On what would be his last afternoon to enjoy the spacious expanses of the office afforded Miami’s mayor, Tomás Regalado was feeling a bit uncomfortable.
There was a dank, musty smell permeating the room, where the air conditioning was on the fritz all day and a breeze cooling things down started sending rain drops through open windows. The walls were bare, the pictures of a younger Regalado in his days as a foreign correspondent all gone.
After eight years as the resident in chief of the second floor at Dinner Key, the signs were all pointing to the same thing: Time to go.
For the first time in more than 21 years, there isn’t a Regalado in elected office in Miami. Last week, Francis Suarez was sworn in and Regalado, a former journalist turned politician, became a private citizen who for the first time since 1996 will try to figure out life outside elected office. At 70 years old, Regalado talks about this chapter as if it will be a last, discussing the past as scrapbook material and the future along the lines of “if I am alive.”
“It’s like Nixon said,” Regalado quipped when he appeared in the receptionist’s office to greet a reporter. “You won’t have me to kick around anymore.”
You’ll have to forgive Regalado if he’s a bit defensive. Things have been better.
Even in the worst times, I love this job.
What may be Regalado’s biggest accomplishment as mayor — rescuing the city from the brink of financial collapse in 2010 — has been undercut by a series of court rulings this year that overturned the cuts his administration imposed on employees’ pay and pensions during the recession. Last month, the city’s largest pension fund warned that it’s owed nearly a quarter-billion dollars.
And he’s been unusually cagey, refusing to release a lease or canceled checks to disprove what he says are “lies” reported by a blogger that he’s living rent-free with his wife in an apartment building owned by the family of a prominent developer.
But if Regalado is bothered by any of it, his facade isn’t showing many cracks. He’s never been one to lick his wounds for long.
“Even in the worst times, I love this job,” he said. “I compare these eight years to the eight years that I served as a correspondent with [President] Reagan.”
Maybe politics is a blood sport. If it is, Tomás never stains his shirts.
Ricardo Brown, journalist and commentator
From Regalado’s perspective, actually, things are looking up.
He just watched voters easily pass his $400 million Miami Forever bond initiative, giving the city nearly $200 million to combat sea-level rise, $100 million for housing and economic development, and another $100 million for a series of additional projects.
He’s got three offers from Spanish radio and TV for his own show starting around the new year, he says.
And that massive debt owed the unions? An overstated number that will either end up in court or be negotiated down by Suarez’s administration, he says. Meanwhile, Regalado leaves the city with a surplus in excess of $100 million and a tax base that has never been higher.
Spin? Maybe. Few have been better at turning losses into wins than Regalado, who according to his financial statements left office with a net worth around $9,000 despite holding an office that with salary and perks pays $130,000 a year.
Was he the cause for stabilization or was it the development boom that caused the recovery?
Fernand Amandi, pollster and pundit
“Motherf----r, I buy groceries. I pay rent,” the suddenly foul-mouthed Regalado says with a laugh when asked about what he did with the money. “I pay a lease. What the hell?”
There’s always been a combative spirit to the former mayor, whom Cuban-born journalist and political commentator Ricardo Brown compared to boxing great Rocky Marciano. Despite beefs with former police chief Miguel Exposito, former mayor Joe Carollo, and flaps over his use of a city gas card and political fundraising, he’s always gotten back up.
“He’s undefeated,” said Brown, who has known Regalado for decades. “Maybe politics is a blood sport. If it is, Tomás never stains his shirts.”
Brown believes “people will have good memories” of Regalado, who will largely be remembered by history as a caretaker mayor who let Miami fly on autopilot. Even Regalado, who campaigned for mayor in 2009 on a platform that proclaimed that Miami is not a metropolis, acknowledges that the city became one anyway for reasons that had nothing to do with him. He insists his administration accomplished its task of preserving its neighborhoods, even though gentrification is on the lips of community activists.
“I’m glad that we are a metropolis, but we still have neighborhoods that are protected. We kept that balance,” he said. “I haven’t seen gentrification in Little Haiti. I have seen in Buena Vista Haitians selling their homes for a million dollars to developers to do stores. In Little Havana, I have not seen people displaced.”
Much like the rest of his time in office, Miami’s growth under his watch, which saw the city go from bust to boom, is seen differently by his supporters and detractors.
“I think Tomás leaves with a bit of a checkered legacy. On the one hand, he inherited a difficult situation financially and was able to stabilize that. But I think in retrospect the question will be: Was he the cause for stabilization or was it the development boom that caused the recovery?” said Fernand Amandi, a pollster and political commentator who lives and works in the city. “To the extent that there was any progress over the last eight years it was in spite of Mayor Regalado’s leadership, not because of it.”
Regalado, though, isn’t fazed. As with all mayors, time will shape his legacy. And as a member of the media once again, he’ll get an opportunity to do some of the shaping.
“I have no regrets,” he said.