Leading rivals for Miami-Dade mayor face off in first candidate forum, disagree on little

Here’s what Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and his chief rival in the upcoming election, Commission Chairman Joe Martinez, disagree on: not much.

In their first candidate forum on Thursday, the opponents for the county’s top job differed on little, though they lightly poked at each other’s record — particularly over a controversial concession the county imposed on unionized employees that will likely become a focal point in the mayoral race.

The forum, hosted by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce as part of its annual goals conference, marked the unofficial start of campaign season leading up to the August election, which has also drawn nine lesser-known candidates who did not take part in the event. Qualifying for the seat ends at noon Tuesday.

Martinez and Gimenez, who served together on the commission dais for more than half a decade, both presented themselves as the right person to move the county forward a year after the upheaval caused by the recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

Gimenez, a former commissioner elected last summer to finish Alvarez’s term, emphasized the need for continuity in a county government undergoing organizational changes. Martinez portrayed himself as a bold leader more focused on ideas than on bureaucracy.

“It’s about continuing a fundamental shift in the way the county does business,” Gimenez said. “Are we going to go backward and return to business as usual at County Hall?”

“There’s a difference in style of leadership,” Martinez said of his approach, compared to the mayor’s. “And if there’s a difference in style of leadership, there’s a difference in the results.”

Case in point, according to Martinez: He voted against Gimenez’s proposal earlier this year to require unionized employees to contribute an additional 4 percent of their base pay toward healthcare costs, bringing their total contribution to 9 percent. Commissioners approved the plan 7-6.

Martinez, a former police officer who is courting the unions for their support, said the money could have come from elsewhere in the budget. He noted that Gimenez later found about $30 million in budget savings, the result of his merger of departments to bring them down to 25 from 42.

Gimenez “wanted to take it from the employees,” Martinez said of the added healthcare contribution.

But Gimenez said commissioners knew steep union cuts would be necessary last fall, when they signed off on a lower property-tax rate and budget that depended on those employee concessions. He said much of the $30 million in savings went to cover the costs incurred by the county after lengthy negotiations with the unions hit an impasse over the healthcare payments.

On other matters, the two men mostly saw eye to eye.

They told moderator Michael Putney, the political reporter for WPLG-ABC 10, that it should be easier for fledgling businesses to obtain county permits. They agreed that Miami Beach needs a new convention center. They said they don’t oppose casino gambling but did not like the proposal presented last year by Malaysian casino giant Genting to build a “destination resort” at The Miami Herald’s downtown property.

Martinez called Genting’s plans “a monster of an idea.” Gimenez referred to it as “over the top.”

They spoke to an audience of about 100 bleary-eyed chamber types gathered for breakfast at the Hilton Downtown Miami the morning after the Miami Heat’s late-night overtime playoff victory against the Boston Celtics. Martinez spoke entirely off the cuff; Gimenez glanced at notes on his iPad during his opening and closing statements.

Martinez landed more verbal jabs than Gimenez, calling county government “reactive” and criticizing the administration for coming close to laying off hundreds of employees, including 118 police officers and 17 corrections workers, before the healthcare concession was imposed.

For his part, Gimenez, who is not known to be the flashiest campaigner, got in a few one-liners himself — and not always at Martinez’s expense.

After saying businesses that work in Latin America should be drawn to Miami, Gimenez joked, “The side benefit is we’re so close to the United States.”

Martinez chuckled.