From the penthouse rec room of an apartment tower overlooking West Brickell, Miami’s former mayor is going off.
He’s accused his opponent in Tuesday’s election for Miami City Commission of committing perjury and voter fraud. He’s made vague allusions to Chavista money. And he’s promised that if elected, he’ll stop a mysterious group of “influence peddlers” from having the run of things at City Hall.
But surrounded by news cameras, the man who taught Miami how to treat politics as war holds up an attack ad accusing him of “corruption,” because he wants reporters to know that he was attacked first: “I didn’t want to have to do this.”
But he had to. He’s Joe Carollo.
For much of the past 40 years, long before Donald Trump brought his strongman act to the White House, Carollo has proved that tossing bombs at opponents and warring with the media could at least gain you access to Dinner Key. Since the former cop was first elected in 1979 at the age of 24, he’s been arguably the most imposing figure at Miami City Hall, where he famously proved the 1997 mayor’s race had been tainted by voter fraud.
Now, after a 16-year hiatus from campaigning, and at the age of 62, he’s resurrected his career using the same tactics that once elevated him to the heights of power at City Hall. They’ve brought him to the brink of a triumphant return. But can they still put him over the top?
“It’s amazing, the support I’m seeing,” Carollo said earlier this month while campaigning on the day of the general election at Robert King High. “It’s across all lines.”
Joe Carollo is not good for business for those who think that the city of Miami is one big piñata for them to fill their pocketbooks.
To get to this point — ahead 10 points in the general election on Alfie Leon, a 32-year-old attorney and first-time candidate — Carollo has run through the son and namesake of past-Mayor Tomás Regalado and the wife of County Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, wielding the same weapons that once made him mayor but also saw him booted from office several times.
He’s picked apart public records and internet fodder to raise potentially scandalous questions for his opponents to answer. He’s both courted and attacked the media in order to gain wider coverage of his aggressive campaign. And, in a tactic that’s proven effective for decades, he’s raised the specter of leftist leanings in a community that still loathes the mere mention of the word Castro.
Now, Carollo has taken aim at Leon, the last man left standing between him and the commission seat being vacated by his younger brother, Frank Carollo.
Earlier this week, at the Brickell Station Lofts, an apartment tower where he took out a lease in September of last year in order to meet the requirements to run for his kid brother’s commission seat, Carollo pointed out to a gaggle of media that Leon had voted three times between 2012 and 2014 in Kendall while actually living at Terrazas on the Miami River. Then he tore into the affidavit Leon signed when he qualified to run for office, noting that the address Leon lists as his law office in Miami Lakes is actually the office for a telecommunications firm.
Every election has seen Crazy Joe hold an eleventh hour press conference with false allegations
Carollo even claimed that Leon was allowing “influence peddlers” to pay the $330,000 mortgage on the Little Havana home he bought last year, saying there’s no way the full-time candidate —whose wife is also named on the mortgage — could afford the payments himself.
Asked for proof on the mortgage claim, Carollo offered none. He said Leon can sue him, and “the evidence will be there.”
Leon, a former City Hall aide to brother Frank Carollo, dismissed the attacks as desperate, saying he’d left his registration at his father’s house while in law school at FIU and that he updated his address after graduating, though records show there were about 18 months between those two dates. In an interview with the Herald, Leon said he has put his law practice on hold while campaigning, and that the office was used mainly for mail while he mostly met with elder law clients at their homes.
“Every election has seen Crazy Joe hold an eleventh hour press conference with false allegations,” the Leon campaign responded, using the sardonic moniker adopted years ago by Carollo’s opponents.
But history has proven that opponents laugh at Carollo at their own peril. When Carollo called the media to his apartment tower in late October to claim a Regalado-tied political committee called Accountability in Government was using a postage permit belonging to a defunct company owned by a dead woman — and recklessly suggested the committee had tapped a convicted child molester with the same name as the committee chairman to take the fall should any investigators come knocking — the campaign said it was “Joe being Joe,” spreading conspiracy theories and paranoia.
Carollo never did offer any proof that a child molester was involved, even though he used his own political committee to send the man’s mugshot to voters throughout the district. But a few days later, when more mailers were put out by the Accountability committee attacking Carollo, the pieces bore a different pre-paid postage stamp.
All of this has created a carnival atmosphere around the election. During a debate that aired live Wednesday on AmericaTeve’s “Preparen Apunten Voten,” things got ugly between Carollo and Leon attorney J.C. Planas, with the two men yelling at each other, and Planas at one point challenging Carollo to come down off the stage, according to several people in the room. Carollo, in a play on Leon’s last name, referred to his opponent’s entourage as “the circus that handles your lion,” according to Diario Las Americas.
