For Rebeca Sosa, Miami-Dade chairwoman post represents pinnacle of political career

Rebeca Sosa’s name has been bandied for higher political office so often, that when she surfaced as a candidate to lead the Miami-Dade Commission, County Hall insiders wondered if, this time, she really was interested.

She was.

Sosa, whose drive and grandmotherly charm have made her popular among politicians and voters alike in her central Miami-Dade district, took the reins of the 13-member board Tuesday, the pinnacle of a political career that started in small-town West Miami and has spanned more than two decades. She is the commission’s first Hispanic chairwoman.

Sosa, 57, wants to use her new and powerful position to make the commission more likable, after several years of nonstop politicking triggered by public frustration over a county government perceived as out-of-touch. That widespread sentiment resulted in the recalls of a mayor and a commissioner and subsequent elections that brought five new commissioners to a board long considered impenetrable.

“It’s time that we join forces in changing a lot of the perceptions that have been wrongly visualized in the community,” she told her colleagues when she was nominated for chairwoman. “My vision for this board is one that the administration and the board can work together, even when they disagree.”

But, in a sign of the growing pains that come from moving to a position with countywide power from one involving a single district, Sosa has already ruffled some feathers in one-on-one meetings with commissioners, during which she has proposed tinkering with the few departments under the board’s control.

That doesn’t worry her champions — many of them part of the tightknit political family that has surrounded Sosa for years.

“She’s going to have a lot of pressure on her,” said West Miami City Manager Yolanda Aguilar, a former Sosa chief of staff. “Everybody’s going to want something from her, because that’s the way this works. . . . She never loses her spunk.”

A survivor

The roots of Sosa’s political career lie in Camaguey, Cuba, where she was born in 1955. Her great-grandfather was friendly with politicians, and her late father was a councilman, said Sosa’s mother, 85-year-old Isabel “Bellita” Arias de Díaz.

“She’s very much like her dad, with such a happy character,” she said.

When Sosa was 9, her family fled Cuba aboard a Freedom Flight. They settled in Puerto Rico, where she married Armando Sosa and had a son, Armando Jr. The three moved to Miami in 1979.

Sosa, who began her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, completed her bachelor’s degree in education at Biscayne College, now St. Thomas University. For years she taught elementary school; she still works for the Miami-Dade school district, training teachers, developing curriculum and matching students with jobs, at the Lindsey Hopkins Technical Education Center. She reported a salary of nearly $79,000 in 2011; she made nearly $50,000 from her commission post the same year.

Three months after giving birth to a daughter, Veronica, the 28-year-old Sosa was diagnosed with breast cancer and given only months to live. She wrote letters to her children, to be delivered at their life milestones. One was for her daughter’s wedding day.

But Sosa survived, undergoing surgeries for five years. She still has the letters.

“When I die, they will get them,” she said of her children. Her daughter, a nurse, got married just a few weeks ago; her son, a teacher, is married and has an 11-year-old son, Alexander, with whom Sosa plays Nintendo DS. Her husband, a former construction developer and insurance salesman, is retired.

The couple lives in West Miami, the tiny city of about 6,000 that elected Sosa, a Republican, commissioner in 1990 and mayor in 1994. At one point, she shared the dais with a young commissioner named Marco Rubio. The two are still close.

As mayor, Sosa took over a city on the brink of bankruptcy and helped restore its financial health. She fought for state money to build a stormwater drainage system that eased West Miami’s flooding. Sosa likes to remember how she had then-Gov. Jeb Bush tour her waterlogged city — and wade in the floodwaters to experience their height.

“She put him in a Jeep, told him, ‘Take off your socks,’ ” recalled Aguilar, the city manager. “He literally took off his socks, rolled up his pants.”

‘The Friendliest’

Sosa jumped to the county commission in 2001, in a special election following the departure of Pedro Reboredo, who resigned after a corruption scandal. A clear favorite, Sosa ran like an incumbent, with the support of then-Mayor Alex Penelas, developers and other politically connected donors. She has since faced only minor opposition, if at all, to represent District 6, which includes West Miami and portions of Hialeah, Miami Springs, Coral Gables and Miami.

