Early fundraising edge by Suarez in Miami mayoral battle forces Regalado to attack

Miami City Commissioner Francis Suarez has jumped early into campaign mode for the mayor’s race, embracing social networking, meeting with young professionals and banking well more than $1 million with five months to go until Election Day.

The moves have forced Mayor Tomás Regalado to respond with an attack campaign prematurely, as well. Already, the mayor has taken to the Spanish-language airwaves challenging Suarez on when he plans to resign his commission seat to run for mayor.

Despite being forced to organize on someone else’s schedule, the mayor says he faces many of the same obstacles he overcame four years ago, heading to the Nov. 5 election: A much younger challenger promising to be progressive, endowed with a hefty bank account and who has the backing of the establishment.

Armed with those same attributes, Joe Sanchez in 2009 proved no match for Regalado, a seasoned pol who has made a career out of street-level campaigning, hugging and chugging cafecitos with the abuelos he grew up with, and promising to fix sidewalks and fill potholes instead of building new skyscrapers.

Still, Suarez, 35, with his slicked-back hair, pearly-white teeth and easy smile, is no Sanchez, who grew disinterested as the campaign wore on.

In fact, Suarez was having his cheeks squeezed as a boy by many of the same people who now drink Cuban coffee with the mayor.

The young scion of a once-popular Miami mayor says Regalado, 66, has repeatedly displayed poor judgment, especially in hiring, as scores of top managers have bailed on the city. Suarez’s dad is Xavier Suarez, a former city mayor who now sits on the Miami-Dade County Commission.

“You have a government in total and complete disarray. There is too much turnover and too many bad articles written. It causes investment to flee,” the younger Suarez said.

Regalado fired back that though there has been turnover and financial turmoil at City Hall, it hasn’t spilled into the street. He said his sole regret is the very public spat he had with then-Police Chief Miguel Exposito over a video-gaming ordinance the mayor sponsored, and a series of police killings of black men that had the city on edge.

He said Exposito’s eventual firing worked out because he was replaced with Chief Manuel Orosa, who the mayor says is doing a great job. As for the personnel turnover, Regalado pointed to achieving balanced budgets despite deficits, and taxes going down, every year he has been mayor.

“I’m running on my record, reduced salaries, not raising taxes, and cutting expenses,” Regalado said.

Though the election is still five months away — still too early for the unions to make a pick — Suarez has already filled street corners with large glossy portraits.

He has received endorsements from three of the city’s other four commissioners, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and a large chunk of the business community. Those endorsements have added up to a large lead in fundraising for Suarez, who has already collected well over $1 million, a large sum this early for a Miami mayoral campaign.

In reports submitted at the end of April, Regalado had collected $321,373 to Suarez’s $258,797. But the raw numbers are misleading, because Suarez’s electioneering communications organization, The Future is Now, has far outpaced Regalado’s Serving Miamians, $718,912 to $93,200, over the same time period. An ECO is a political committee that can raise unlimited funds but cannot endorse a specific candidate, though it can attack one, often in ads and mailers.

Trying to overcome the fundraising discrepancy, Regalado took to Spanish radio two weeks ago suggesting Suarez should resign from office prior to the September qualifying date and work out a deal with commissioners to be immediately reappointed until Election Day, when he would have to resign again.

That way, the mayor said, commissioners would have enough time to put the vacant Flagami District 4 seat on the same Nov. 5 ballot, potentially saving the city about $300,000. It would also allow Suarez to take part in the complicated September budget sessions. The mayor threatened to make it a major campaign issue if his challenger doesn’t abide.

Regalado’s plan not only received a tepid response from Suaurez, but had one ethics experts concerned that a deal to reappoint Suarez after his resignation would circumvent the election process and flout the intent of the state’s resign-to-run law.

“It smacks of Tammany Hall politics,” said Tony Alfieri, director of the Center for Ethics and Public Service at the University of Miami Law School. “Even if it makes good public policy or fiscal sense, it seems on its face to be undemocratic.”

Suarez called the mayor’s suggestion disingenuous, countering that the city charter would permit commissioners to appoint someone to the empty District 4 seat for a year after he resigns. An election must be held the following November.

“He wants to manipulate that issue in a way that will create an advantage for him. I’m not engaging this on his timetable,” Suarez said.

But Suarez benefited in 2009 from the very plan the mayor is now pushing. Regalado resigned his commission seat prior to the qualifying period and was immediately reappointed — until Election Day — by the commission. That allowed the body time to set up a special election that Suarez won.

Though they hail from the same district, the candidates’ views on running a city differ as much as their age and bank accounts.

Regalado, who once famously declared “Miami is not a metropolis,” is content to surround himself with friends, including chief of staff Eric Duran. Suarez wants to usher in a new era of development, and fill City Hall with a younger, more professional crowd.

Regalado says a poll he commissioned three months ago showed him with a healthy double-digit lead. Suarez said his internal polling shows they’re “neck and neck.”

Handicapping this election is tough, said Barry University political science Professor Sean Foreman. Though Regalado has a well-oiled machine, he has never faced anyone with Suarez’s pedigree, charisma — and bank account.

Suarez “has name recognition,’’ he said. “He has the ability to raise money. And he has some key allies in city and county government. He has the right ingredients to jump-start a campaign.’’

Yet, “The mayor is quite popular and has a deep base in city politics. Absent any scandal or series of issues that can be pinned directly on the mayor, he’s going to be difficult to beat.”

Jeffrey Anthony Benjamin, Tom Baumann and Williams Armbrister also have opened campaign accounts, city records show. They have raised little or no money. Qualifying isn’t until between Sept. 6 and Sept. 21.

Both Suarez and Regalado remain optimistic.

“It’s not personal. I don’t have anything against the mayor,” Suarez said. “But this election is not about the last 10 years, it’s about the next 10 years. It’s about stability, leadership, reducing crime and responsibly ushering in a new building boom.”

“It is difficult,” Regalado said of being challenged by someone he has known for decades. “But it is what it is. This is my last election and I plan to win. I will win again.”