Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade exec speaks for Mayor Gimenez, but recites President Obama

Mike Hernandez, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez's communications director, at Actualidad Radio in Coral Gables on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.
Mike Hernandez, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez's communications director, at Actualidad Radio in Coral Gables on Tuesday, April 7, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Last spring, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez hired Michael Hernández as his communications chief, installing the 32-year-old campaign consultant as the spokesman for the county’s senior Republican.

A year later, Hernández’s top-floor office boasts a pair of framed photos: one from his wedding day, the other of him shaking the hand of Barack Obama.

“We remain more than a collection or red states and blue states. We are, and forever will be, the United States of America,” Hernández said from his desk, reciting lines from the end of Obama’s 2012 victory speech. “I listen to it once a week or so. I’m a true believer, guilty as charged.”

Partisan pedigree offers a little something for both fans and foes of Hernández, now earning $140,000 a year as the mayor’s most prominent, pugnacious and — some say — political advocate.

Admirers see Hernández as a smart fit for a centrist mayor in a non-partisan post, whose good-government agenda wasn’t getting the attention it deserved before his sharp-elbowed communications chief stepped into the spotlight. Detractors dismiss Hernández as a tax-funded campaign operative for Gimenez, advancing the mayor’s political fortunes as he heads into a 2016 reelection fight.

“Mike Hernández himself is making more money than he was able to muster in he private world and so ‘little mouth piece,’ as he’s known, makes some unsubstantiated comments that are untrue and baseless,” police union chief John Rivera wrote in a recent message to members. “In other words, you know the Mayor is lying anytime Mike Hernández’s lips are moving.”

Hernández seems to relish the barbs, with people close to him saying he thrives on the attention that comes with his first government job. Eager to run for office himself, Hernández spent much of 2012 volunteering his time to go on Spanish television for the Obama campaign.

“He’s very convincing.,” said Helen Aguirre Ferré , a radio and television host who has interviewed Hernández on her programs. “He knows how to represent a point of view.”

Gimenez first won office in 2011 with the support of Democrats, defeating Republican-backed Julio Robaina for the mayoral seat left open by the recall of Carlos Alvarez. Hiring Hernández last May coincided with a year’s worth of left-friendly initiatives: body cameras for police, a job-training program in some of Miami’s poorest communities, and the redevelopment of the Liberty Square housing project.

Privately, Hernández was at work on what briefly seemed like the boldest nod to Democrats yet for Gimenez: leaving the Republican Party altogether.

Last fall, Hernández placed calls to Gimenez supporters to gauge how a move to independent status would impact the mayor’s standing, according to sources’ accounts confirmed by Hernández. In late October, Hernández was prepping Fred Menachem to interview Gimenez on 880 AM when the the Gray Zone host brought up a rumor about the mayor leaving the GOP.

“Why don’t you ask him,” Hernández replied, according Menachem.

Menachem did on Oct. 27, and Gimenez’s response — “I may be” — stunned state Republican leaders, particularly since there was just a week left in a governor’s race that had Rick Scott fending off GOP defector Charlie Crist.

Gimenez eventually walked back his comment and volunteered he planned to remain a Republican, a zig-zag that left even allies of the mayor questioning the political advice he was receiving. Hernández minimized his role, saying it was no secret Gimenez saw some upside to serving as an independent.

“It wasn’t a set up,” Hernández said. “That’s Carlos Gimenez. He’s very honest. And he was thinking about it.”

Gimenez dismissed the contretemps as too much fuss over him thinking aloud about a party affiliation that has no bearing on his job. He takes a similar tack with Hernández’s background, saying party wasn’t a factor in his hire.

“I’m looking for talent. I don’t care where that talent comes from,” said Gimenez, 61. “The fact that he did work for President Obama showed me that he had talent.”

“Mike and I probably have more in common, and probably see the world more alike than not,” he continued. “We’re more toward the middle. There may be nuances on the left and right. But not much.”

One of the mayor’s sons, C.J. Gimenez, first called Hernández about the communications post held by Fernando Figueredo since 2011. Hernández was in Baghdad at the time -- working the Iraqi parliamentary elections for Penn Schoen Berland. He joined the firm’s Miami office in 2010, and spent four years as a junior executive mainly helping candidates across Latin America, said Craig Smith, Hernández’s boss at Penn Schoen.

