It’s Gimenez vs. Regalado — and Regalado — for Miami-Dade County’s next mayor

Rendering of the Miami Central Station, for the All Aboard Florida Miami-Orlando passenger express train, under construction at present time, on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015.
Rendering of the Miami Central Station, for the All Aboard Florida Miami-Orlando passenger express train, under construction at present time, on Thursday, Feb. 19, 2015. EL Nuevo Herald

The election to decide Miami-Dade County’s next mayor is still more than a year away, but it already looks like the run up to 2016 will be a bruising chess match between political powerhouses.

Call it Gimenez vs. Regalado — and Regalado.

Heading into a stretch run in which he’ll have to defend his first full term, county Mayor Carlos Gimenez has quickly raised more than $600,000 and launched or backed a series of prominent public and private projects in recent months. Along every step of the way, his lone challenger, Miami-Dade School Board Member and radio host Raquel Regalado, has questioned and criticized his plans.

Regalado lags far behind in campaign funds and will likely struggle to keep up. But she has a wild card: her father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado.

Since the younger Regalado acknowledged plans to run, the elder has aligned himself with his daughter while taking positions that are adversarial to Gimenez and, some at City Hall believe, adversarial to his own government.

The Regalados say their apparent tag-team approach is not coordinated. And both mayors say politics won’t interfere with business. But whether for political or strictly ideological reasons, the popular city mayor has been a thorn in Gimenez’s side and helped turn some high-profile projects into possible proxy battles for the 2016 election.

The latest source of friction between the two mayors emerged last month when Tri-Rail executives announced they needed to quickly cobble together $69 million in public funds to bring commuter trains to downtown Miami. The publicly funded rail service needs the money to connect to the FEC lines heading into the All Aboard Florida terminus next to Government Center, and to construct its lines and platforms at the station. If the money to bring Tri-Rail to the transit hub doesn’t come together in the next couple of weeks, All Aboard representatives have said they will move on without Tri-Rail.

So far, Tri-Rail’s parent company, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, has secured more than $17 million in soft commitments from the state and offered $3 million of its own money. And last week, Gimenez said he’d ask county commissioners to approve $8.3 million in transit taxes toward the project. That left $40 million likely to be provided by Miami’s redevelopment agencies, with a push to have the city reduce debt costs by guaranteeing a loan financing Tri-Rail improvements.

Regalados criticize

Enter the Regalados. Raquel Regalado criticized the project for addressing north-south traffic when she says the county’s woes truly run east-west. Then Mayor Regalado said he would veto any vote to have the city guarantee a loan to finance the costs of Tri-Rail improvements with property taxes paid to a redevelopment agency, as has been requested. He said his position — which could lead to a showdown with the Miami Commission — is consistent with his “no” vote as a city commissioner on the so-called 2007 Global Agreement, when the city of Miami guaranteed a loan to pay for the PortMiami Tunnel with CRA funds.

“The city shouldn’t use its [bond] capacity on a project that to me doesn’t solve the traffic issue in downtown at all or solve the traffic issue of east-west,” the mayor said, sounding like his daughter. “If I had supported the Marlins stadium, the museums [at Museum Park], or the tunnel enthusiastically and then changed all of a sudden, then, well, I could be faulted. But the fact of the matter is this is my position and actually Raquel has nothing to do with it.”

But some in Tomás Regalado’s own city are skeptical. Commissioner Francis Suarez said he’s concerned the mayor is using his office to better position his daughter’s candidacy, rather than to better position the city he’s tasked with leading.

“From the things I’ve heard, I’m concerned that might be happening,” said Suarez, who ran against Regalado for mayor two years ago with the backing and fundraising help of Gimenez. “I heard that he may be threatening to veto [Tri-Rail funding] because he doesn’t want Carlos Gimenez to get a quote-unquote win.”

The mayor shot back Thursday: “That’s a lie. I guess he’s talking to Gimenez’s lobbyists or whatever. That’s a lie. I would not do that just for the hell of it.”

Miami Commissioner Keon Hardemon, chairman of an Overtown redevelopment agency that is central to any Tri-Rail deal, said he supports the project in part because Tri-Rail has offered free rides for Overtown residents. But he said it’s a tricky time to pull together a financing package that includes the city.

“We’re at a time now where it’s very political,” he said, without pointing specifically at the brewing mayor’s battle.