Among the highlights of her commission career has been leading a group that revamped the way the county procured bids for new contracts — an effort that won Miami-Dade a prestigious national award. But she opposed limiting or removing the commission’s power to award contracts, as proposed by then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez, arguing that doing so would hide hiring decisions from the public.

A task force she was involved with recommended ways to reduce elder abuse. She was on a committee studying how to modernize county jails to provide more rehabilitation and job training. And Sosa, an avid cruiser with family ties to Spain, has pushed to lure more cruise companies to PortMiami and to establish nonstop flights to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, from Miami International Airport.

One of her most scrutinized votes was to approve a much-criticized deal to build a new Miami Marlins ballpark.

“I considered that the way the stadium deal was structured, where it didn’t use one cent of property-tax money from residents but sports taxes and hotel bed taxes, was another way to bring tourism and for residents to feel proud of something,” Sosa said.

But she conceded the deal could have been less lopsided in the Marlins’ favor if the county had been able to review the ballclub’s financial books. “If I had had the financial statements in hand, perhaps we would have thought of a more beneficial contract,” Sosa said.

Despite her stadium vote, Sosa has not drawn the wrath of well-heeled commission critic Norman Braman, the Miami auto magnate — perhaps because she did not support a subsequent, unpopular property-tax rate increase in the midst of a recession. She has also sponsored reform-minded legislation, such as imposing term limits on commissioners, which voters approved in November.

“She’s not controversial,” said Roly Marante, another Sosa former chief of staff. “She’s seen as the friendliest commissioner. When she has a disagreement with the mayor, they can do it in a very elegant way.”

Former Commissioner Natacha Seijas praised Sosa as a straight shooter.

“She was truthful, she was fair, she was honest,” said Seijas, who said she was “ecstatically proud” to see a Cuban-American woman at the commission helm.

But the challenge for any chairperson is to keep the administration, led by a strong mayor, in check, Seijas added. “The commission itself has a lot of power, and sometimes I don’t think they know how to use it,” she said. “That might be one of her weaknesses: how to work it through and demand the power of the commission.”

Sosa is considered an ally of Mayor Carlos Gimenez — in stark contrast to former Chairman Joe Martinez, who used the position as a bully pulpit to unsuccessfully challenge Gimenez in the August election.

In her new role, Sosa will have to wrangle a commission that voted 7-6 to make her chairwoman over Commissioner Barbara Jordan. (A subsequent motion made the vote unanimous.) She has announced plans to create eight commission committees, up from six, giving more of her colleagues committee chairmanships.

Some commissioners appear nervous that Sosa plans to trim staff in the commission auditor office and perhaps move oversight of the commission’s intergovernmental affairs office, which deals with state and federal lawmakers, to the mayor’s office. Her goal: to repurpose the captured dollars so commissioners can travel, or spend money at will on district services, including grass-cutting and small-business grants.

While Sosa says her goal is “to save some money,” how the move would generate savings is still unclear. Under her plan, personnel in those commission-support offices would be moved to other county departments that would presumably have to pay their salaries.

Moreover, bolstering commissioner’s individual spending accounts could raise eyebrows. Facing public backlash and a slow economy, individual commissioner office budgets have been slashed to $814,000 a year, from a peak of $1.2 million. Commissioners use that money to run their offices, fund events and hand out grants to community-based organizations that often helped propel the officials to election victories.

For now, Sosa is preparing for her new post by continuing the constituent services that have made her so popular. The week before Christmas, she organized a toy giveaway and brought mariachis to a holiday party for seniors — where Sosa, a self-described “shower singer” who relishes the spotlight, sang Si nos dejan and Solamente una vez, two standards.

Twice a year, Sosa said she hopes to hold commission meetings outside County Hall.

“There’s a very big disconnect,” she said. “Sometimes as a government, maybe we get a little bit arrogant. What I would love to see is more people getting familiarized with what we do.”