is,” she told me. Regalado, daughter of Miami’s mayor, says Gimenez may once have been a blue-collar working guy, but now is at the beck and call of the wealthy elite who have contributed generously to his re-election campaign. But whether he’s lost the common touch, as Regalado charges, is something she’ll have to prove. She’ll also have to convince voters that she has the managerial skills to run a county government with a $6.8 billion budget.
Curiously, Gimenez in his speech didn’t mention his major accomplishment: No scandals. That’s noteworthy in a community where a parade of elected officials has been sent to prison or kicked out of office for corruption.
There hasn’t been a whiff of corruption about Gimenez. The main knock on him from commissioners is that he’s arrogant and unwilling to admit someone else may have a better idea. Not good, but hardly a cardinal sin.
The government closest to the people is the one they depend on most. For the 2.6 million residents of Miami-Dade, that’s Miami-Dade County government.
Let the mayor’s race begin!