Miami-Dade County

For final debate, mayoral candidates spar over “token” hires in County Hall

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left and School Board member Raquel Regalado, right, field questions from moderators Jessica Modkins (an advertising executive with her back to the camera) and Miami Times editor Carolyn Guniss, center.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left and School Board member Raquel Regalado, right, field questions from moderators Jessica Modkins (an advertising executive with her back to the camera) and Miami Times editor Carolyn Guniss, center. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

In a Miami-Dade mayoral debate aimed at black voters, the iciest moment came when challenger Raquel Regalado suggested incumbent Carlos Gimenez only tapped “token African-Americans in County Hall” to help him run county government.

“I think we need to be more open-minded about what people are doing,” Regalado, a two-term school board member, said during the morning debate organized by a consortium of black-owned media outlets and aired on the gospel station WMBM 1490 AM. “I think we’re beyond this idea of token African-Americans at County Hall. That’s not going to be my administration.”

The remark brought a sharp rebuke from Gimenez, who accused Regalado of minimizing the work of Russell Benford, a deputy mayor who oversees public safety and social services. “I think he would take offense at being labeled as a token,” Gimenez said of Benford, the lone African-American among Gimenez’s five senior deputies. “He’s actually a very experienced professional. He’s one of my right-hand people.”

The back-and-forth by the two Spanish-speaking candidates of Cuban heritage came near the end of what’s planned as their final joint appearance before the Nov. 8 election. Organized by the Black Owned Media Alliance, a group that includes WMBM, the Miami Times, and other outlets, the debate was advertised as focused on issues of interest to Miami-Dade’s black voters.

Facing each other at a table inside the North Miami studio, Gimenez and Regalado answered questions on government procurement, youth safety, wages, affordable housing and economic development. The two moderators were Carolyn Gunnis, executive editor of the Miami Times, and Jessica Modkins, a veteran of political campaigns and owner of the Hip Rock Star advertising agency.

Gimenez touted his Employ Miami-Dade hiring program, which he launched in predominantly black neighborhoods in late 2014. Regalado labeled it a “joke” for its modest results — the latest status report shows 736 job placements in an economy that employs about 1.1 million people. Gimenez noted Employ Miami-Dade is now a mandatory part of some county contracts, and that it’s helped find work for people most in need.

“We’ve employed hundreds of people from the inner city that were either unemployed or under-employed,” Gimenez said.

Regalado said Miami-Dade needed to pursue better-paying jobs and vowed to shutter the Beacon Council, the tax-funded organization that serves as the county’s economic-development agency. “What we need in the African-American community is careers,” she said. “We have enough temporary low-wage jobs.”

On youth violence, Gimenez said the problem defies simple answers or tactics.

“The crime rate is going down in Miami-Dade County,” he said. “But the issue of youth violence is a very complicated issue, but you can’t simply say, ‘Well, we’re going to do this, and that will solve the problem.’ We’re looking at data. We’re creating a model for the rest of the country on how to deal with youth violence here in Miami-Dade County.”

Regalado said she wanted to focus on crime prevention by recruiting one-time offenders for counseling and mentoring roles.

“What I want to do is actually hire ex-felons,” she said. “I’m the first one to admit I do not have credibility with those children and those parents. We need people who do have that credibility.”

Gimenez, in office since 2011, narrowly missed winning the Aug. 30 primary outright after weaker-than-expected showings in some heavily black districts. He took 48 percent of the vote in the seven-candidate field, just below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a fall runoff. Regalado finished second with 32 percent of the vote. Gimenez still beat Regalado among black voters in the primary, and has won endorsements from a string of prominent black leaders in Miami-Dade — including the support of the Black Owned Media Alliance itself during the primary.

It was the topic of black endorsers that prompted the tense exchange at WMBM over African-Americans in county government, and Gimenez’s supportive comments on Benford (who did not respond to a request for comment Thursday).

The back-and-forth began after Guniss asked both candidates: “Who do you consider your black surrogates?”

Regalado answered first, but did not name anyone. “Obviously there are a lot of people on our team that are African-American. But they’re not just there because they are African-American and I needed surrogates. They’re there because they are amazing people and they’re doing great work all over Miami-Dade County.”

Gimenez later ticked off a string of endorsements from prominent African-Americans in Miami-Dade, including county commissioners Barbara Jordan and Dennis Moss.

“I’m the mayor of all of Miami-Dade County,” he said. “I will assure that this community rises together.”

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