Miami-Dade County

Election 2017: a Miami Game of Thrones

Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, left, celebrates his 2013 election with son Tommy, who’s running for a commission seat. The Regalados are one of Miami-Dade’s most prominent political families.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, left, celebrates his 2013 election with son Tommy, who’s running for a commission seat. The Regalados are one of Miami-Dade’s most prominent political families. el Nuevo Herald

In Miami, the mayor’s son is campaigning for a City Commission seat against a county commissioner’s wife and a former mayor who happens to be the brother of the city commissioner leaving the post.

Meanwhile, the man who would be the new mayor of the city is the son of a previous mayor later elected to the County Commission after it was vacated by a politician who became county mayor — a position successfully defended last year against the daughter of the mayor of Miami.

Got all that?

It’s confusing, for sure. But heading into November’s elections, Miami’s politics is beginning to look like HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Families that have dominated the city for decades are still jockeying for the same offices as dynasties clash over the precious few positions of power.

In some neighborhoods, the ballot might give voters flashbacks to the 1990s, when the names Regalado, Barreiro, Carollo and Suarez clashed. Only now, with the family patriarchs nearing their twilight, it’s largely children and spouses carrying the mantle.

“I call it the Groundhog Day election,” said pollster and radio personality Fernand Amandi, referencing the movie where Bill Murray re-lives the same day over and over again. “I don’t know if it’s ’97 or 2017.”

Political dynasties are hardly a South Florida phenomenon, nor are they new to the area. The Diaz-Balarts have reigned for decades, as have the Diaz de la Portillas, to name two prominent families. But attempts to pass the torch are becoming more common among South Florida’s local governments and seem especially pronounced in Miami, where there are only six elected offices that become available every four years.

Take the battle to become the new commissioner representing Miami’s third district, which stretches from Little Havana through West Brickell. This week, Tommy Regalado, the son of Mayor Tomás Regalado, jumped into the race. He will compete against Zoraida Barreiro (the wife of county Commissioner Bruno Barreiro) and former mayor Joe Carollo (older brother to outgoing District 3 Commissioner Frank Carollo).

Joe Carollo’s candidacy is a throwback, yet another resurrection act for a political career that began in 1979. But Zoraida Barreiro’s campaign (her first) comes amid her husband’s 25-year win streak in Tallahassee and on the County Commission. And the mayor’s son, also on his first campaign, is looking to make it 22 years in a row with a Regalado in elected office.

“He’s like me. I like campaigning,” Mayor Regalado said. “Well, all my children like campaigning.”

The mayor’s daughter, Raquel, recently resigned her elected school board seat to take on county Mayor Carlos Gimenez in a losing effort. (Gimenez’s sister-in-law now sits on the school board in Regalado’s old seat.) There’s still speculation she’ll run for mayor in the city.

If she does, she’ll be challenging Commissioner Francis Suarez, whose father, Xavier Suarez, became Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor in 1985 at the age of 36. The race could be a three-way battle if Commissioner Frank Carollo, who is raising money but hasn’t made up his mind yet, jumps in.

For a city that’s constantly reinventing itself and rebranding itself, we seem to have the same names recirculating in the political and civic leadership

Pollster Fernand Amandi

All this follows the election of 2015, when Teresa Sarnoff’s campaign spent close to $1 million in a losing effort to succeed her husband, Marc, as the city commissioner representing downtown and Coconut Grove. In District 5, Commissioner Keon Hardemon, the nephew of veteran political consultants and a junior state representative, is up for reelection. Throw in former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla’s expressed interest in also running for the District 3 seat, and it’s enough to make the web of Miami’s political bloodlines look like tangled capillaries.

“You could be forgiven if you thought it was a monarchy,” Amandi said. “Optically and on the surface, it’s the same-old, same-old. For a lot of Miamians, that’s part of the frustration they have: For a city that’s constantly reinventing itself and re-branding itself, we seem to have the same names recirculating in the political and civic leadership.”

Many of Miami’s most prominent political families trace their roots back to the exodus from Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Following the establishment of the exile community, they helped break through a cultural and ethnic barrier in local politics. Now, after decades in power, a second generation has emerged.

“Maybe what’s different is it’s finally hitting Miami,” said Sean Foreman, a Barry University political science professor. “This is a consolidation of that power. The next wave of leaders bred under that first generation.”

Ultimately a person is going to rise and fall on their own merit.

Commissioner Francis Suarez

But Foreman also points out that what’s happening right now in South Florida goes beyond Miami’s borders and Cuban-American politics. In Coral Gables, the wife of former mayor Don Slesnick just lost a mayoral election. In Miami Beach, mayoral candidate Dan Gelber is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father, Sy Gelber.

Not that any of that is terribly surprising.

In the same way that families of successful business owners inherit wealth and acumen, the spouses, siblings and children of politicians often inherit a web of donors, political consultants, foot soldiers and motivation. Sons and daughters are often immersed in campaigns from an early age, like Francis Suarez, who was 8 years old when his father was elected mayor in 1985 and went door-to-door with his dad when he was a teenager.

Barreiro, whose brother-in-law Gus is a former state representative, says she knows some people will assume she’s running for office in order to ride her husband’s coattails. But while she acknowledges that advantages come with being the wife of an incumbent, she said it also puts a critical spotlight on her campaign.

“I was concerned what the perception would be,” she said. “But I met Bruno before he ever ran for office the very first time. I’ve been involved in all his campaigns. I know the community. I know the people. I know behind the scenes what it takes to run for office.”

Still, the trend has generated plenty of skepticism. When Tommy Regalado announced his bid for office this week, some candidates who lack his familial ties privately groused about how easily he gained news coverage despite an apparent lack of activism or previous political aspiration. Alex Dominguez, an outspoken District 3 commission candidate who ran four years ago against Frank Carollo and now is running against his brother, said it’s “crazy” how a small group of families are dominating Miami’s elections.

“It’s embarrassing for those families to continue to run when Miami year after year makes the “worst of” list for every category,” he said, accusing Miami’s business community and political donor base of being part of the problem. “Our so-called business leaders contribute money to these guys, and then they go out and cry about bad government.”

Despite the cynicism, political insiders say polls show that Mayor Regalado remains among the most popular politicians in Miami after two decades in office. Francis Suarez was reelected in 2015 to the City Commission without drawing an opponent. Hardemon’s reelection campaign may be headed for the same result. And Frank Carollo has handily won back-to-back elections.

Suarez, who after eight years as a city commissioner may very well be Miami’s next mayor, says some critics misunderstand the difficulty of being an elected official and the amount of scrutiny and criticism that comes with public life — something he believes stops qualified candidates from considering campaigns and broadening the depth of the candidate pool. Dealing with all that is something he learned while watching his father tangle with opponents and the Miami Herald while growing up.

But even so, Suarez says a family name and political history will only carry a candidate so far.

“Maybe that gives you some sort of advantage, whether name recognition, donors, a political machine,” said Suarez. “Ultimately a person is going to rise and fall on their own merit.”

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