Miami-Dade County has never seen a mayoral race quite like the one unfolding this fall between incumbent Carlos Gimenez and challenger Raquel Regalado.
After narrowly missing an outright win in the August primary, Gimenez became the first incumbent mayor forced into a November runoff since the position was given executive power in 1996. Donors have never given as much in a Miami-Dade mayoral race, with Gimenez, 62, raising an unprecedented $6.5 million for the primary and general elections — swamping the $1.5 million reported by Regalado, 42, and a two-term member of the county school board.
As the contest approaches its final stretch, the election continues to widen a remarkable rift between the county’s two most important seats of government, with Miami-Dade’s mayor engaged in a bitter fight with a candidate who also is the daughter of Miami’s mayor, Tomás Regalado.
Gimenez has complained he’s running against both Regalados, while she earlier this month accused him of having “daddy issues” for criticizing her father in a race in which she is seeking to be Miami-Dade’s first female mayor. The familial friction illustrated the tension in a campaign that has both sides lobbing attacks at the other’s integrity.
“That circumstance never existed before,” said County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor who considered a Gimenez challenge in 2016 but ended up staying neutral in the race. “These are high-voltage positions. I think overall it’s a little bit more intense because it involves these high-level people.”
For Gimenez, a former city manager and fire chief in Miami who has been mayor since 2011, the reelection message centers on him as a steady, honest administrator while casting her as reckless and lacking the judgment or experience to manage the county’s $7 billion budget.
An attack mailer this summer branded Regalado “over her head” in seeking the mayor’s office. The divorced mother of two school-age children was forced to pay back property taxes this summer on her former Miami home, which she lost to foreclosure in 2014. She also has faced problems with campaign management: In 2012, she paid a $5,000 fine tied to flawed financial reports she submitted as her father’s campaign treasurer, a year after she paid a $3,500 fine for a late report tied to her own school-board campaign.
Being mayor “takes somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Gimenez said during the pair’s final debate on Oct. 20 on WMBM 1490 AM. “It takes somebody who knows how to balance a checkbook.”
A lawyer listed as “of counsel” with the SMGQ firm in Coral Gables, Regalado last reported income from legal work in 2010, when she earned about $74,000. Since then, she’s relied on child-support payments and a $43,000 school-board salary for income, according to financial-disclosure forms and court records. Until recently, she was the unpaid host of a Spanish-language radio show on La Poderosa 670 AM, where her late mother, also named Raquel, was once a star broadcaster.
Regalado has tried to flip her financial woes into a message of empathy for voters. “I know what the residents of Miami-Dade County are going through,” she said during the WMBM debate. “I know what it’s like not to be able to give your children everything they want.”
Her campaign centers on portraying Gimenez, a former firefighter, as an out-of-touch bureaucrat who used his five years in office to reward supporters. Gimenez’s campaign finance chairman, Ralph Garcia-Toledo, is a county contractor; his campaign chairman, Marcelo Llorente, is a partner in the LSN lobbying firm; and his campaign manager, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, works for LSN’s communications arm.
“Carlos Gimenez has institutionalized corruption,” Regalado said. “He’s created a pay-to-play atmosphere at County Hall.”
Gimenez dismisses the allegations as all smoke, contending his relationships with lobbyists and others with financial interests in county decisions haven’t influenced his actions as mayor.
“The only question really is this: Do I show anyone any favoritism at all?” Gimenez said. “My record shows that I don’t. I don’t show anybody any favoritism, whether they’re my friends or not my friends. In fact, some of my friends say I go overboard on that, and I may not be fair to them.”
The fall contest between the two Cuban-American Republicans for a nonpartisan post began after Gimenez fell short of ending the race in the Aug. 30 primary. He needed to top 50 percent to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher. But with about 256,000 votes cast, Gimenez took 121,891 — slightly less than 48 percent of the vote.
The result was a blow to Gimenez and his campaign team, who told supporters to count on a primary win. But despite the results falling short of expectations for Gimenez in August, the 2016 primary also made clear the uphill climb awaiting Regalado in the fall.
Her 81,952 votes in the primary amounted to just 32 percent of the vote, putting her 16 points behind Gimenez when the runoff campaign began.
Of the county’s 34 cities, Gimenez won 32 of them — including Miami, where he captured 44 percent of the vote and she took 39 percent, according to a Miami Herald analysis of precinct results. The contest in Miami was one of the closest for Gimenez, who dominated in the more affluent enclaves of Pinecrest, Key Biscayne and Coral Gables with spreads around 50 points.
Regalado registered wins in two of Miami-Dade’s working-class, Hispanic-heavy cities of Hialeah Gardens and Sweetwater, and barely trailed in the county’s top battleground for the Spanish-speaking voter: Hialeah. In that city, Regalado took 43 percent of the vote to Gimenez’s 45 percent, with fewer than 300 votes separating the two.
A recent poll by Bendixen Amandi for WLRN and Univision amplified the Gimenez advantage from the primary: He dominated among black and non-Hispanic white voters, and enjoyed a more modest six-point edge among Hispanics. But with voters overall, Gimenez held a commanding 22-point lead, taking 55 percent in the Oct. 15-17 poll to 32 percent for his challenger — an advantage that far outweighs the poll’s four-point margin of error.
On Thursday, the race took a surprise detour into the court system when Regalado lawyers from SMGQ filed suit to disqualify Gimenez from the race, citing a qualifying check from June that was dated 2015 instead of 2016. The Gimenez campaign replaced the check before the June 21 qualifying deadline, but Regalado claims the Elections Department hasn’t proven its assertion that it followed proper procedures.
Along with the personal jabs and allegations of dirty dealing, the two have scrapped over most major issues facing Miami-Dade.
▪ Crime: Gimenez touts his body-camera program and rising police staffing; she calls the county’s 4,000-person police force understaffed and hobbled by cuts to detective bureaus.
▪ Privatization: Regalado won endorsements from the AFL-CIO and vows to protect union jobs by resisting privatization efforts; Gimenez sees private-public partnerships as key to expanding Miami-Dade’s infrastructure and transit networks.
▪ Transportation: Gimenez points to legalizing Uber and Lyft under his administration and an ambitious election-year plan to create six new transit routes countywide, raising hopes of a long-delayed rail expansion becoming reality. Regalado sees the ride-hailing ordinance leaving Miami-Dade vulnerable to litigation from taxi owners and dismisses the transit blueprint as more hype than reality. She said she would focus on delivering a Metrorail link to Broward with a new focus on federal aid.
▪ Zika: she came out against spraying the Naled insecticide in Miami Beach after some residents there objected to the strategy, which is backed by federal health officials; he dismissed the criticism as putting political opportunism over a responsible approach to a public-health emergency.
Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University, said despite the extended mayoral race, county issues don’t seem to be capturing the kind of public attention they might in other campaign seasons. “This presidential race,” he said, “is sucking out all of the oxygen.”