Miami-Dade County

Gimenez recall group quits, claims victory

Mayor Carlos Gimenez talks to the Miami-Dade commissioners during a recent budget meeting.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez talks to the Miami-Dade commissioners during a recent budget meeting. Miami Herald staff

The low-key effort to recall Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez ended Wednesday with no fanfare — but only after its organizer declared victory on the mayor’s budget concessions.

Jack Garcia, the retired firefighter behind the push, used an interview to say that the recall campaign was officially “on hold” after six weeks of mediocre fund-raising and few signs of organizational muscle. But Garcia and others point to a larger, unofficial legacy: spooking Gimenez into finding dollars to keep police fully staffed and return the county’s fireboats to the water after a three-year lapse.

“It was a 180-degree turn,” said Garcia, who began the recall effort shortly after his adult son died in a July 4 boating crash that he said highlighted the risks of Miami-Dade’s idled fireboat fleet. “It’s too much of a coincidence. And he will never admit it. But everybody knows.”

On Wednesday, aides cited Gimenez’s long-running fight with unions to resolve the fireboat issue and early efforts to lessen the budget cuts as proof that the recall didn’t affect the timing of his recent moves. His spokesman dismissed the campaign as a “recall effort looking for a cause” and not one that bothered the mayor.

“He didn’t feel it worth his time because it wasn’t a serious effort,” the mayor’s spokesman, Michael Hernández, said of the recall. “He never took it seriously. The mayor is focused on doing his job.”

Launched outside County Hall on Aug. 11, the recall effort fell drastically short of fund-raising goals and never attracted anything close to the high-profile backing that Norman Braman brought to the 2011 campaign that ousted then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez from office. But Garcia’s push didn’t go without notice. His campaign’s Facebook page garnered about 3,200 likes — the mayor’s has less than 900 — and prompted a top Gimenez ally to reach out with an appeal to Garcia to end the effort.

Facing reelection in 2016, Gimenez certainly had plenty of political reasons beyond the recall to avoid an unpopular budget for the fiscal year that began Wednesday. He was already backing away from his budget’s proposed cut of 250 police jobs when a fellow fiscal hawk on the commission, Lynda Bell, lost her seat Aug. 26 to union-backed Daniella Levine Cava.

Whatever the motivation, two of Garcia’s main talking points essentially evaporated in recent weeks. On Sept. 10, Gimenez confirmed negotiating an alliance with coastal cities designed to return the county’s 50-foot fireboat to the water after a three-year stand-off with union leaders.

Gimenez also used one-time revenues like the sale of helicopters and reserves to patch some of the most controversial budget holes in his $6.2 billion spending plan approved Sept. 18, leaving an opening for critics to cite the recall push as motivation.

“That was a good move on their part to start that recall,” said Juan C. Zapata, a county commissioner and leading opponent to some of Gimenez’s last-minute budget changes. “That softened him up. He got worried about that.”

In early August, Rodney Barreto, a top Gimenez ally, requested a meeting with Garcia, according to accounts from both men. The two sat down Aug. 18 in the Coral Gables office of Floridian Partners, the lobbying firm where Barreto is a partner.

Barreto described Gimenez as moving toward a position more amenable to Garcia, citing a pending fix to the fireboat issue about three weeks before the mayor’s plan became public.

“He basically alluded to the fact that the mayor was going to try and do the right thing,” Garcia said of Barreto. “To get these boats back in service and not lay off police officers.”

Barreto said he also asked Garcia if he shouldn’t be more concerned with potential lawsuits over his son’s role in the July 4 accident rather than running a recall campaign. And Barreto cited the death of his nephew in a 2001 traffic accident as an example for Garcia, since the Barreto family channeled their focus into highway-safety efforts.

“You’re doing this whole recall thing, and I don’t think that’s positive,” Barreto said he told Garcia. “I said go change something to make it better. This is very serious stuff you’ve got to worry about, other than recalling the mayor. I tried to explain that to him.”

Barreto said he relayed the meeting to Gimenez, but hadn’t talked to the mayor about it before. The Garcia meeting came as Barreto was trying to broker detente with another Gimenez foe: police-union chief John Rivera. A day after his sit-down with Garcia, Barreto was in a Biltmore hotel conference room with Rivera and Gimenez for a private talk on stalled union talks.

Garcia, a former skipper of the fire-rescue boats, was a leading critic of Gimenez’s plan in 2011 to have fire-truck crews also man the vessels as a cost-saving move. Unions objected, saying full-time crews were essential and the impasse left the boats idle for the past three years.

The issue jumped back into the spotlight after the July 4 crash that killed Andrew Garcia, who police say was steering his father’s 32-foot Contender when it crashed into two other boats off Coconut Grove. Three others were killed, and investigators cited alcohol as a possible cause but have not released a final report. After the crash, the worst in recent memory for Biscayne Bay, Gimenez drafted local police departments into a task force to combat drunk boating.

Garcia, 55, said that he decided to suspend the recall effort during a Tuesday night phone call with other organizers but that it could return if Gimenez reneged on his promises. “We’re going to put it on hold, and we’re just going to be watching,” he said.

The campaign did not come close to its goal of raising $150,000 by October, when the committee Garcia formed was going to begin the petition drive needed to force a recall election. Finance records show the committee, A Better Dade, raised no money in September and only accumulated $2,956 in donations overall.

This week, the Recall Facebook page posted a message signaling the suspension: “We are prepared and ready to execute the recall. The question is: Would you like the recall or are you satisfied with the victories achieved thus far?”

Garcia’s aborted recall drive is the latest failed effort to oust a Miami-Dade official in the wake of the 2011 recall of Alvarez and then-commissioner Natacha Seijas. The election opened the way for Gimenez, then a commissioner, to take office and quickly implement a property-tax cut.

The halted recall effort comes as internal polling shows Gimenez job approval at 55 percent, more proof to political advisors that the effort had no hope of traction. “People don’t realize how difficult a recall is,” said Dario Moreno, Gimenez’s pollster. “The bar is very, very high.”

Despite the controversial 2009 Marlins’ ballpark deal, Moreno said, Alvarez’s popularity didn’t plummet until about two years later when the mayor won a a property-tax rate increase and engineered staff raises.

“The recall of 2011 was a unique event in American urban history,” he said.

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.