Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez: I’m running for mayor

It’s official: Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez is running for mayor.

The 35-year-old son of former Mayor Xavier Suarez made the formal announcement Tuesday at a press conference at his Coral Gate home.

Suarez’s candidacy has long been the subject of speculation around City Hall. The chatter intensified late last week, when campaign finance reports showed that in the last three months of 2012 he raised $460,000 through his “political communications organization.”

Suarez, in an interview Monday with The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, outlined his vision for the city. It includes replenishing rainy-day funds, promoting small business, beefing up the police department and making the mayor a player on the national stage.

“It starts with having a stable government that is forward-thinking and innovative,” he said.

Despite having flush campaign coffers and key allies, Suarez faces a tough road to the Nov. 5 election. Incumbent Mayor Tomás Regalado has already launched his bid for reelection, and observers say his popularity remains high among likely voters.

“It is going to be a competitive race,” said Barry University political science professor Sean Foreman.

Suarez, a real estate attorney, first ran for the City Commission in 2009. He was elected to represent District 4, which includes Flagami and stretches to the city’s western edge, and was previously held by Regalado.

Early on, Suarez and Regalado often appeared in public together. The two grew so close that the mayor asked Suarez to serve as City Commission chairman in late 2011.

But the relationship soured last summer, when Suarez grew increasingly critical of Regalado’s administration. He voiced concerns about the high turnover among top staffers and questioned the finance department’s ability to balance the $500 million budget on time.

Suarez said those frustrations prompted his decision to run for mayor.

“I fundamentally believe that the administration is not being run professionally,” he said. “I have concerns about what will happen if nothing is done about it.”

Suarez said he has already proven his leadership abilities. He points to a pair of controversial motions he made, both of which passed the commission: one to cut employee salaries and another to fire then-Police Chief Miguel Exposito, who was feuding with the mayor at the time.

“I’ve taken the lead on very difficult positions,” he said.

During his three years in office, Suarez has had mixed results passing policy. In 2011, he championed changes to the city zoning code that made it easier to build affordable housing. But his biggest legislative push to date — an effort to create a strong-mayor form of government — failed to find support.

Suarez said he has a couple of new proposals to pitch, including a measure that would reduce permit fees for home repairs that cost less than $2,500. He also said he has ideas for using technology to make city departments run more smoothly.

If campaign contributions are any indication, Suarez will have the support of key business leaders, including Jackson Health System CEO and former city manager Carlos A. Migoya and former Mayor Manny Diaz.

Regalado, who has raised about $160,000 for his campaign and enjoys popularity in neighborhoods like Little Havana and Flagami, said he welcomed the competition.

“I think the voters will continue to support me because I have followed through on my promises,” he said. He disagreed that the city has been poorly managed. “I have not increased taxes, and I have provided services to poor people.”

Observers expect the race to be close.

Foreman, the Barry University professor, said Suarez’s last name will be both an advantage and a liability.

“There’s a big fan base for both Francis and his father,” Foreman said. “But there are people who still remember the negative aspects of his dad’s reign, and that could hurt him.”

Xavier Suarez was elected to four terms as mayor, but was removed from office when a judge found evidence of voter fraud in the 1997 election. Suarez was not accused of wrongdoing, and now sits on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

Francis Suarez said he initially resisted the idea of running for elected office.

“I’m not one of those people who grew up thinking I want to be a politician,” he said. “I’ve seen the ups and the downs. I felt it at a very personal level.”

It was only after his house was burglarized that Suarez got involved in his local homeowners association, and eventually decided to run for City Commission. He knocked on more than 8,000 doors in that first election, he said, and included his cellphone number on his campaign mailers.

He plans to follow a similar grassroots strategy in the mayoral election, he said. This time, however, he will have a lot more money.

Suarez, who is 30 years younger than Regalado, is likely to face criticism that he is too young and inexperienced to run for mayor. But Suarez said he didn’t see the need to “wait his turn.”

“The time is now,” he said. “I see this as an opportunity for our generation to take a leadership role in the community.”

There are two other candidates in the race: Williams Armbrister and Jeffrey Anthony Benjamin. Neither has raised more than $1,000, according to campaign finance reports.

Emilio Gonzalez, former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President George W. Bush, said he is also considering running for mayor.

El Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.