Javier Souto faces one more election on the County Commission before term limits would require him to leave a powerful board the 79-year-old first joined in the early days of the Clinton administration. This time, the former state senator faces more challengers than in all of his prior county races combined.
His four opponents in the Aug. 28 primary for the nonpartisan District 10 seat include a former candidate for county mayor, a former county firefighter and a former Souto staffer in his commission office who had a falling out with the boss. They’re in a contest to unseat one of the most conservative members of the 13-seat commission, who this year presided over the unveiling of the county’s first presidential statue: a bronze replica of Ronald Reagan and a horse at a county equestrian center in District 10 that bears the 40th president’s name.
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As chairman of the commission’s Parks and Cultural Affairs Committee, Souto has pushed for more spending at county recreational areas, including the expansion of lights and more security.
“When you have kids playing and having competition, crime goes down and drugs go down,” Souto said. “I’m here to take care of the people.”
In fighting against Souto’s high name recognition and three decades of constituent interactions, the challengers are trying to convince voters that it’s time for more progress in the district.
“I’m running for change,” said challenger Julio Sanchez, 55, an owner of a small business-service company in Miami, and “to bring a different look to the County Commission.”
Jose Garrido, a real estate consultant who worked for Souto in the District 10 office between 2013 and 2016, is trying to establish himself as more progressive than his former boss. At campaign stops, the 64-year-old has touted his support for gay and transgender rights, issues where Souto has ducked controversial commission votes. Souto missed votes in 2014 and 2015 that established transgender protections in Miami-Dade and that instructed county lawyers to join a suit to allow gay marriage in Florida before it was legalized nationwide by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We have to fight for equality and nondiscrimination. That is very important,” Garrido said during a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “We live in different times. We’re not in the 1960s anymore.”
Garrido said he would vote for the transgender ordinance if it came up again. Souto did not answer directly.
“It’s a very complicated issue. ... Everyone has friends and relatives, at least in my family, we have all kinds of people. That is very normal,” Souto said when asked what his vote would be. “I would probably be in favor of being very open-minded.”
For opponents, Souto’s 25-year tenure on the board is the toughest obstacle in District 10, a suburban area that has had only one commissioner since it was created in the early 1990s to comply with a court order striking down the county’s at-large commission elections.
Born in Cuba, Souto came to the United States after college and ended up working undercover with the CIA and participating in the Bay of Pigs invasion. In the District 10 seat since 1993, Souto routinely tours the area with county department heads to point out service failings and dispatches aides to fetch stray shopping carts that residents report as nuisances.
“He is a pothole commissioner,” Commissioner Joe Martinez, a fellow Republican on the nonpartisan board, said of Souto. “I’ve modeled my district operations after him.”
Next to Souto, challenger Alfredo Santamaria likely enjoys the most name recognition among the District 10 candidates. He attracted attention in his long-shot campaign to unseat Mayor Carlos Gimenez two years ago. His 22,277 votes in that seven-person contest gave him just under 9 percent of the vote, which landed him in fourth place. Santamaria’s campaign reports showed $50,000 in expenditures, compared to the less than $5,000 by the candidate who finished third with only limited campaigning, Frederick Bryant.
Santamaria’s 2016 campaign was his first stab at elected office after stints working for elected officials, including then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez and then-congressman David Rivera. The exposure in a race that Gimenez ultimately won wasn’t always favorable. Santamaria was fined $8,000 over campaign-finance violations, and had to back off a publicity stunt gone wrong when he and canvassers passed out a bogus Zika “treatment” produced by a large donor at the height of local alarm about the mosquito-borne disease.
A one-time missionary from Colombia, Santamaria is hoping to energize both the youth and the evangelical vote in District 10 to victory.
“If you want change, you should be part of it,” Santamaria said during a candidate forum before the West Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations. “I’m very concerned my generation is leaving Miami because they can’t find good-paying jobs.”