“I’ve learned over life that people either get politics or they don’t,” said Smith, political director in the Clinton White House who recently helped lead the Ready for Hillary PAC. “Mike has the instinct.”

Born in Westchester, Hernández attended Florida Christian from kindergarten to his junior year before the six-foot former shooting guard followed his coach to Westminster Christian. He majored in political science at Florida International University, where his mother still works as a secretary, joined a fraternity and volunteered at the college newspaper. His freshman year coincided with a federal judge sentencing his father to 11 years in prison for his role in the Sal Magluta drug ring.

“He never stopped being a dad.,” Hernández said of Jorge Hernández, who ended up serving seven years on the money-laundering charges. “He would call you and say, What are you doing? How’s everything?”

“I wasn’t going to let my father’s mistakes be an obstacle,” he added.

Married for five years to Christine Cento Hernández, who works part-time in a nursing-home office, Hernández said it’s a challenge to get home in time see their two-year-old, Brian. “He should be in bed by 8. But I beg Christine to allow him to be up until 9:30 or so,” he said. “We replay the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse videos. He loves the Hot Dog Song.”

Hernández graduated from college a Republican, and said he voted twice for George W. Bush. He blamed GOP positions on immigration and gay marriage, as well as Obama himself, for his switch to the Democratic Party in 2007. While earning a masters in public administration from FIU, Hernández also took on a string of unpaid posts for the local Democratic Party, including Hispanic communications director.

His path to the County Hall started with an entry-level job at Balsera Communications, a Coral Gables firm where the younger Gimenez works as general counsel. Freddy Balsera, a prominent Democratic supporter and Gimenez ally, hired Hernández in 2006 and later recommended him to the mayor as a way to beef up his messaging.

“Mike is relentless,” Balsera said. “He’s extremely aggressive.”

Hernández set out to exert more control of Miami-Dade’s communications apparatus. He started monthly meetings of the county’s 40 agency public-information officers, and has them serve week rotations with him in the mayor’s suite of offices on County Hall’s 29th Floor.

His approach has led to criticism that he’s too focused on Gimenez’s political well-being rather than communicating on behalf of Miami-Dade government. “The one thing I do object to is kind of using him as a campaign spokesman,” said County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who is considering a 2016 mayoral run. “I don’t think it’s appropriate. I don’t think it’s helpful, either.”

Hernández’s sharpest confrontation involved a longtime confidant of Gimenez, lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez. Days before Gimenez’s State of the County address in February, Hernández texted Lopez to question an email invitation he sent clients for the public event.

“No one authorized Jorge to send the invitation on behalf of the Office of the Mayor,” Hernández said in a statement after the private exchange leaked to the media. “Jorge never requested authorization. Jorge is not a representative of Mayor Gimenez.”

Lopez, once close enough to Gimenez they saw the Pope together with their wives in Rome two years ago, struck back hard and publicly. He wrote Hernández threatening legal action, and used his Twitter account to needle Hernández for living in Pembroke Pines while earning six-figures from Miami-Dade taxpayers.

“It’s been an interesting revelation of how many people think he uses, at least, poor judgment,” Lopez said earlier this month. “His tenure has been exclusively, in my opinion, characterized as being politically edgy and strident and really sharp.”

Hernández’s rockiest time on the job came early, when then-Chief of Staff Lisa Martinez abruptly left. For a replacement Gimenez turned to Alex Ferro, then his 33-year-old head of external affairs. The change meant another young politico was now Hernández’s boss, and he sent word to friends he was eager for an exit, according to several sources close to Hernández.

Hernández acknowledged a “frustrating” situation from “the major shift up here” soon after his hire, but said he soon came to appreciate working under Ferro. Ferro said he wasn’t aware of any tension and that he’s always been a fan of Hernández. “It was great working relationship from the start,” he said. “I hope he will be a part of the mayor’s office for a long time to come.”

That’s been an open question in County Hall, with Hernández freely sharing his interest in joining the Clinton presidential campaign. Lately, he’s tempered that talk with financial concerns over a pay cut and loss of county health benefits with the couple’s second child, a daughter, due in September.

There’s also the issue of jumping back from a Republican boss, particularly in the home county of two leading candidates for the Republican nomination. Smith, the Ready for Hillary founder, said he talked to Hernández about potential downsides of working for Gimenez.

“Could there be blow back? There could be at some point,” Smith said. “I said: If you do a good job, it’s not going to hurt you.”