Miami-Dade Commission race pits incumbent Bruno Barreiro against state Rep. Luis Garcia

The Miami-Dade Commission runoff between incumbent Bruno Barreiro and his challenger, state Rep. Luis Garcia, almost didn’t happen.

Barreiro was a mere nine votes shy of winning more than 50 percent of the vote in the four-candidate primary election. That majority would have made him the outright victor.

Instead, Barreiro, who obtained 49.95 percent of the Aug. 14 primary vote, will be on the Nov. 6 ballot pitted against Garcia, who garnered 33.05 percent. The two are vying to represent commission District 5, which includes some communities along the Miami River, Little Havana, the Roads, Brickell and the southern and eastern edges of Miami Beach.

Having come so close to avoiding a runoff, Barreiro heads into the second round with the political winds at his back.

“I’ve brought a lot of honesty, a lot of integrity, a lot of hard work” to the office, he said in a debate organized by several community groups last week.

Barreiro has raised more than twice as much in campaign funds as Garcia, and he has established name recognition — particularly in voter-rich Little Havana — from his 14 years on the nonpartisan county commission and previous six years in the Florida House of Representatives, where he served as a Republican. Two years ago, activists fell just short of collecting enough signatures to recall him.

Garcia has a political base from his seven-year tenure on the nonpartisan Miami Beach City Commission and his six years serving as a Democrat in the state House. He briefly sought a congressional seat before clashing with party leaders and switching to run for commissioner. His legislative district overlapped with part of Barreiro’s commission district.

Garcia has run on a platform of reform, criticizing Barreiro for not doing enough to bring economic development to Southwest Eighth Street, promote renovations to the Miami Beach Convention Center or upgrade the county’s public transportation system.

“Dade County has a reputation: Everything it touches turns to dust,” Garcia said at last week’s debate. The event was held at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral and hosted by the Miami Shenandoah Neighborhood Association, Miami Neighborhoods United, and the Roads and Silver Bluff homeowners associations.

Barreiro, 46, has countered that he has supported funding Little Havana programs such as Viernes Culturales (Cultural Fridays) and a new convention center, though he blames Miami Beach and tourism board leaders for stalling the project. And he trumpets the county’s public transit system — particularly the Golden Passport, his signature achievement that allows senior citizens to ride for free.

Garcia, 66, has poked Barreiro over one of the biggest projects ever built in the district: the largely publicly funded ballpark for the Miami Marlins. As commission chairman at the time, Barreiro shepherded and voted for the stadium, and remains a staunch champion.

At the debate, Barreiro left the door open for the county to consider financing some renovations to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens. Among other things, the Miami Dolphins would like a partial roof.

“I don’t support renovating Joe Robbie stadium 100 percent,” he said, using one of the stadium’s many former names. “I have to take a look at that. It’s not going to be substantial.”

The funding, he said, could come from hotel-bed, convention-development and sports-franchise taxes.

Saying he would “absolutely not” support that move, Garcia mocked Barreiro’s suggestion: “What’s a few million dollars among friends?”

The Dolphins and Marlins have contributed to Barreiro’s campaign and to third-party political committees backing him.

Garcia has the endorsement of Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, who recruited a slate of candidates to challenge incumbent commissioners. Garcia is the last one left standing; Braman’s political committee has mailed fliers highlighting Barreiro’s support for the stadium and trying to tie him to ousted county Mayor Carlos Alvarez.

Barreiro has fought back, saying that Garcia voted for state legislation in 2007 that would have provided the Marlins with $2 million a year in state sales tax revenues. Garcia calls the comparison “disingenuous,” because other professional sports teams get the same benefit — and because $2 million a year would have been far less than the county’s $376 million ballpark contribution.

Barreiro also has pounced on Garcia’s three public pensions — two from his years as a Miami Beach firefighter and city commissioner, and a third for his time in the Legislature. Barreiro has a public pension, too though instead of having two, for his time in the House and on the Miami-Dade Commission, he technically has only one because the state and county use the same pension system.

Last week’s debate grew increasingly tense as the attacks between the rivals became more pointed and personal. They traded accusations of leaving their offices unstaffed while their employees take leaves of absence to campaign. Garcia jabbed Barreiro for not speaking up very much at commission meetings.

And Barreiro claimed Garcia does not spend every night at his house in the Roads — a notion Garcia, a widower and father of three grown sons, quickly put behind him, saying his fiancée has a house outside the district.

The two candidates live only a few blocks from each other; Garcia countered that neighbors usually see Barreiro’s parents and not him, his wife or their two children. Barreiro later told The Miami Herald that was untrue and that his parents and an aunt live in two bungalows on his property.

Garcia is a proponent of term limits for commissioners and said he would only serve eight years if elected, regardless of whether voters approve those limits in the upcoming election. While Barreiro agreed to put eight-year terms before voters, he has in the past argued for longer terms, and he indicated at the debate that he opposes self-imposed limits.

“Doesn’t that put our district at a disadvantage?” he said.

Retorted Garcia: “Your performance should be reason enough to put term limits.”