After an eight-year breather from ambitious plans and metropolitan agendas, Miami has put its faith in a new, young mayor and political scion eager to get moving on a big agenda.
Voters on Tuesday elected City Commissioner Francis Suarez as the 34th mayor of Miami, choosing the 40-year-old Carlton Fields attorney and son of a former mayor and embracing his talk of a new vision and generation of leadership for the capital of the Americas.
A huge favorite over an underwhelming field, Suarez unofficially netted about 86 percent of the vote.
His victory never in doubt, he strolled onto a stage at the Omni Hilton on Biscayne Boulevard around 8:30 p.m. with his father, pregnant wife and son, Andrew, and spoke about a mission backed by a voter mandate. Four years after stumbling in his challenge of 70-year-old incumbent Tomás Regalado, the son of Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor declared his victory a mandate for passing Miami’s leadership to a new generation.
“The voters who cast a ballot in today’s election have entrusted their city to a young man, born in Miami, cultivated and nurtured in our city’s neighborhoods and parks,” he said. “Today’s vote is a mandate — a mandate for change, and a mandate for a new beginning.”
Behind him stood a misty-eyed Xavier Suarez, 68, who served as mayor in the 1980s and 1990s and now is a county commissioner representing parts of Miami. Earlier in the evening the elder Suarez said: “I can’t believe Francis is mayor of Miami. I also can’t believe he is 40.”
The younger Suarez, who raised more than $3 million for his campaign, has been a mayor-in-waiting for so long that attendees at his Election Night party at the Miami Hilton did not react when early returns flashed on the screen after 7 p.m. showing him with more than 80 percent of the vote. But with the ballroom nearly full 90 minutes later, Suarez took the stage to booming cheers. He departed from prepared remarks to call up local elected officials to join him.
“This is not Republican. It is not Democrat. It is not independent,” he said. “We are one city — the city of Miami.”
His speech highlighted some of the issues polls show energize voters the most: transportation, affordable housing, crime and economic opportunity. He also touched on the challenge of sea-level rise, factors that have made Miami a national poster child for the perils of a changing climate. He cited the challenge of “making Miami the most resilient city in the world.”
But Suarez cited as his top priority addressing Miami’s status as a city with one of the widest divides between glitzy affluence and severe poverty.
He said he wanted to create “a city that is more compassionate and caring … a Miami that is no longer a tale of two cities, but rather one city, unified and strong in delivering opportunities and success to all.”
Officially, the “executive” mayor’s post is mostly ceremonial in Miami, with the city charter giving the mayor the power to name a city manager and commission chairman but little else. But the power of the post has generally depended on the will of the politician who occupies it, with outgoing Mayor Regalado choosing to wield a soft hand and his predecessor, Manny Diaz, running the city more like a strong, administrative mayor.
Suarez, who plans to push sooner than later for a charter change empowering the city’s mayor as a “strong mayor” with administrative powers, is far more likely to resemble Diaz than Regalado. He also comes into office with a malleable administration: Miami’s city manager, Daniel Alfonso, is looking for a new job under the expectation that Suarez will want his own, hand-picked administrator, and the police chief is expected to retire in March.
How much Suarez will be able to accomplish depends on the makeup of the new-look, five-member City Commission, two posts of which were up for grabs Tuesday. He set some lofty goals, and made one hard promise.
“While tonight you have chosen me as your mayor, in my eyes and in my heart, you have chosen me to be your humble servant,” he wrote in his prepared remarks. “Thank you for your trust and confidence in me. I will not let you down.”