Politics

Miami’s mayor marries his future to a sports stadium. It ended badly for the last guy.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Miami’s young, ambitious mayor has hitched his star to a professional sports franchise, for better or worse.

In a city where stadium deals have turned political powerhouses into pariahs, Mayor Francis Suarez has married his future to David Beckham’s push to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Miami. With Suarez’s endorsement, Beckham and his partners plan to lease 73 acres of a city golf course near the Miami International Airport and build a 25,000-seat arena as part of a billion-dollar complex of shops, offices and sports fields.

Suarez hoped to get the no-bid proposal onto the November ballot Thursday with the blessing of city commissioners.

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The proposed “Miami Freedom Park” that would house a Major League Soccer stadium and a large new office and retail complex. David Beckham and partners, who include Jorge and Jose Mas, want to develop the project on Miami’s Melreese golf course. Miami Freedom LLC

But late into the night, questions over unresolved details and push-back against the secrecy under which Beckham’s ownership team shopped its plan led commissioners to delay a decision until next week — setting up the most intense six days in Beckham’s years-long soccer quest and the most complicated stretch of Suarez’s tenure as mayor.

Not only is Suarez now shepherding a massive and controversial stadium proposal, he’s also campaigning to expand his powers as a “strong mayor” by turning his mostly ceremonial position into a post with the authority to run the city as its top administrator. Whether both proposals land on the November ballot — or neither — it looks like Suarez’s political prospects are directly linked to Beckham’s in a way that could alter the mayor’s best-laid plans and define his legacy.

“Politics is unpredictable,” Suarez said Friday morning. “But all the preliminary information I’ve seen out there in terms of this question on whether the residents want to re-envision Melreese Country Club has only strengthened my belief that people are strongly in favor. And I feel the same about strong mayor.”

Suarez, 40, is a savvy politician. He is a prolific fundraiser, famously congenial, and polls frequently to keep abreast of public sentiment. He’s spent years building up to this summer’s empowerment campaign, thoroughly vetting the idea through City Hall and the press and now promoting it onto the ballot through a petition drive.

Still, unlike last year’s cake-walk campaign for mayor — when he had nothing resembling serious opposition — Suarez heads into the fall’s election with the prospects of his priorities unsettled. He’s juggling a painstakingly crafted campaign with a soccer pitch that has developed into a billion-dollar real estate proposal in a matter of weeks, with the tail wagging the dog.

And the last time a Miami-area mayor pushed a strong-mayor initiative and a sports franchise around the same time, it didn’t work out so well.

Though the last 30 years are littered with Miami mayors who courted major league franchises and sports stadiums, former Miami-Dade mayor Carlos Alvarez rewrote the narrative around ballparks in the city a decade ago when he championed the public financing of Marlins Park. Voters, who’d only just made Alvarez the county’s first strong mayor, turned around and tossed him out of office in outrage after realizing the county would be on the hook for nearly $2 billion in loan payments toward a baseball stadium built on the former Orange Bowl site in Little Havana.

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Former Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez was ousted in a recall in part because of backlash over his role in the negotiations of a deal to publicly finance Marlins Park. Emily Michot Miami Herald Staff

In the years since, every sports franchise and mayor seeking public involvement in a stadium deal has dealt with the cloud of that deal, negotiated in backrooms and executed in a way to avoid a public referendum. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross was repeatedly rebuffed over the past six years as he sought public help to renovate Hard Rock Stadium, and Beckham’s team has tried to avoid similar scenarios.

Jorge Mas, Beckham’s new Miami partner and lead negotiator, calls his ownership team the “anti-Marlins.” Their pitch involves the promise of $3.5 million or more in annual lease payments, a $20 million investment in the construction of a public park, and the private financing of the stadium’s construction, among other details.

Suarez strenuously argues that he’s no Carlos Alvarez, who also gave his staff raises during a recession and raised taxes.

But the terms and secrecy of negotiations between the city and Mas’ army of lobbyists have already soured critics, with some of that backlash hitting Suarez. Even Beckham, whose popularity and celebrity stem from his years as an international soccer star, has felt the heat.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve walked into a room and people weren’t smiling at me,” Beckham told commissioners Thursday. “It’s not a nice feeling.”

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Francis Suarez poses with David Beckham at a reception on Feb. 4, 2014, back when Suarez was a city commissioner and Beckham was looking to build a soccer stadium in downtown. Miami Herald file

In some ways, Beckham and Suarez are testing just how long-lasting the taint on the Marlins stadium deal was for Miami.

Real estate deals rarely fail on the ballot in the city when they involve payments to the government. And Suarez blames a “systematic disinformation campaign” for some of the blowback.

But Alex Penelas, the county mayor who preceded Alvarez, said Miami’s public has a long memory when deals appear to be hatched in back rooms, even if they actually aren’t.

“Sometimes you win the battle but lose the war. You get the thing done but then you have to live with this lingering concern that it was somehow done in an underhanded fashion,” said Penelas, who was in his mid-30s when he was elected mayor. “Those are things that as a young mayor you don’t want to get straddled with so early in your career.”

Of course, if the stadium development is approved and succeeds, that may be a positive for Suarez, or at least a wash. During his first weeks as mayor, Penelas helped negotiate the deal that led to the privately financed construction of the AmericanAirlines Arena for the Miami Heat on public, waterfront land. More than 20 years and three championships later, Penelas says nobody talks about his role in the project, even when they grouse over a broken promise to build a bayfront park behind the stadium.

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Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas helped negotiate a deal to build the AmericanAirlines Arena on public land with private finacing. DroneBase via AP

Beckham’s soccer stadium could be a stepping stone to bigger things for Suarez, a big-picture mayor who likes to talk about elevating Miami beyond its status as the Capital of Latin America.

In eight months as mayor, Suarez has publicly pursued Amazon’s second headquarters, courted the 2020 Democratic National Convention (even though he’s a Republican) and taken a trip to El Paso to see immigrant children. In similar fashion to former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz — a key cog in the Marlins Park deal who now opposes Beckham’s soccer stadium — Suarez has already sought out a leadership role with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Norman Braman, the Miami billionaire who funded the recall effort that jettisoned Alvarez from office, says he trusts Suarez even if he understands the skepticism about Beckham’s stadium proposal.

“I think Francis is honest and he has wonderful ideas for the city, and understands the problems. We’ve discussed them. I’m anxious,” Braman said. “Let’s see how this all comes out.”

Suarez’s father, former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, who is now a county commissioner, believes that his son will come out fine regardless of what happens with Beckham’s soccer team. He says the fail-safe against public backlash lies in the fact that Suarez is pushing right now for a public referendum, not a lease agreement.

“Francis is a populist,” said the elder Suarez, who was mayor during the political scramble to build the Miami Arena. “If people don’t support it then so be it.”

Throwing soccer into the same campaign cycle as Suarez’s strong-mayor referendum makes the campaign more complicated. If soccer opponents are campaigning against the stadium now, that’s not likely to end during the summer, when Suarez will be juggling Beckham’s real estate deal and his strong-mayor push.

But Suarez says he knows where Miami’s sentiments lie, and isn’t worried about having a soccer stadium define him as mayor or his push to empower his office.

“That doesn’t concern me at all. They’re two different things. I believe in the intelligence of the residents of the city of Miami to make independent choices,” Suarez said. “I have absolutely no concerns about them being on the same ballot.”

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