The race to replace Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez in 2020 received its first official candidate this week, when former county commissioner Juan Zapata submitted filing papers 575 days before the first ballots are cast. But the unofficial contest has been underway for months, with contenders prepping what’s sure to be a crowded race for one of the most powerful posts in Florida.
Alex Penelas, the former county mayor hoping for a comeback, has recruited Gimenez’s longtime professional fundraiser for a campaign the Democrat could launch in March.
Two of Marco Rubio’s top political allies in Miami — former lieutenant governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera and county Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo — are both acting as undeclared candidates, publicly expressing interest in the race and privately telling supporters they’re running.
Shortly after losing his reelection bid to Congress, Republican Carlos Curbelo said he was considering a run in the county’s nonpartisan mayoral race. He declined to comment this week, but Curbelo is expected to commission polling on the race and county issues this spring and decide on whether to run by the fall.
Xavier Suarez, another county commissioner and an independent, can bank on fundraising support from his son, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, while he prepares to try again for Miami-Dade mayor. This week a third sitting commissioner, Daniella Levine Cava sat down for an interview in the Miami office of her campaign consultant to lay out how she would run to be the county’s first female mayor.
“I think I’m very different from all the other candidates. So I think I stand out right at the beginning,” said Levine Cava, a Democrat and former social worker who won reelection to her South Dade seat last summer. “I would not want anyone to vote for me because I’m a woman. But I think that will create interest. Because people are excited to have women in office.”
Bernie Navarro, a former president of the influential Latin Builders Association and head of a private lending firm, said Wednesday he’s considering a 2020 run for County Hall. “I believe strongly in public service,” the Republican said.
Luther Campbell is the former 2 Live Crew performer who finished fourth in the 2011 mayoral race and now is a prominent organizer of youth football and a backer of Democratic candidates. He declared his 2020 intentions in a November radio interview. “I’m going to run for mayor of Miami-Dade County,” he told sports host Andy Slater. “I’m dead serious.”
All candidates in the 2020 mayoral race will compete in an Aug. 25 primary that year. A candidate can end the race by winning more than 50 percent of the primary vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers head for a November runoff on Election Day.
Term-limit rules require Gimenez to leave the mayor’s 29th floor suite in 2020 after nine years in office. With an $8 billion budget and the largest local government in Florida, the office of Miami-Dade mayor is often called the Sunshine State’s second most powerful position, after governor.
That’s only been the case for about a decade, after Miami-Dade voters in 2007 approved then-mayor Carlos Alvarez’s charter change to shift administrative powers from an appointed manager to him. He won reelection as a “strong” mayor in 2008, only to be recalled in 2011 amid voter fury over a property-tax hike, salary hikes for top aides and the 2009 Marlins Park deal. Gimenez, then a county commissioner, won the special election to serve out the final year of Alvarez’s term and then won reelection twice.
The recall left only a two-month window for candidates to run as Alvarez’s replacement. Gimenez’s mandated departure makes 2020 the first chance for established politicians to launch long-term plans to seize the strong-mayor seat for themselves.
“I think people have the luxury of being more tactical,” said Luis Gazitúa, a former Alvarez aide who is now a lobbyist and regular county donor. “There’s no rush.”
Lopez-Cantera, a former Republican state lawmaker, served as Miami-Dade’s property appraiser for a year before Scott tapped him in early 2014 as lieutenant governor and running mate for his successful reelection campaign that year.
While Penelas locked up Gimenez fundraiser Brian Goldmeier for 2020, Lopez-Cantera said he signed the mayor’s former communications chief, Michael Hernández, who now works as a political consultant with Mercury Public Affairs.
“I’m still giving it strong — very strong — consideration,” Lopez-Cantera said of the mayor’s race. “But I’m in no hurry to make any announcement.”
Fresh off a two-year tenure as chairman of the County Commission, Bovo this week tried to end speculation he wouldn’t run for Miami-Dade mayor while at the same time declining to declare himself a candidate.
During an appearance on 1040 AM that came close to an announcement, the former Hialeah council member said he wanted to shoot down rumors he had decided to settle for mayor of that city.
“I’m discarding any intentions of running for mayor of Hialeah,” Bovo said in a later interview. He said his comments should not be taken as confirming a county run. “I’m thinking about it,” he said.
Zapata opted not to be shy about his ambitions to be mayor. Two weeks ago, he declared his plans to run and on Monday became the first candidate to file for the August 2020 primary. “Everybody better bring their A-game,” Zapata said this week.
When Zapata pulled out of his 2016 reelection bid against Joe Martinez, he blamed frustration with county government. It’s the same theme he’s planning for the mayoral race. “You have to bring in completely new people,” said Zapata, a Republican and a former state lawmaker. “The upper management are dinosaurs.”
For Xavier Suarez, a 2020 mayoral run would raise the prospect of a father-and-son team leading the county and its largest city. Early last year, Francis Suarez filed a disclosure form allowing him to raise money for his father’s political committee, Imagine Miami. The city mayor said he hasn’t solicited any donations for his father, but plans on it if the elder Suarez joins the race. “Of course I would,” he said.
Xavier Suarez is a former Miami mayor himself, and was one of the losing candidates in 1996 in the first of two county mayoral races that Penelas won. Suarez said he’s all but decided to try again in 2020. “I don’t see a scenario under which I would not run,” he said.
On running for mayor again himself, Penelas said: “I want to do this.” He expects plenty of competition in 2020.
“You would assume it will be very crowded,” Penelas said. “It’s a pretty neat job. It’s a job you could do a lot with.”