Miami-Dade County

For Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez, last campaign poses ultimate test

Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board

Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board Aug. 10, 2016.
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Mayor Carlos Gimenez speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board Aug. 10, 2016.

When Carlos Gimenez set out to award a $300 million redevelopment contract for Miami’s notoriously squalid Liberty Square housing project, some of his political advisers suggested 2016 probably wasn’t the best year for the venture.

“There were people around me saying: ‘Why are we doing it now? We can wait until after the election,’” Gimenez recalled. “I said there are people there now who need relief. That’s why we did it.”

At one County Commission meeting, Gimenez faced protestors wearing T-shirts with the slogan Carlos Gimenez Don’t Give a Damn about Black People. But Gimenez stuck with the original Liberty Square procurement schedule, gave a well-received pitch to current residents in April, and last month won unanimous backing from the County Commission to let the Related Group pursue its $307 million modern complex of apartments, town homes, retail and community facilities.

Related’s hard-fought win provided fodder for Gimenez’s critics as he pursues a second, and final, four years as mayor. He’s raised an unprecedented $4 million for his reelection bid, and Related is a top contributor. For Gimenez and his supporters, though, the Liberty Square ordeal captures the veteran administrator’s no-frills, stubborn approach to county government: Pursue the most practical solution, even if it brings some political dings and bruises along the way.

“If it’s going to be tough, it will be tough. That’s fine,” said Gimenez, 62. “Let the chips fall where they may.”

Running what he said will be his final campaign, Gimenez casts the 2016 mayoral election as a referendum on his five-year tenure as the county’s top administrator. His campaign materials emphasize the 12 percent cut in property-tax rates he secured in 2011, undoing a hike that helped drive his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, out of office in a recall that year.

Gimenez’s tax-rate rollback further cut Miami-Dade revenues amid a continuing real estate slump and led to a string of service cuts, pay reductions and austerity budgets that cemented his role as a union foe. But it also set him up for a big win a year later: While he barely edged out Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina to win in 2011 by two points, he beat County Commission Chairman Joe Martinez by 23 points in 2012 for his first full term.

A Cuban-born veteran of Miami government, Gimenez was a union member himself. He got his start as a city firefighter in the 1970s. He went on to be Miami’s youngest fire chief at age 37. Seeing a chance to move up at a time when Miami was cycling through city managers amid a financial crisis, Gimenez obtained a bachelor’s in public administration from Barry University. In May 2000, he was tapped as city manager, a post he held during a three-year stretch that saw the city’s bond rating elevated from junk to investment grade.

William Bryson, who Gimenez hired to replace him as fire chief, described a hands-on manager. “Sometimes he wanted to be the chief still,” said Bryson, who Gimenez later recruited out of retirement to serve as Miami-Dade’s fire chief. “But he would always listen. Sometimes he would modify [his decision]. Sometimes he wouldn’t.”

Gimenez said he learned his first English word in Miami, when he asked a Spanish-speaking child when school started. He answered: “Tomorrow, mañana.”

Castro’s takeover didn’t immediately spark the Gimenez family’s exile to Miami. But the year after Castro took power, when a 6-year-old Carlos came home from kindergarten saying the Russians are the “good guys” and not the Americans, his father decided it was time to go. In 1960, the family abandoned a ranch with caretakers and horses in Cuba’s Oriente Province for Miami, where they shared a house with relatives. In all, there were 21 people in the modest house about a block away from Miami High in Little Havana.

Gimenez would later cite his parents’ deep loyalty to the Republican Party when he ended a brief, and public, flirtation with leaving the GOP to become an independent in 2014.

As mayor, Gimenez cut his own compensation from $310,000 to about $150,000, while also ditching the mayor’s security detail and driver. Skeptics noted Gimenez could make a show of cutting pay for his new job while still collecting a city pension that paid him about $133,000 this year, according to a financial disclosure form. A Mercedes driver, he and wife Lourdes live in a home valued at more than $1.2 million.

And while Gimenez often cites his lack of mayoral trappings, his self-driving routine gets linked to a trait even supporters will note: He’s often late.

