Joe Martinez: I’ll be leader, not meddler, if elected Miami-Dade mayor

About the candidate

Joe Martinez entered politics because of a broken fax machine.

It was 1996 or 1997, as Martinez recalls, when the fax at the Kendall substation of the Miami-Dade police department broke down. Martinez, a police sergeant, told a subordinate to purchase a machine he had found on sale.

Three months later, after arguing about registered vendors and a bidding process, the department finally got a new machine — that cost $100 more than the one on sale.

“I thought this was bull----. I was in charge of the budget,” said Martinez, a two-time chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Entering the political arena, he thought, could make a difference.

A decade and a half later, Martinez finds himself within striking distance of the powerful county mayor’s job, which oversees more than 27,000 employees, 25 departments and a budget of close to $7 billion.

The only thing standing in his way: incumbent Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a two-term commissioner who won a nasty battle for the mayor’s slot a year ago to fill the remainder of the term Carlos Alvarez left behind after he was recalled by voters.

The mayoral election — pitting Gimenez, Martinez and five lesser-known candidates against each other — is on Aug. 14. A runoff, if no one gets a majority of the votes, would take place Nov. 6.

“I wanted to be a public servant,” Martinez said during a breakfast last week at Islas Canarias restaurant in West Kendall with about a dozen supporters. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always thought politics was a very noble profession.”

Unlike county mayoral elections of the recent past, this one has been relatively subdued.

The two leading candidates are almost always amicable with each other, shaking hands before and after events, making small talk during breaks. Fiscally they’re similar, conservative with a belief in smaller government. Where they differ is in management style, Martinez said. While Gimenez leans toward micro-management, Martinez said he would have no problem delegating authority.

In fact, despite the county charter’s definition of the mayor’s job as the government’s chief executive, Martinez doesn’t believe the mayor’s job is to run the day-to-day operations of Miami-Dade’s sprawling bureaucracy.

“The job of the county mayor is not to be the manager, it’s to be the chief economic development manager, a diplomat, to be a liaison with other counties,” said Martinez. “The mayor is the bridge between the municipalities and the county.”

As for reducing the size of government, Martinez brushes aside the mayor’s claim that he saved the county $40 million by consolidating 42 departments into 25. Martinez said the savings come from vacant positions that haven’t been filled, and the mayor simply shifted people around. Martinez said if elected he would get rid of the five deputy mayors, who each earn in excess of $200,000 a year.

“That’s only added a layer of bureaucracy,” Martinez said.

The two men have even remained cordial over the most explosive issue this local campaign season: Thursday’s arrest of 56-year-old Deisy Cabrera on absentee-ballot fraud charges. Before Cabrera was arrested, a private investigator told police he had seen her enter the building that houses Gimenez’s campaign office in Hialeah. And a photograph of a Gimenez campaign event shows Cabrera in attendance.

Gimenez has denied Cabrera worked for his campaign, and Martinez said he believes that and has not attacked the mayor on it.

“It’s not my style,” said Martinez. “I’m not a traditional politician — a win-at-all-costs politician.”

Martinez says he does have a plan to stop absentee-ballot fraud in the future: have the Legislature call a special session and vote to keep absentee-ballot requests secret. That way, Martinez said, the ballot collectors wouldn’t know which doors to knock on. The current law exempts those records from view by the general public, but makes them available to political parties and committees.

Jose Angel Martinez was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital on Sept. 18, 1957. His parents moved to Miami from Cuba two years earlier because “they saw what was coming” two years before the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution, he said.

He attended Miami Military Academy and finished his two years at Miami Dade College by age 16. He eventually graduated from Barry University with a degree in public administration in 2000. But along the way he worked a series of jobs.

In one job he worked until 5 a.m. hosing down meat before inspectors showed up each morning. He also worked as a travel agent and an electrician. At one time he delivered musical organs well past midnight.

Married and the father of five, Martinez was a decorated Miami-Dade police officer from 1984 until he was elected to office in 2000. He worked his way up the ranks, from detective in general investigations to sergeant, master sergeant and lieutenant. Along the way he collected more than 70 commendations, including two Gold Medals of Valor and a pair of Officer of the Year awards.

“He was honest and hard working. What else can you ask for?” said his former boss, retired Miami-Dade Police Maj. Ned Valois. “We had some hairy times, and he’s always been a stand-up guy.”

Martinez was first elected to the County Commission to represent District 11 in 2000. The West Kendall seat stretches from Sweetwater south to ZooMiami, and covers all of West Kendall well past Krome Avenue and the Urban Development Boundary. He held onto his seat through two easy elections.

His time in office has been relatively scandal-free, with the exception of a home he built in his district in 2006 with the help of close friends in the construction industry. Martinez said Jorge Guerra Jr., who at the time sat on the board of the Latin Builders Association, was donating his time to help supervise the construction.

After media reports surfaced, Martinez asked for an opinion from the county’s ethics commission director, who opined that Martinez should not meet with or vote on any Latin Builders issue until the home was completed.

Martinez has also been criticized for pushing for development outside the Urban Development Boundary, and for his vote on the Miami Marlins new ballpark in Little Havana.

Martinez voted against the ballpark plan at first, but later voted in favor of the construction contract for the stadium.

More recently, Martinez has been a no-show for a couple of mayoral debates. One was in his district and sponsored by the Kendall Federation of Homeowners. Another was before The Herald’s editorial board. The commissioner chalked up the missed Kendall Federation debate to a scheduling conflict.

He said he missed the Herald meeting because he said he believed the editorial board had already made up its mind.

“And you can write that,” Martinez said.