It’s easy to like Francis Suarez and what he represents: A new generation is in charge of the city of Miami. It was time.
“Miami, long known as a gateway city, is now a global city,” he declared at his inauguration in February. He repeated this Wednesday at a meeting with the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board, where Suarez pushed hard to sell a major change in city government.
He wants to be a strong mayor.
He wants more power than the city’s executive-style system affords him now in allowing him to select the city manager. He has rolled up his sleeves and set out to work, but feels shackled by having to funnel everything to be solved through the city manager’s office.
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And he points to the last eight years, when the city has cycled through six managers, creating instability and hindering the ability to plan for the future and tackle pressing problems efficiently.
A strong mayor would be accountable to residents, who can hold a recall for an ineffective one. Most of the major cities in the United States have one, Suarez argues. It’s Miami’s turn. He wants to place a referendum on the issue on the ballot this year. The Strong Miami Committee has drafted the charter reform and asked the city clerk to begin collecting signatures.
If you’re thinking that he’s only been on the job three months and already wants more power, he tells you that he’s tried to do this twice when he was a commissioner, but fellow commissioners turned him down. He wants to take the issue to the voters.
Elected with 86 percent of the vote, he feels he has a mandate. Voters knew what he stood for.
“A strong mayor is, by definition, the people’s mayor — accountable directly to the voters and empowered to carry out their will,” he says.
That sounds dreamy, but the strong mayor system hasn’t worked, for example, for people in Miami-Dade County or Hialeah, where lobbyists and special interests always win the day.
Sure, voters ousted Mayor Carlos Alvarez after a bad Marlins Stadium deal left county taxpayers holding major debt, but what he did stayed with us. Mayor Carlos Gimenez, while fiscally more responsible, has presided over an incestuous system in which campaign workers end up collecting millions in county contracts, lobbyists win over residents almost every time, and they all travel on county junkets with the mayor. Meanwhile, the county commission has ended up playing rubber stamp to expedited deals without proper vetting, as in the case of the American Dream mega mall in Northwest Miami-Dade. It's no wonder they call Gimenez "King Carlos."
As for Hialeah, Carlos Hernandez has become yet another strongman perennially perched in power while paving over every plot of grass in sight, despite opposition from residents who want and deserve more green space and less density.
Why would Miami fare any different?
Francis Suarez seems different.
He rejects the over-development of public spaces, for instance, and thinks the bayfront Museum Park should remain needed green space and not become host to two more packed-in Cuban exile and African American museums. And while Suarez is a Republican, you wouldn’t know it by his ambitious social agenda: affordable housing, climate-change, compassion for the less privileged. And he’s in favor of suing the state to pass a local assault-weapons ban.
He’s not the problem. My bet is that he would make a good strong mayor.
At 40, a youthful and energetic father of two young children, this homegrown mayor is charismatic, well-prepared and eloquent. A commissioner since 2009 and the son of the city’s first Cuban-born mayor, Xavier Suarez, the new Suarez at the helm knows the city inside and out — and from different perspectives.
While other politicians cower at the thought, Suarez is holding neighborhood town halls. And he has become a fixture at the crime- and poverty-ridden Liberty Square project, where he wants to work with residents to establish trust and improve the quality of life.
The younger Suarez both embraces the family political dynasty and distances himself, a healthy trait.
His father, an independent, is still a Miami-Dade commissioner whose district includes hot-issue Virginia Key, Key Biscayne and downtown Miami, plus a piece of Coral Gables and all of Pinecrest. There’s no avoiding that their governing interests will intersect.
But Suarez quickly asserted when I pried: “He’s got his thing and I’ve got mine.” It’s pretty much what the elder Suarez, well-regarded and often a conscientious voice on the commission, has said to me in the past.
Both father and son are good stewards, a feel-good Miami story.
My bet is that Francis Suarez will make a fine mayor, strong or otherwise.
But, I can’t endorse the change to a strong mayor system. Who knows what the future holds?
Just imagine Miami with the infamous "Crazy Joe" Carollo, now back as a commissioner by a hair, as strong mayor. Or his ethically-challenged little brother Frank, who tried to open up Little Havana to high-rise development, changing its character forever.
Not all dynasties are created equal.
A strong mayor system is a big gamble for Miami.
Follow me on Twitter @fabiolasantiago