Tensions were elevated further Friday morning when Planas called the media to Carollo’s Coconut Grove home on Morris Lane. As Planas alleged the former mayor failed to meet Miami’s requirement that candidates live in the district in which they’re running for at least one full year before qualifying to make the ballot, Carollo showed up and just about took over the news conference.
“Is there anybody in the media that wants to get my side?” he said as Planas talked over him and peppered him with rapid-fire questions about his Brickell lease. “Why don’t you shut your mouth and let me answer?”
Planas’ smoking gun? Carollo kept his voter’s registration at his Coconut Grove address until several weeks after the qualifying date, waited until December to change his driver’s license address and didn’t file to remove his Homestead exemption on his house until Feb. 24, 2017. He called Carollo’s 13-month Brickell lease, which runs from Sept. 22, 2016, to Nov. 30, 2017, “a fake.”
“Mr. Carollo is the classic case of someone living in a glass house and throwing stones,” said Mickey Miñagorri, a Leon supporter whom Carrollo called a “goon” Friday over his work for former Mayor Xavier Suarez’s 1997 campaign, which was deemed by the courts to have been unaware of the voter fraud that took place. “He’s a wrecking ball.”
Carollo told a reporter that he changed his voter’s address when he had time shortly after moving, pointed out that the property appraiser’s office determines exemptions based on the status of residency on the first of the year, and said he tried twice to change his driver’s license address before January only to run into huge lines and time constraints. He gave his lease to Miami’s city clerk to make it public record.
Even though there are a lot of people still upset with him and angry with him, I think the guy has evolved to a better public official
Former Mayor Maurice Ferré
But it’s enough to make you wonder: Would Joe Carollo stand a chance if he were running against Joe Carollo?
Woule he accuse himself of taking money from special interests after he raised nearly $500,000 during the general election that saw about 6,000 people vote. He also runs a political consulting business that aided the reelection effort of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who in turn has filed a form of solicitation disclosing that he’s raised money for Carollo.
He could, as his anonymous enemies already have, dredge up the time he was arrested for hitting his ex-wife with a cardboard tea box that he meant to throw at a wall (the charges were dropped). He was also investigated, and cleared, for allegedly using his commissioner’s position to get business for his security firm in the 1980s.
And would he point out that he was once city manager in Doral for then-Mayor Luigi Boria, a man he’s accused of making millions off the Venezuelan government of the late Hugo Chávez? Boria, whom Carollo accused of corruption and campaign finance violations during an epic split that saw Carollo fired in 2014 and then reinstated for a few hours this year as part of a legal settlement, calls his former friend a “professional liar.”
He has lived always in the Grove. But I think he wanted to target the people that are vulnerable in terms of communism
Former Mayor Tomás Regalado, a Carollo foe
Former Mayor Tomás Regalado, a historical foe of Carollo, believes he chose to run in District 3 because he knows his campaigning style will still work among the elderly Hispanic voters who make up the bedrock of the small voting community. Specifically, Regalado believes Carollo’s leftist allegations are powerful in the neighborhood, though Carollo has always been careful not to explicitly accuse anyone of communism.
“He deliberately chose District 3,” said Regalado. “He has lived always in the Grove. But I think he wanted to target the people that are vulnerable in terms of communism.”
Regalado threatened to sue Carollo last month after he circulated pictures of the former mayor with left-leaning actor Sean Penn, and Penn with Raúl Castro and Nicolás Maduro. With Leon, Carollo has shifted gears a tad, plucking a picture the candidate posted on Facebook in 2014 with New Orleans rapper Juvenile and warning the viejitos not to trust someone who’d hang with a man once arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer during a brawl in Coconut Grove (the charges were dropped).
It all feels very 1985. And yet, some of his old-time foes believe this Carollo is actually softer than the old Carollo.
“He’s a milder kind of guy [than he used to be], and he’s got an institutional memory that no one else has,” said Maurice Ferré, a former mayor who was famously double-crossed by Carollo in the 1980s during a press conference at which Carollo was supposedly going to endorse Ferrá. “Even though there are a lot of people still upset with him and angry with him, I think the guy has evolved to a better public official. And he’d be a good check and balance” for the new mayor.
Carollo may very well pull it off Tuesday and return to office, which would awkwardly put him on the City Commission just as Francis Suarez, the son of Xavier Suarez — the man whose victory he overturned through the courts — is taking over as mayor.
What may be Leon’s best hope is that Carollo was polling at 34 percent in January, but reaped only 30 percent of the vote in November, raising the question of whether a man with such a long history still has what it takes to get over the top. But one person who isn’t wondering is Carollo, who says things are going to change come Tuesday.
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” he says.