Miami-Dade County

Can Raquel Regalado make history in Miami-Dade?

Raquel Regalado speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board

Raquel Regalado speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board Aug. 10, 2016.
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Raquel Regalado speaks to the Miami Herald Editorial Board Aug. 10, 2016.

When Raquel Regalado wanted to fight Miami-Dade’s legal establishment over a tax hike for a new $390 million courthouse, she weighed the politics with her father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. He urged his daughter to stay out of it.

“My dad said, why are you taking this on? It has nothing to do with you,” Regalado, 42, said. “You’re a school board member.”

Regalado declined his advice and quickly became the lead critic of the 2014 courthouse plan, which required voter approval before an increase in the special property tax that would have backed the $390 million in county borrowing. In the last decade, voters had already approved much larger borrowing packages for countywide projects, the school system and Jackson Hospital. But the November ballot initiative to replace the aging, moldy courthouse went down by a 2-to-1 margin, letting the two-term school board member claim the kind of political victory that left her contemplating another.

“Until then,” she said, “I wasn’t sure I could translate my work on the school board into something else.”

Four months later, Regalado announced she would challenge Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez for reelection in 2016, launching a campaign to be Miami-Dade’s first female chief executive in a year when that’s a possibility on the national level, too.

It’s also a race that tracks some of the same themes and contours from the 2014 courthouse fight. Critics dismiss Regalado as an opportunistic politician eager to obstruct but unable to chart a workable course of action. Supporters see an underfunded outsider committed to fresh thinking when it comes to local government.

“She’s not an ingrained bureaucrat,” said Norman Braman, the billionaire auto magnate who also is the top donor to a Regalado campaign effort that has raised more than $800,000. “The county government is not working here. It hasn’t worked for years. I think she can make an effort to try and fix it.”

As mayor, Regalado said, she would seek to elevate the office into the county’s primary advocate in Tallahassee and Washington. She has cited the need for more police officers, procurement reform, and a reworking of the county’s economic-development efforts.

Regalado’s bid for Miami-Dade’s top job accelerated a political trajectory that began with her 2010 win of an open seat on the school board. She raised more than double the campaign contributions of her nearest competitor in District 6, and avoided a runoff in the six-candidate field by taking 57 percent of the vote.

From her perch on the nine-member board, Regalado emerged as one of its most visible and vocal members. When Superintendent Alberto Carvalho led a successful campaign to raise taxes for a $1.2 billion bond campaign in 2012, Regalado appeared in Spanish-language commercials urging passage.

That year she also sparked controversy by pushing one of her district’s most prestigious magnet schools, Key Biscayne’s MAST Academy, to reserve lottery slots for qualified students in nearby Key Biscayne. Regalado brokered a deal in which Key Biscayne paid $7 million toward a $17 million expansion of the MAST high school to include a new middle school for area children.

“Parents accused me of selling MAST. Of destroying the culture,” she said. “It was very difficult to sell it to Key Biscayne also. They were very concerned about getting a return on their investment.”

On the campaign trail, Regalado points to a grab-bag of initiatives from her board tenure: banning electronic cigarettes on school grounds and lobbying for statewide rules against selling them to minors; a plan that modernized the system’s bus fleet; using her position as the board’s representative on the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts to arrange for every fifth-grader to see a show there.

“She’s been an effective board member,” said Perla Tabares Hantman, the board’s chair. “She’s very articulate. She knows what she’s talking about.”

Regalado’s role in another high-profile school initiative brought the most controversy. That was in fall 2015, when Carvalho announced that the school system wanted to serve as the landlord for the soccer stadium that David Beckham wanted to build on some Miami-owned land in Little Havana.

The deal upended the delicate politics in the stadium talks, which until then had Beckham negotiating an ownership deal with Gimenez for a stadium that would be privately financed but owned by the county. The site, a mix of city land and private real estate across from Marlins Park, had the soccer star’s negotiators in talks with Tomás Regalado, too. Miami’s mayor said he discussed the arrangement with his daughter well before Carvalho met with Beckham executives in late October.

Both Carvalho and Raquel Regalado touted the arrangement as a win for the school system, whose ownership — like the county’s — would have shielded Beckham’s group from paying local property taxes. In exchange, Beckham would provide free space for large athletic and academic events, including graduations, and other benefits for schools.

She’s not an ingrained bureaucrat. The county government is not working here. It hasn’t worked for years. I think she can make an effort to try and fix it.”

Norman Braman, the billionaire auto magnate who also is Regalado’s top campaign donor.

