With less than four weeks to go until an election that could decide who will run Miami-Dade County the next four years, Mayor Carlos Gimenez dominated the first debate among the seven candidates campaigning for the county’s top post — an impressive feat considering he wasn’t in attendance.
Gimenez was a no-show at a Wednesday night forum held by a coalition of women’s civic and business groups and moderated by South Florida media company WLRN. But despite his absence, Gimenez’s performance as mayor since his election in 2011 played center stage as his challengers railed on all the ways they said he’d failed as the county’s chief administrator.
Youth violence? A Zika cluster in Wynwood? Traffic congestion?
Gimenez’s opponents laid the blame at the mayor’s feet.
“He’s not here. He’s not addressing the concerns of our community,” former congressional staffer Alfred Santamaria told a packed house at the YWCA headquarters in Overtown. “That’s the same thing that happens at the county level.”
It’s unclear why Gimenez missed the event, although he wasn’t expected to attend after organizers said he didn’t respond to an invitation. Campaign spokesman Jessie Manzano-Plaza said in a statement Wednesday night that Gimenez will debate before the election is held.
“Mayor Gimenez has agreed to a debate and will do so in the coming weeks,” the statement said. “Unlike his political opponents, Mayor Gimenez’s number one priority and responsibility has been and continues to be serving the residents of Miami-Dade County every day as their mayor.”
Had Gimenez been there, it likely wouldn’t have curbed the attacks from his challengers, all of whom are angling to unseat an incumbent who has raised more than $4 million in political donations. Printer Frederick Bryant, former Democratic Party chairman B.J. Chiszar, economist Fraid Khavari, School Board member Raquel Regalado and Santamaria all took turns taking whacks at the mayor and, at times, offering their own solutions. Retiree Miguel Eizmendiz did not attend the event.
Regalado, the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado, is the only challenger to raise more than $50,000. A recent poll conducted on behalf of several media outlets, including the Miami Herald, showed her trailing, but not by an insurmountable gap.
“There is only one candidate who can take down Carlos Gimenez, and that’s me,” Regalado said. “Everyone agrees on one thing: The next mayor should not be Carlos Gimenez.”
Regalado has spent much of her campaign dogging Gimenez over what she says are his shortfalls as the county’s top executive, but offered a series of actions she’d take if elected. She said she’d tackle a spate of youth killings by bringing back the county’s “gang unit,” and address roadway congestion by fighting harder for federal grants. She said she would do more than Gimenez to act on sea-level rise by aggressively pursuing previous recommendations, and reiterated her intention to blow up the Beacon Council, Miami-Dade’s economic development agency.
“We’re going to focus on a quality-of-life economic model,” she said, stating that economic development needs to focus on workforce housing, childcare, and other support systems. “Brick and mortar doesn’t work anymore.”
Santamaria, whose cheering fans filled a packed house, said he’d push jobs by “modernizing” the county’s ports, luring a theme park and creating business incentives.
“I will invest in your ideas. When banks tell you no, Santamaria will tell you yes,” he said.
Voters will choose a new mayor on Aug. 30. If any candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she is Miami-Dade’s mayor. If not, a run-off election between the top two vote-getters will be held in November.