Miami-Dade County

From condemnation to a surprise courtship: Miami-Dade politicians pursue Donald Trump’s good graces

The future president-elect tees off at his Doral resort in January 2015 as contestants from the Miss Universe pageant, a television event that he used to own, watch the shot.
The future president-elect tees off at his Doral resort in January 2015 as contestants from the Miss Universe pageant, a television event that he used to own, watch the shot. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Fourteen days into Donald Trump’s long-shot presidential campaign, Republicans and Democrats on the Miami-Dade County Commission came together to unanimously condemn his “racist and derogatory” comments on Mexicans crossing the border illegally.

Now, with about two weeks to go until he’s president of the United States, Trump has sparked another bipartisan push among county leaders — to distance Miami-Dade from past slights and coax some goodwill out of the new commander in chief.

“A lot of the terminology during the campaign was very divisive and hurtful,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat who tried to get Miami-Dade to boycott Trump’s Doral resort after his remarks on Mexicans. “But that was then. Now that he’s president, we’re going to work together.”

Of course, burying campaign brickbats to cozy up to a new presidential administration isn’t new as parties trade control of the White House. But the friendly fire from Miami-Dade Republicans came as the county was revving up to pursue billions in federal transportation grants to fund a historic rail expansion in the coming years.

Trump arguably comes to the White House with more Miami-Dade ties than did any of his predecessors — even Richard Nixon, who was a regular vacationer in Key Biscayne and bought a bayside villa there that became his “winter” White House.

But Trump began the presidential race a major player in Miami-Dade’s tourism and real-estate economy.

No president has been as invested in Miami-Dade County as Trump.

Paul George, historian at History Miami

His company owns the county’s third-largest hotel, the 643-room Trump National Doral, which he listed in financial-disclosure forms as the top earner in the Trump portfolio. Trump partnered with two of the county’s top developers, Dezer and Related, to put his name on a string of condo and hotel towers in the Sunny Isles Beach area.

Trump maintained political ties, too: He golfed with Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez twice before the two exchanged letters over the county possibly letting the Trump organization take over the county’s golf course in Crandon Park. Trump donated $15,000 to Gimenez’s 2016 re-election campaign and employed one of the mayor’s sons as a registered lobbyist in Doral and Miami.

“No president has been as invested in Miami-Dade County as Trump,” said Paul George, historian at History Miami.

Trump’s business and political dealings didn’t protect him from a local backlash, and the 2016 campaign brought the GOP nominee a string of extraordinary rebukes from Miami-Dade officialdom.

He managed to draw a public endorsement from only one of the six Republican members of the commission. Shortly after Trump talked of rapists and murderers illegally crossing the border from Mexico, Gimenez, the top Republican in county government, returned a $15,000 campaign donation that Trump had given to the mayor’s re-election campaign months earlier.

Gimenez ultimately denounced Trump during an Oct. 9 televised debate in Miami-Dade’s 2016 mayoral race. After Trump was caught discussing the groping of women in an audio tape a decade ago, Gimenez said he was voting for Hillary Clinton and that his party’s standard-bearer should surrender the nomination.

I think there’s friction, definitely. We have to do outreach to him.

Bruno Barreiro, the only Republican on the Miami-Dade commission to attend Donald Trump campaign events

“What he said in 2005 is despicable,” Gimenez said on CBS4’s “Facing South Florida,” a weekly public affairs program. “Donald Trump needs to step down. I don’t think he is viable as a presidential candidate.”

Now Miami-Dade leaders are gingerly shifting gears to embrace the new commander-in-chief.

Fidel Castro’s death on Nov. 25 seemed to bring a key breakthrough: The president-elect promptly returned a call to an aide from Gimenez the next day to discuss the local reaction and aftermath.

Although he lost Miami-Dade to Clinton by 30 points, Trump edged her in polls of Cuban Americans and narrowly took Hialeah in the final returns. On the heels of President Obama opening relations with the Castro regime, Trump picked up the first-ever presidential endorsement from Miami’s Bay of Pigs veterans association.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump visits Bay of Pigs Museum and addresses the Brigade 2506, veterans of the Cuban battle on Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016.

A Gimenez spokesman said Trump’s affinity for Miami-Dade’s Cuban Americans prompted the call, which he believed was the first time the mayor had spoken to Trump since the presidential race began more than a year earlier.

Gimenez hasn’t said whether he plans to attend Trump’s inauguration, but his son is moving to consolidate past Trump connections into a new venture.

On Thursday, C.J. Gimenez announced the launch of a lobbying firm, Hemispheric Consulting Group, with a focus on the federal government. “Having worked closely with the president-elect over the last three years I can personally attest to his laser-like focus on resolving issues in a direct and accountable manner,” C.J. Gimenez said in a press release. “His election presents a great opportunity for the entire hemisphere, not just our country.”

Trump’s Miami-Dade slights were part of a broader distancing of the Republican establishment from Trump’s candidacy, fueled in part by a widespread belief that Clinton would win anyway. The rift was wider in Miami-Dade, where loyalties to onetime Trump rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio kept a number of Republican operatives and donors on the sidelines in 2016.

Of the six Republicans on the County Commission, only Bruno Barreiro appeared at Trump rallies during the fall campaign. “It was a lonely position,” Barreiro said.

For the last couple of presidents, we’ve really been expecting a lot more emphasis on Latin and South America. I wouldn’t be surprised if he seizes that when he has more time to settle down. Miami is a key part of that strategy if he chooses to do it.

Susan McManus, political scientist at the University of South Florida

“I think there’s friction, definitely,” said Barreiro, who plans to attend Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20. “We have to do outreach to him.”

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the lone Republican among South Florida’s Congressional delegation to say he would vote for Trump, said he doubted that the various contretemps in the campaign would be a factor in transit decisions out of Washington.

“If they don’t have viable projects, it doesn’t matter,” Diaz-Balart said. “It wouldn’t matter if Mayor Gimenez was president.”