Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who earned national attention in the 1980s as Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor and then saw his son elected to the same post two years ago, announced his bid for county mayor on Friday and promised a populist effort that would finally bring harmony between city and county halls.
Suarez, 70, announced his 2020 campaign without Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, 41, by his side, and the two-term county commissioner barely mentioned his son during an expansive 45-minute announcement address outside the city of South Miami’s government center.
Asked about a father-and-son duo leading the county’s two largest municipal governments in tandem, Suarez said the arrangement would mark a welcome change from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s feuds with Miami’s current mayor and his predecessor, Tomás Regalado.
“The cooperation between the mayor of Miami and the mayor of Miami-Dade County is essential,” Suarez said. “I got along with Mayor Regalado. Gimenez did not.”
Suarez, a lawyer, devoted most of his announcement speech to trashing the lack of progress by Miami-Dade County government, where Suarez has been a commissioner since 2011. He also used the moment to announce political breaks with two elected officials — one a sitting commissioner, and the other a mayor running for an open commission seat.
Suarez is joining a field of current and former commissioners and is trying to cast himself as a frustrated lawmaker whose agenda can finally be enacted from the office of mayor.
“I listen to the people,” Suarez said. “I want to have a mass transit system that really works, in a county that is efficient and compassionate at the same time.”
On the issues, Suarez said he would push for a rail extension in South Dade and does not support the proposal by Genting for a privately operated monorail connecting Miami to Miami Beach. He called the county’s approach to affordable housing too slow and cumbersome, and called the state’s new toll express lanes on the Palmetto Expressway “transit apartheid.”
Suarez’s filing of candidacy papers Friday morning adds a second sitting commissioner to the 2020 mayoral race. Daniella Levine Cava, who represents South Dade’s District 8, filed in April, joining former commissioner Juan C. Zapata, who used to represent West Kendall for District 11. Two other sitting commissioners, District 13’s Esteban “Steve” Bovo and District 2’s Jean Monestime, both say they plan to run. Former county mayor Alex Penelas has all but declared his candidacy.
Aside from newcomer Monique Nicole Barley, that could leave Miami-Dade with a field of candidates who have all sat on the County Commission (where Penelas held a seat in the 1990s).
Suarez is also the only registered independent in the field for a mayoral race that campaign watchers expect to be the most partisan in Miami-Dade history.
Though the county race is officially nonpartisan, with all candidates competing in a single August primary, Democrats hope to use their advantage on county voter rolls to claim one of the most powerful jobs in Florida.
Miami-Dade’s mayor serves as the top administrator of the most populous county in Florida, with authority over ports, airports, police and parks with a budget approaching $9 billion. Whoever wins in 2020 also will be the last Miami-Dade mayor to hold the powers of sheriff, with the county set to elect that position separately in 2024 and end the mayor’s power to appoint a police chief.
If elected in November 2020, Xavier Suarez would be Miami-Dade’s mayor for at least a year while Francis Suarez served as Miami’s mayor. The younger Suarez took office in 2017 and is up for reelection in 2021.
Xavier Suarez received national attention as Miami’s mayor between 1985 and 1993, and again during a brief return to office in 1997. A judge ruled that election invalid because of ballot-fraud issues that were not linked to Suarez himself. His second stint as mayor also brought some odd moments for him, including a late-night visit he made to a constituent who had criticized him.
He was elected to represent District 7 on the County Commission in 2011, after Gimenez gave up the seat to run for mayor and won easy reelection in 2012 and 2016. Gimenez and Suarez can’t run for their seats again in 2020 because of term limits.
Suarez’s 2020 announcement highlighted his willingness to pick fights on the 13-member commission. He took the rare step last year to fund attack ads for a challenger to a sitting commissioner. The incumbent, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, ended up winning by a wide margin.
On Friday, Suarez said he would not support the reelection of Commissioner Eileen Higgins, a political novice whose upset campaign Suarez endorsed in 2018. “She’s bought into Gimenez’s agenda,” Suarez said, citing her support for the county mayor’s rapid-bus plan for South Dade instead of a $1 billion Metrorail extension. “She was against rail, in favor of buses.”
In a statement, Higgins declined to respond directly. “Too many in Miami-Dade focus on the politics of serving,” she said. “I’m focused on problem-solving and getting things done.”
Suarez also withdrew his endorsement of Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert, who is running to succeed a term-limited Barbara Jordan as District 1’s county commissioner in North Miami-Dade. Suarez said he’s disappointed in the transit positions of Gilbert, who beat out Francis Suarez in January to become chairman of the county’s Transportation Planning Organization board.
Suarez said Friday he supported Sybrina Fulton, Gilbert’s District 1 opponent and a gun-violence activist who vaulted to national attention after the shooting death of her son, Trayvon Martin. Fulton attended Suarez’s announcement but did not speak during the event. Asked if she was endorsing Suarez, Fulton replied: “We’ll see.”
In a statement, Gilbert said he didn’t ask for Suarez’s endorsement in the first place and wouldn’t comment on what the commissioner said Friday. He said he was happy to have Jordan’s endorsement “because of my experience [and] our shared efforts” for the district.
Suarez has been Gimenez’s top foe on the County Commission. The Miami-Dade mayor also led the campaign to defeat Francis Suarez’s 2018 bid to have voters expand his executive powers as Miami’s mayor.
In a statement, Gimenez said it’s a mistake to personalize his taking positions against other officeholders.
“I’ve never supported the concentration of too much power in the hands of any individual,” Gimenez said. “If the price of getting along is going along, that is a price I am not willing to sacrifice for my beliefs.”