With a population of nearly 200,000 people, the district that begins at the western edge of the 836 expressway has no cities inside it, giving the commissioner extra sway when it comes to trash pickup, police patrols and other municipal services that Miami-Dade provides for properties located outside of municipal limits.
Of the 13 commission districts, Souto represents the one with the oldest demographic. The median age in District 10 is 43, compared to 38 countywide, and 89 percent of residents are Hispanic.
A key vote on the 836 toll expressway looms after the Aug. 28 primary. In September, the County Commission is slated to take a final vote on a 14-mile extension of the 836 into West Kendall.
Souto voted for preliminary approval of the extension in June, a plan that has drawn mixed support from his challengers. Garrido outright opposed it, saying the expressway plan needs more study. At the West Kendall event, Santamaria and fellow challenger Roberto Suarez Jr. both endorsed the extension but without the expanded tolling that’s needed to actually build the $1 billion project.
“The extension is going to relieve a lot of the pressure for the east-west traffic going through the corridors,” Suarez told the West Kendall group. He added: “I don’t like the tolls. They should get rid of the tolls.”
Santamaria was stronger on the toll-free demand: “The short answer is, yes, I’m in favor of the West Kendall Expressway. But with no tolls. No more tolls.”
Suarez, 64, is offering himself as a common-sense candidate with extensive experience in county government, both as a member of neighborhood zoning panels and a retired firefighter.
“I have worked in every single fire station in this county. I know my area,” he said. “I’m not making any promises, because there are 13 members on that commission. Mine is only one vote. All I can promise is you’re going to hear the truth, and nothing but the truth, from me.”
Sanchez also has some experience with county government. A former technology staffer in the 1990s, he’s since taken on a more contentious post: calling balls and strikes for recreational baseball leagues at Tropical Park. The part-time umpire said he shifted from playing in rec leagues to umpiring after injuring his knee. His contracting gig for the county’s Parks Department got some attention in 2016 when he went on WSVN’s “Help Me Howard” consumer show to complain about back pay for the umpire squad.
“I will speak my mind,” he said Saturday. “If you don’t like what I say, change the channel.”
Suarez’s financial disclosure lists $128,000 in state income from his retirement program as a firefighter and former division chief in the county agency. Souto, who served in the state Legislature for eight years and still uses the title “senator” in correspondence, lists his $48,000 compensation as a county commissioner.
Santamaria’s disclosure doesn’t specify an annual income figure, reporting compensation from various consulting firms in the Miami area. During his 2016 mayoral race, court records showed a $5,300 judgment from 2010 against him for an unpaid credit card. Santamaria said the debt stemmed from an oversight and that he repaid the money.
Sanchez lists $55,000 in income from a business-services firm in Miami where he is a partner. He’s also a part-time umpire for Miami-Dade’s Parks Department. Court records show he filed for bankruptcy protection in 2013. In an interview, Sanchez blamed the bankruptcy on paying too much for a house before the real estate crash. “My house was underwater,” he said.
Garrido, a former president of the Westchester Chamber of Commerce, lists $58,000 in income tied to consulting firms where he assists clients seeking county permits. He worked on Souto’s staff between 2013 and 2016, before the commissioner forced him out. Souto blamed Garrido’s role in producing a musical in his off-time at a county auditorium, which Miam-Dade’s ethics commission later found violated no rules.
Souto has faced reelection six times since he first won his commission seat in 1993. Archives show he drew a single challenger three times, and ran unopposed three times. A 2012 referendum limited commissioners to a pair of four-year terms, and that means 2018 must be the final time Souto can run for reelection on the county board.
Since County Commission seats are nonpartisan, all five candidates are running in the same Aug. 28 primary. The election is over if one candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers face each other in a November runoff on Election Day. Generally, the more challengers, the tougher the race for an incumbent.
Souto said he’s not worried about so many candidates taking him on late in his commission career.
“Over the years I think I’ve been keeping it right,” he said, “and doing all that I can.”