Coral Gables

Gables mayor’s race attracts big money from developers as city battles over building boom

Candidates for Coral Gables mayor are Jeannett Slesnick, left, and Raúl Valdés-Fauli
Candidates for Coral Gables mayor are Jeannett Slesnick, left, and Raúl Valdés-Fauli

Former Coral Gables commissioner Jeannett Slesnick, who is running for mayor on a populist platform of slowing down “mega development” in the City Beautiful, has scored political points by refusing the financial backing of big developers while her opponent, the current mayor, has received tens of thousands of dollars from them.

“Developers have not been supporting my campaign, even those who I have known for many years and consider to be friends,” Slesnick said in an email. “I have been very clear that the pendulum has swung too far in their favor and that I will not support unbridled growth in Coral Gables.”

With a large swath of voters in the city unhappy with the crane-filled skylines, traffic-clogged streets and a high-rise building boom, Slesnick, who has accepted campaign contributions from real estate agents and construction firms but not developers, feels her strong opposition to unbridled, high-density development will position her for victory in Tuesday’s election. In addition to the mayoral race, four candidates are running for an open commission seat.

Over the next few years, about a dozen large projects in the city will add thousands of condos and apartments, several stories of retail and office space and hundreds of hotel rooms to a city many remember as more a sleepy suburb than concrete jungle.

Her opponent, incumbent Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, considers Slesnick’s stance peculiar. During her failed run for mayor against Valdés-Fauli in 2017, she received at least $11,000 from developers, real estate firms and construction companies, according to campaign finance records. That included $2,000 from Agave Ponce LLC and Agave Coconut Properties LLC.

At the heart of anti-development residents’ discontent: Agave Ponce’s $600 million The Plaza Coral Gables, the largest development in the city’s history. The project, just off Ponce Circle, a few blocks south of Miracle Mile, will encompass 242 hotel rooms, 164 apartments and lofts, 160,000 square feet of retail, 445,000 square feet of office space and 2,000 parking spaces.

“It’s very, very ironic,” Valdés-Fauli said in a brief phone interview Thursday. Valdés-Fauli, who served as a commissioner from 1985 to 1989 and as mayor from 1993 to 2001, has said he supports “smart” development downtown but that he was empathetic to concerns from residents.

Valdés-Fauli lost his mayoral re-election bid in 2001 to Slesnick’s husband, Don, an attorney.

The backing Slesnick received during her 2017 run pales in comparison to the big dollars Valdés-Fauli has brought in this year, including $29,500 in March alone from developers, real estate firms, contractors and construction companies.

By comparison, Slesnick collected $1,000 from only one real estate person — Ron Shuffield, president of Esslinger-Wooten-Maxwell (EWM). Slesnick was a longtime real estate agent at the firm before starting her own realty firm.

“Yes, I receive[d] funding from the people building the Agave project,” Slesnick said, about her 2017 contributions. “I voted against them twice along with one other commissioner. The project passed. When I saw that Raul had gotten funding from them, someone in my circle told them they should give to me also, and they did. No future vote was coming up concerning them.”

After lending her campaign $100,000, Slesnick has raised just over $82,000 since she began fund-raising in February. In the most recent filing period, between March 29 and April 5, she raised $20,000, mainly from individuals, not developers.

In that same week, Valdés-Fauli raised more than $80,000 — a large chunk from developers or related entities — from 102 donors. That brought his total contributions up to $254,125 since he began fundraising in April 2018.

“I’m very pleased [with my campaign contributions] and it shows that the residents of Coral Gables are with me,” Valdés-Fauli said. “I think it’s an issue but I think that the city depends on progress.”

Asked if the growing frustration from residents had forced him and other developer-backed candidates, like Ralph Cabrera, into a defensive crouch, he criticized the Miami Herald’s coverage of the race and development in the city.

“If this has become an issue it is because the Herald has made it an issue,” he said.

This year’s race is a rematch of the 2017 contest, which Valdés-Fauli won by 187 votes out of 8,415 cast. There are 35,591 registered voters in Coral Gables, a city of 50,000.

“Most of my funding comes from single-family home owners who believe in me but they come in at $100 or $250 at a clip while my opponent gets 10 $1,000 checks at a time from a developer who has multiple names for the company or the vendors who work on the project send in $1,000 checks, like the concrete suppliers, electricians, plumbers, whatever,” Slesnick wrote in an email.

“Does this signal a change in the tide in favor of the people over developers? I certainly hope so. However, money plays an outsize role in any political campaign and this race is no different.”

Cabrera, the former Gables commissioner running in the four-way race for an open seat, has been criticized by his opponents for accepting developer dollars, but he vowed not to be beholden to corporations and to use their money to help spread his message.

He has raised a total of $129,470, including contributions from developers like Agave Coconut Properties and Poncecat Miracle Mile LLC.

“Yes, my campaign has received contributions from developers as well as lawyers, doctors, engineers, business professionals and many other occupations,” he said in an email. “My past record and future goals continue to indicate my strong support for our city’s Zoning Code and Comprehensive Land Use Plan to ensure the unique quality life of Coral Gables is NEVER compromised.”

Cabrera is running against attorney Jorge Fors, a newcomer, who has criticized Cabrera’s developer backing; former assistant city manager Carmen Olazaba; and perennial candidate Jackson Rip Holmes.