Gimenez privately fumed at the change of plans and went public with accusations that it was a political ploy by the Regalados to deny him a role in bringing Beckham to Miami. Both Regalados went on the air to criticize the Miami-Dade mayor, with Raquel Regalado blaming him for foot-dragging.

“Gimenez insisted that it be Overtown,” Raquel Regalado said on Univision. “Now, if they got tired of Carlos Gimenez’s song and dance about how they shouldn’t negotiate with the city of Miami, that’s a separate issue.”

Weeks later, the designated site near Marlins Park was a no-go: Beckham’s group said it couldn’t reach deals with private land owners. It did switch to an Overtown site that is a mix of county-owned land and real estate owned by a partnership that included the father of Gimenez’s chief fund-raiser, Brian Goldmeier.

The maelstrom over the school soccer talks marked the first truly bitter moment of the 2016 mayoral campaign, presaging a contest that would thrust Regalado’s personal finances and career decisions into the spotlight.

At roughly the same time she gave up her legal career in 2011 in favor of her school board duties, Regalado also stopped making mortgage payments on the Miami home she shared with her two children, Sebastian, 11, and Isabela, 12. Regalado moved them out of the house in 2012, but continued receiving the property-tax break that comes with a primary residence. That decision became a campaign liability last week when the county’s property appraiser demanded almost $4,000 in back taxes and fees.

Regalado blamed the problem on a “messy divorce” from 2008, but has yet to produce the documents she said she’d deliver to the appraiser’s office to justify her claiming the homestead exemption until the house sold for nearly $200,000 in a 2014 foreclosure sale.

The controversy revved up a back-and-forth between the two camps on how to view Regalado’s personal background.

Regalado had blamed the foreclosure on the financial burdens of being a single mother faced with the extra costs that come from having a daughter with autism. She waited a year after taking office to talk publicly about Isabela’s autism, but special-needs children became one of her specialties on the school board.

Gimenez casts Regalado’s résumé as too thin to qualify her for presiding over Miami-Dade’s $7 billion budget as its top administrator. Regalado, who drives a 2015 Hyundai Electra, points to her working-class challenges as an asset over Gimenez, a former firefighter and city administrator with little experience in the private sector.

“I am more of a reflection of the residents of Miami-Dade County than Carlos Gimenez will ever be,” she said. “The fact that I’m divorced, that I had a foreclosure, only makes me better understand the issues that our residents face.”

Regalado enjoyed the public spotlight since childhood. She grew up the middle child and lone daughter of Miami’s leading couple of Spanish radio, Tomás Regalado and his wife, Raquel. The elder Regalados held various on-air posts in Miami, careers that cast their children as minor celebrities, too.

At 15, Raquel Regalado’s challenge to Cuban leader Jorge Mas Canosa during a field trip to one of his speeches made front-page news. She and her brothers typically saw Little Havana’s Three Kings Day parade from a float, not the street. Her mother mentioned her so often to listeners that the 42-year-old still gets called by her diminutive nickname: Raquelita.

With a law degree from St. Thomas, Regalado focused her practice on federal trademark protections. Married to a fellow attorney and raising two children, she tiptoed her way into politics once her father won a Miami commission seat in 1996. His daughter served as an unpaid chief of staff in his office, and later as campaign manager when he was elected mayor in 2009.

She also inherited an unpaid radio career from her family. After her mother died suddenly in 2008, Regalado took over her afternoon slot at La Poderosa, but said she would do it for free rather than sell commercials like her mother had. The arrangement gave Regalado a near-daily platform to engage with Spanish-speaking listeners (and voters), prompting objections from the Gimenez campaign earlier this year. Regalado temporarily abandoned the show after officially qualifying for the Aug. 30 ballot in June.

In 2013, Regalado’s name briefly surfaced as a possible lieutenant governor nominee for Rick Scott, after Jennifer Carroll left the post. Instead, the job went to a fellow young Republican from Miami-Dade: Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Regalado has also long been considered a potential successor to her father once he’s termed out of the mayor’s office in 2017.

Tomás Regalado said he advised his daughter that a run to replace him would be far easier than taking on Gimenez in her first countywide run. But he said he didn’t advise against the 2016 mayoral race, like he did her campaign against the 2014 courthouse referendum, which his daughter described as a rush to borrow money without a solid plan for the court system.

“I said, what is it to you? Everybody likes what you’re doing” on the school board, Mayor Regalado recalled. “You’re going to take on all of these judges and lawyers? She told me: ‘They’re wrong. And I’m right.’ 

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