The jockeying over Tri-Rail’s quest for public money is hardly the first time the Regalados and Gimenez have been at odds. Tomás Regalado had some epic battles with Gimenez back when the former was a city commissioner and the latter Miami’s city manager. Gimenez once promised to quit (he didn’t) after a public spat with Regalado.

In 2004 and again in 2012, Tomás Regalado endorsed Gimenez’s opponents during campaigns for county commission and county mayor. And in 2013, Gimenez backed Suarez for city mayor against Regalado, whose campaign was run by his daughter.

“They worked together at the city. But I don’t think they were ever on the same page ideologically,” said Raquel Regalado.

SkyRise feud

Many county and city hall insiders believe Raquel Regalado’s campaign kicked into high gear in October when — amid her charge to block a Gimenez-supported bond referendum to build a new county courthouse — her father fought Gimenez’s request to provide $9 million in property tax-backed bond dollars for the controversial but voter-approved SkyRise observation tower.

Mayor Regalado campaigned for SkyRise over the summer on the promise that the planned 1,000-foot tower behind Bayside Marketplace would be built at no cost to the city’s taxpayers. He later said he had been duped by Skyrise developer Jeff Berkowitz even though Berkowitz wrote a letter to the city months before April and put in writing that he was seeking county money. Regalado said he never saw the letter.

Berkowitz declined to comment for this story. Gimenez’s administration has stressed that the county money would fund required infrastructure improvements but not the tower itself.

Last month, Raquel Regalado and auto magnate Norman Braman sued the city and county to either block the county subsidies or invalidate the referendum posed to voters, saying voters were promised a “privately funded” Skyrise tower. Miami attorneys have called the suit misguided, but Mayor Regalado supports it.

“The attorneys didn’t campaign for it. I campaigned for it,” he said. “I had my face on it.... And my promise to the people of Miami was private money and not a single penny from the city of Miami.”

Bay Link and Liberty Square

Another project to watch is Bay Link, a long-stalled light rail system that would connect Miami Beach with mainland Miami. Last year, Regalado was enthusiastic about the project. He remains supportive — where his daughter is not — but only if city of Miami funds are left out of the picture.

In a recent meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board, Gimenez said Bay Link remains a priority. “I'm working with the cities of Miami and Miami Beach — more so Miami Beach than Miami — about Bay Link.”

Mayor Regalado has also given a lukewarm reception to Gimenez’s Liberty Square Rising proposal to use $74 million in county funds to propel a $200 million-plus redevelopment of the county’s oldest public housing project. Raquel Regalado has criticized the plan as a short-sighted fix for a community plagued by violence and generational poverty.

Her father only points out that Liberty Square residents have been concerned about the redevelopment project due to fears they’ll be booted out once its been rebuilt as a mixed-income, mixed-use complex.

Taken altogether, the Regalados appear to be leveraging their positions in government to fight the powerful, well-funded county mayor. Raquel Regalado has also used her school board seat to pound away at the county’s struggle to collect taxes, which has hit the school district’s budget harder than others. She also criticizes a Gimenez-endorsed plan to bring the country’s largest mall to northwest Miami-Dade on land that includes a portion currently leased by the school board. Miami-Dade school adminstrators say the leased land is set aside for future construction, but they do not expect to ever build on the land.

‘We just disagree’

“Look, [school district administrator] Lourdes [Gimenez] works for me. I don’t think any of this is personal,” Raquel Regalado said, mentioning her relationship with Gimenez’s wife. “We just disagree on the projects.”

But keeping relations civil will be a challenge as the campaign goes on, said Joe Martinez, who campaigned against Gimenez in 2012. At the time, Martinez was the county commission’s chairman and Gimenez was mayor after winning a special election to fill out the term of the recalled Carlos Alvarez. Martinez is considering another run in 2016.

“What you hope is that Carlos and Tomás can put aside the issue,” Martinez said. “I think that's going to be difficult because you're dealing with somebody's kid.”

For now, Gimenez and the Regalados say things remain cordial, and they will continue to work together. That may be tested later this month, when Mayors Regalado, Gimenez and Philip Levine meet to talk Bay Link, although Levine says the mayors remain cooperative.

“The politics should be separate from the policy. Mayor Gimenez works with everyone,” said county spokesman Michael Hernández. “There shouldn't be any complications with city and county business.”

Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.