“He drives himself. He finds parking,” said Sally Heyman, one of six county commissioners to endorse Gimenez in 2016. “It’s caused issues. I would think someone at the top would maximize time more.”

Tardiness aside, the longtime Democrat said she’s always backed Gimenez, a Republican, because of his diligent approach to government. “I find him as a straight-to-the-point and get-it-done person,” she said. “He’s a good administrator in my book.”

Term limits mean Gimenez can’t run again in 2020, and the grandfather of six said he has no ambitions for higher office. Among the initiatives he’s cited for his second full term: making signal lights responsive to traffic, expanding mass transit and adding more affordable housing.

Heyman and Gimenez used to be neighbors on the commission dais, at a time when the future mayor found himself as far from the seat of power as he could be. That would be the 13th chair on the commission, the one on the dais with maximum distance from both the chairman’s perch and the seat reserved for Miami-Dade’s mayor.

The new chairman typically sticks a commissioner there who voted for someone else to preside over the 13-member board, and Gimenez led the opposition to Bruno Barreiro’s chairmanship bid in 2006. But in 2008, Gimenez was on the winning side when friend Dennis Moss won the chairman’s seat. Gimenez had a request.

“I told Moss: Keep me there,” Gimenez recalled. “That way, he didn’t need to punish anybody.”

Gimenez’s seven years on the commission generally put him at odds with county unions and the Alvarez administration, which was run by County Manager George Burgess. He fought the tax-rate hike Alvarez succeeded in passing in his final year in office to fund employee raises at a time of declining property values. (While rates went up 13 percent that year, property-tax revenues still declined nearly 3 percent.) Another losing battle won him political points: opposing the unpopular 2009 public-financing deal for Marlins Park.

His time as mayor offered a more complicated approach, and one he said justified his stance of only opposing bad stadium deals. He negotiated two subsidy packages for pro sports teams. In 2014, he won commission backing to extend the Miami Heat’s yearly hotel-tax subsidy another five years, into 2035, in exchange for the team accepting $1 million less under the current arrangement. County officials said inflation would mean the Heat ultimately would get only $2 million more over the life of the 20-year arrangement, in exchange for agreeing to modernize the county-owned arena.

Weeks later, Gimenez claimed victory on another stadium deal, this one an agreement to pay the Miami Dolphins up to $5 million a year from hotel taxes in exchange for owner Stephen Ross arranging what’s now described as a $500 million stadium renovation, including a partial roof. The deal also brought a non-relocation agreement from Ross that legally binds the Dolphins to stay in Miami-Dade for 30 years.

County payments wouldn’t kick in until after the 2016 elections, with the Dolphins eligible for money only when large events, such as an international soccer match or the 2020 Super Bowl, come to the stadium. The deal allows Miami-Dade to scratch payments if hotel taxes run short. The county’s animal-services budget saw the biggest spending increase under Gimenez, with the budget up about 80 percent since 2011. Advocates of pet-sterilization services, known as the Pets Trust, remain some of Gimenez’s most vocal critics, and protested him during the opening of a new $29 million animal shelter in June.

After winning steep concessions from unions in 2011, most pay cuts returned in 2014. That year, unions also pushed for automatic cost-of-living raises. Gimenez offered a 4 percent boost in 2017 that would be triggered only if property values exceeded forecasts. The 9 percent spike in valuations announced this summer kicked in the raise.

The offerings weren’t enough to keep South Florida’s largest labor group, the AFL-CIO, out of the race. The umbrella group representing most county unions endorsed Raquel Regalado — the school board member and daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado — who polls show is Gimenez’s closest competition in the seven-person field. But chapters representing county sanitation, airport and other Miami-Dade workers within the AFSCME union split with the AFL-CIO and backed Gimenez.

“He’s been cooperative with us,” said Andy Madtes, head of a statewide AFSCME group who raised eyebrows last fall when he signed on to the host committee of a Gimenez fundraiser. “I always found him to be a straight-shooter. He’ll tell you ‘no’ and he won’t dance around it.”