Despite criticism, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado maintains support

In the months leading up to the Nov. 5 election, incumbent Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado will have to face tough questions about his leadership and respond to criticism about his lack of vision.

In Little Havana’s Domino Park, however, Regalado’s staunchest supporters already have their minds made up.

“He is a man of the people, not a politician,” said Ismael Aracil, 78, a regular at the Calle Ocho spot. “He came from Cuba with nothing, like so many of us. He understands what the community needs.”

Despite a string of management mishaps and financial crises at City Hall, Regalado has maintained strong support in Little Havana, Allapattah and Flagami — neighborhoods where Miami’s mayoral race is often decided. He has rock-star status in nursing homes and comedores, where seniors gather for hot meals with a side of politics.

“There have been a lot of issues with management and the city’s finances,” said Florida International University professor Dario Moreno. “But they haven’t really affected average citizens. At the end of the day, Regalado is still very popular because he hasn’t raised taxes.”

And that, some observers say, may be enough to propel him to victory.

Regalado, 65, is facing a challenge from Commissioner Francis Suarez, the charismatic 35-year-old son of former Miami mayor and current County Commissioner Xavier Suarez.

Suarez has come out swinging. At his first campaign press conference last Monday, Suarez said the city needs a mayor who will make Miami “a model for innovation” and touted the need for development.

Regalado has been routinely criticized for having no big-picture plan for Miami. He is often held up next to former Mayor Manny Diaz, whose policies guided the rebirth of Miami’s downtown corridor.

But Regalado noted that the city’s reserves dwindled under the Diaz administration, even though revenues flowing into the city were increasing.

“We’re still paying for the vision of Manny Diaz,” Regalado said. “We just finished paying some of his vision with the [PortMiami] tunnel. I thought it was unnecessary for the city to participate in that.”

Regalado said he does have clear-cut goals. They speak mostly to basic government services.

“Do I have a vision? Keep taxes down. Reduce the size of government. Fix the potholes. Fix the streets. Pick up the garbage.”

The mayor readily admits that he hasn’t promoted many sweeping initiatives. In 2012, he crafted only six pieces of legislation — far fewer than the 15 he drew up during his first year in office, according to a Miami Herald analysis of city agendas. Of last year’s agenda items, two were resolutions to rename streets. One was a resolution to accept a sculpture.

His most important accomplishment in the last three years? Balancing the budget and striking deals with the unions, he said.

But even that was controversial. Contract agreements were reached only after Miami declared financial urgency, a legal maneuver that allows municipalities to force employee concessions. Union leaders later said they felt bullied by the move.

This year Regalado may be more active. He has aggressive plans to make Miami a distribution center for special foreign-investment visas, he said. And last week, he introduced legislation that would give an additional homestead exemption to low-income seniors. The commission will take up the bill this spring.

Meanwhile, Regalado will have to address concerns about his management abilities and the perceived lack of professionalism at City Hall. Expect a rehash of last year’s near financial meltdown, the revolving door of city administrators and Regalado’s public spat with then-Police Chief Miguel Exposito in 2011.

“There are a lot of people who have businesses in Miami or Miami-Dade County who are stunned by the incompetence of this guy,” said Joe Arriola, a businessman and former Miami city manager. Regalado “has no credibility in the business community.”

Regalado isn’t worried.

“I don’t think the people in Little Havana will vote against me because we don’t have a finance director,” said the mayor, who has gained notoriety for shrugging off criticism.

Instead, Regalado suggested, the people in Little Havana and Miami’s other neighborhoods will vote for him because he has never raised taxes, and because he kept his promise to cut his own salary.

Ever unflappable, the mayor is confident in his ability to win reelection.

“My base is still there,” he said. “The old people haven’t died.”

Suarez won’t make it easy. He raised more than $460,000 through his “electioneering communications organization” in the last quarter of 2012 — far more than the $91,000 Regalado raised in traditional campaign contributions over the same period.

The challenge for Suarez, observers say, will be making the case to replace Regalado.

“There hasn’t been a major scandal,” said Moreno, the FIU professor. “There isn’t an issue where he has really been at odds with the constituents. Francis needs to articulate a vision and show the need for change.”

Suarez will also have to overcome the mayor’s popularity. He could try to engage registered voters who don’t typically turn out for Miami’s off-year mayoral elections. In 2009, about 39,000 voters cast their ballots in the mayoral race, roughly 20 percent of the electorate.

“If Francis could expand the electorate and tap into the anti-Regalado fervor, he might have a chance,” pollster Fernand Amandi said, referencing developers who have been at odds with the Regalado administration.

Winning over seniors like Aracil and the rest of the crowd in Domino Park, however, will take some work for Suarez.

Juan Jorge Batista Batista, 79, went so far as to say Regalado ought to run for president of the United States — an impossibility because the mayor was not born in the United States.

“He’s the best of the best,” Batista said. “He has the support of the entire neighborhood.”