Politics

Last time he ran for mayor, he flamed out. Now he’s a lock.

Miami's likely next mayor poses next to a campaign ad during Hurricane Irma

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez spots a campaign bus bench ad as Hurricane Irma made its way through South Florida.
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Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez spots a campaign bus bench ad as Hurricane Irma made its way through South Florida.

Stop the car, Francis Suarez told his police escort. They needed to go back.

Wayne Tillman eased the brakes on the black Ford Expedition and threw the SUV into reverse, slowly heading the wrong way past fallen trees shrouded by misty sheets of rain along an otherwise empty Biscayne Boulevard. He stopped when he rolled up to one of the few glass bus stops in Edgewater left intact by Hurricane Irma.

With wind gusts easily topping 90 miles per hour and two journalists in the back seat, the Miami city commissioner hopped out and jogged over to a bus bench. His hat on backwards, he sat down, crossed one leg over the other and flashed a thumbs-up for the cameras.

Behind him, one of his campaign bus ads bore a large image of his face and his campaign slogan: “The next mayor of the City of Miami.”

In the heat of campaign season, it was a lighthearted but foolhardy moment for the front-runner. What kind of candidate yucks it up in the middle of a hurricane? But with six weeks to go until election day, it looks like he’ll walk through Miami’s stormy political season untouched.

Now that Saturday’s deadline to make the Nov. 7 ballot has come and gone, Suarez’s biggest opponent may be himself. His well-oiled campaign machine faces opposition from a light field comprised of a Socialist Workers Party member, two perennial candidates and a little-known businessman running his first campaign — all with a combined $46.14 to their names.

“I’ve run unopposed [for reelection] a couple of times, in 2011 and 2015. That’s something I’m proud of. It really does speak to the work I’ve done and the lessons I’ve learned,” Suarez said Saturday evening. “I think it’s a product of my work as commissioner, the professional way in which we’ve run the campaign, and the inroads I’ve made with community leaders in different parts of the city.”

Though his political slogan leaves no room for hedging, he is careful not to anoint himself. In Miami, few know better than Suarez — who saw his father’s 1997 election as mayor overturned by the courts — that anything can happen. But his victory feels nearly inevitable.

“He’s been building up to this for years,” said lame-duck Mayor Tomás Regalado, who would have faced a challenge from Suarez in 2013 had the commissioner’s upstart campaign not fallen apart after an amateur absentee ballot drive ran afoul of the law. “He really believes that he will be the next mayor and that may very well happen.”

He’s been building up to this for years.

Mayor Tomás Regalado

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An ad put up by Francis Suarez’s 2013 campaign for mayor, which was aborted early due to misshaps. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

For Miami’s nearly half-million residents, that means a significant shift in ideology is coming, albeit with little debate about whether it’s the right course. Where Regalado was elected in 2009 ostensibly as a pothole mayor hitting pause on an era of unprecedented growth under Manny Diaz, Suarez, a Republican running for a nonpartisan post, is far more like Diaz — a big-picture candidate skilled in diplomacy, enthralled with technology and heavy on dreams of putting his stamp on the city.

A past president of the Miami-Dade League of Cities, Suarez remains among the biggest proponents of a push to expand the region’s woeful mass transit system by creating six new rail lines (which he branded the SMART plan). He helped broker a deal to subsidize Tri-Rail’s downtown Miami connection at MiamiCentral Station when Regalado balked, and pushed the creation of a special transit bank account for the city.

This is about a change that’s happening in the city of Miami, a generational turning of the page.

Francis Suarez

Like his father, County Commissioner and former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, he has a flair for dramatic ideas. He once wanted to bury the MacArthur Causeway under Biscayne Boulevard. He supports a tunnel under the Miami River, which he can see from his office window at Grey Robinson’s downtown hub, where he works as of counsel as a real estate attorney.

He also remains involved in the grueling details of government and is still accessible to Miami’s working class, even giving out his cellphone on TV ahead of Hurricane Irma. Two years ago, he agreed to a tag-team race with Miami filmmaker Billy Corben at Virrick Park to raise enough money to end summer pool fees for kids in the West Grove.

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MARSHA HALPER MIAMI HERALD STAFF

“He’s always been there to offer his assistance. I like that about him. He doesn’t send a message about what your problem is, but ‘is there anything I can do for you?’ ” Model City-area homeowner Sam Lattimore said last month when Suarez gathered supporters at City Hall along with his wife and son to submit hundreds of voter petitions to qualify for the upcoming election.

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Miami City Commisioner Francis Suarez with his son, Andrew, 3, and his wife Gloria Suarez (right) after he submitted petition signatures on Thursday, August 10, 2017, at the City Clerk’s office at Miami City Hall to qualify for the November ballot as a candidate for Miami Mayor. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Suarez, who turns 40 in October, is supported by the city’s unions and runs in established political circles. It’s part of how he’s raised a city record $3 million for his mayoral campaign. But he sees Miami’s political future as belonging to a new generation.

During a rainy May fundraiser at a banquet room in Wynwood Walls where he spent the evening in a tailored suit shouting hellos, kissing cheeks and bro-hugging guys in sports coats, he waxed poetic about embracing technology and realizing the city’s “collective dreams.”

“This is about a change that’s happening in the city of Miami, a generational turning of the page,” he said. “This is a city that’s been known to many as the capital of Latin America. But we need to graduate from that title.”

Though he was born to Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor, Suarez will be the first mayor of Miami in 21 years who wasn’t born in Cuba. He’ll be the first mayor actually born in the city in at least half a century, perhaps ever.

You’re looking at a political phenomenon.

County Commissioner Xavier Suarez

“For every reason imaginable, you’re looking at a political phenomenon,” his father crowed during the Wynwood event.

Without significant opposition, Suarez will be able to spend less time campaigning and more time mapping out the future of his administration. But where he sees the open road around his campaign as an affirmation of his hard work and political vision, some wish Miami could have mustered an actual competition for mayor.

He carries with him a great deal of hope and promise from a highly disaffected demographic of Miamians.

Billy Corben, filmmaker with Rakontur

“A good campaign can ensure a productive debate or discussion about what’s best for the community,” said Corben, who has high hopes for Suarez but bemoans the lack of debate around his candidacy. “This is our generation’s first shot at actual leadership in Miami like this. That’s the truth. He carries with him a great deal of hope and promise from a highly disaffected demographic of Miamians.”

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