Alex Penelas formally launched his campaign to return as county mayor on Tuesday, quietly filing papers in a race to lead Miami-Dade’s government for the second time in 15 years.
Penelas, 57, is returning to politics for the race to succeed a term-limited Carlos Gimenez in 2020, banking on his latent popularity winning an office that’s grown more powerful since he left County Hall in 2004. Three sitting county commissioners, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Daniella Levine Cava, and Xavier Suarez (who’s also a former Miami mayor), are already running.
Records with the county’s Elections Department show Penelas’ papers were filed at 1:07 p.m. The Oct. 1 filing gives Penelas a full 31 days for his debut month of fundraising for his campaign committee, after six months raising money for his political committee. Penelas has already raised nearly $1.5 million for the committee, Bold Vision.
Now a real estate investor, Penelas is pitching himself as an experienced leader with the vision to revive Miami-Dade government. In an interview Wednesday, the married father of three from Miami Lakes said he would quickly turn his attention to reversing a planned rapid-transit bus plan for South Dade, restructuring the county’s management structure and launch “an ambitious plan to rebuild our water-and-sewer infrastructure.”
“It’s literally crumbling before our feet,” Penelas said of a county sewer system where a failed pipe recently caused an extended closure of a major highway in Aventura. “It’s one of the many cans we’ve kicked down the road.”
Under Penelas, Miami-Dade launched the new waterfront arena for the Miami Heat, adopted a half-percent sales tax for transportation that created free Metromover service in Miami and popular trolley networks run by cities, and helped win passage of a 2004 referendum approving a $2.9 billion bond program that continues to fund county infrastructure and construction projects. He also successfully campaigned for a statewide referendum funding pre-K education in Florida.
He gained national exposure for serving as mayor during the Elián González controversy, when he said he would hold the Clinton administration responsible for any domestic violence once federal agents returned the child to his father in Cuba. Penelas later said he regretted the comments.
The Elián saga helped cause a famous rift between him and the 2000 Democratic nominee Al Gore, who called his fellow Democrat “the single most treacherous and dishonest person I dealt with” in the presidential campaign.
The entry of Penelas brings the field for mayor to seven. The other candidates are Juan Zapata, a former county commissioner, and two contenders seeking their first offices: Monique Nicole Barley and Robert Ingram Burke.
Of the current and former officeholders, Penelas and Levine Cava are the only Democrats. All candidates will face each other in a nonpartisan primary in August 2020. If nobody gets more than 50 percent of the August vote, the top two finishers will compete in a November runoff to be decided on Election Day.
That’s considered a significant advantage for Democrats, since the race would coincide with a presidential election in one of the country’s largest Democratic strongholds. Penelas ran for U.S. Senate in 2004 as he was preparing to leave office. He finished third statewide — and in his home county — to Peter Deutsch and Betty Castor, who won the nomination but lost the election.
As a candidate, the former member of the Hialeah City Council and County Commission is pursuing an office with more power than the one he left after reaching his limit of two consecutive terms.
While he served as an “executive” mayor between 1996 and 2004, with the power to veto legislation by the commission, Penelas was not the county’s top administrator. That authority rested with a county manager.
Under a charter change approved by voters in 2007, Miami-Dade now has a “strong” mayor, who serves as head of the executive branch and oversees almost every county agency.
Penelas rivals are eager to cast him as a mayor who fostered strong ties with lobbyists in his administration. In Bovo’s announcement Monday, he told supporters he doesn’t want Miami-Dade to “go backwards to an era of cronyism.”
In an interview, Penelas noted the sitting commissioners running have been supported by lobbyist and vendor donations for years. “I’m doing this because I’m in a great place in my life. I don’t need a government job, which is so liberating,” Penelas said. “I don’t have to go around town committing to anything I don’t want to.”
For the 2020 race, Penelas rivals are also trying to cast the former two-term mayor as the architect of a failed county transit plan tied to the half-percent sales tax he helped convince voters to pass in 2002. In the campaign to pass the tax, Penelas touted a “People’s Transportation Plan” that included a historic expansion of Metrorail and a doubling of the bus fleet — goals that future county leaders said proved far too expensive for the more than $200 million a year the sales tax generates.
“We know that yesterday’s challenges have become present day problems and we cannot allow our future to be dictated by the past,” Levine Cava said in a statement issued about 45 minutes after news of the Penelas filing broke on Twitter.
In past statements, Penelas has blamed shortfalls on the transportation plan on a combination of misunderstandings of the original blueprint’s promises and shifting of some of the tax to everyday transit operations under later administrations. On Wednesday, Penelas said as mayor he would move quickly to scrap the Gimenez rapid-transit bus plan in South Dade in favor extending Metrorail there, a project the administration said would leave no money for other expansion projects.
“I actually inaugurated the South Dade Busway in 1997,” Penelas said of the 20-mile dedicated roadway that could also serve as a Metrorail corridor. “We told the people of South Dade the next step was rail.”