Sergio Pereira, Miami-Dade County’s first Cuban-born county manager whose ascendancy and controversial ouster crystalized a broader shift in political power toward Miami’s exile community, died Sunday from leukemia. He was 73.
Pereira resigned in 1988 as the county’s top administrator amid questions about profits from a land deal struck before his tenure, and the forced departure sparked a backlash among Cuban-American leaders complaining of unfair treatment of a skilled and accomplished administrator in a community only beginning to reconcile the changes brought by Cuban immigration.
A natty dresser with a devilish wit, Pereira’s colorful tenure as the county’s top administrator gave way to a second career as a lobbyist that still saw him sauntering through county hall chomping his signature unlit cigars. He improved his golf game, dabbled in the cigar business, took on some pro bono clients and maintained his lobbying practice by phone while undergoing cancer treatments in Boston starting last fall.
Born on May 24, 1944, in Havana, he came to the United States around 1960, attending high school and college in New Jersey before starting a government career as a counselor for at-risk youths for the city of Newark. After moving to Miami, he joined a generation of Cuban-American immigrants pursuing government careers and ended up being the first to secure the most high-profile job in the local public sector: Dade County manager.
Pereira served two years as manager of a county that would be renamed Miami-Dade a decade later. His career coincided with a rapid expansion of county government to keep up with the area’s exploding population. He served as an assistant county manager when Dade was still run from the county courthouse. By the time he took the top job, he oversaw the government from the top of the new 29-floor Stephen P. Clark building.
A longtime public employee whose career included a stint as Miami’s city manager, he was tapped by then-county manager Merrett Stierheim to head up the government’s response to the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in the early 1980s, according to Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s clerk of the court.
“I remember the trips we made back and forth from Key West, bringing Marielitos up to [Miami] in 1981,” recalled Ruvin, who was a county commissioner when Pereira worked first as an assistant county manager and then in the top job. “He worked like a horse during that effort.”
Stierheim said Pereira hustled to fill a void left by the federal government, which was largely absent in Miami’s refugee crisis.
“Sergio would call me and give me a briefing. He always called me chiefo. He said ‘Chiefo, you’ve got to come down and see this,’” Stierheim said. “The long and the short of it is he really did a great job. He was spending 20 hours a day down there.”
Eston “Dusty” Melton, who covered Pereira as a Miami Herald reporter and then collaborated with him as a fellow lobbyist, described Pereira as influencing county events for the better in and out of office.
“Sergio was an enormously dedicated public servant and a remarkably gifted advocate for his clients, many of which were nonprofit agencies he helped gratis with his huge heart,” Melton said. “He greatly influenced our community’s arc of history for decades, in ways sometimes not easily discerned but always in the broad public interest. He was a terrific human being, warts and all.”
Mercedes Mayra Najara, Pereira’s sister who also worked in his Miami lobbying office, recalled her brother helping residents who knew him from government service and were down on their luck. One day, a knock at the office door revealed a man on a bicycle wanting to deliver $100. Apparently, when the man was unemployed, he sought help from Pereira, who handed him a hundred-dollar bill. Now the man had a job and wanted to settle the ledger. He had biked from Homestead.
“I said, ‘I can’t take it from you,’ ” Najara recalled. “My brother will get mad at me.”
“He was a people’s person,” Najara said of Pereira. “He gave so much love to this county.”
Pereira was a past president of the La Gorce Country Club and the Nat Moore Foundation. Until about a decade ago, he operated the longtime Ramar cigar shop in Miami. “We had 12 cigar rollers,” his sister said.
Unusually colorful for a lifelong government employee, Pereira’s brashness got him into occasional scrapes once he took on the spotlight of county manager.
He had the county police department’s helicopter unit give him free flying lessons and ordered a $9,000 marble desk to replace the one Steirheim had used before him.
The most memorable setback involved the “Hot Suits” scandal, when Pereira and others were accused of paying for stolen designer suits at cut-rate prices being sold out of a Miami duplex.
Pereira was the only official indicted in the suits probe, but the charges were later dismissed. When the county commission convened to consider his punishment — the board opted to keep him — supporters wore stickers that read: “Why just Pereira?”
The tempest that cost him his job involved a stake in a land deal that was upzoned by the county at a time when he was manager for the city of Miami. Pereira didn’t disclose his interest in the 1985 land deal, or the $119,000 profit he made in a matter of months after being cut in on the venture. Pereira called the omission on his financial forms an oversight, and the vocal support he received from Cuban-American leaders drew national attention to his departure.
After Pereira resigned on the eve of a damaging Miami Herald article about the land deal, The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Pereira’s resignation increased tensions between Cubans and the mostly non-Hispanic whites of ‘the downtown business establishment.’ They have watched with varying degrees of admiration and concern as the Cubans made their way here in their host city within the span of within one generation to social, cultural and political influence.”
His survivors include his wife, Maritza Pereira, whom he married on Dec. 31, 1986; his sister, Mercedes Mayra Najara of Miami; and three daughters: Adriana Pereira-Reyes of Miami; Jennifer Pereira of Coral Gables, and Lauren Pereira Pozzo di Borgo of Luanda, Angola; two sons-in-law, a niece, a nephew, and a grandson, Matthew Francis Reyes. As of Sunday evening, there was no information on funeral arrangements.
On Sunday, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who saw the county manager post vanish under his tenure after voters agreed to eliminate the position in 2010, issued a statement praising Pereira.
“Today, we lost one of the most important figures in Miami-Dade’s modern government and political history,” said Gimenez, one of Pereira’s successors as city manager of Miami. “Sergio led our community with passion, selflessness and dedication during the Mariel boatlift crisis, and then during moments of both growth and turbulence for the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County.”