Mudslinging in Dade race means tolls, trains and helicopters with giant magnets

Pepe Diaz pushes back

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade County Commission Chair Esteban Bovo and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz, held a press conference in response to attacks against Diaz by Commissioner Xavier Suarez.
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Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Miami-Dade County Commission Chair Esteban Bovo and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jose Pepe Diaz, held a press conference in response to attacks against Diaz by Commissioner Xavier Suarez.

With days to go in an increasingly rough reelection campaign, Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz on Thursday held a press conference to defend himself from a rare public attack from a fellow commissioner.

Xavier Suarez — who is not up for re-election this year — launched a mail and television campaign criticizing Diaz for his support of extending the 836 toll expressway into the western reaches of Miami-Dade.

Part of Diaz’s rebuttal involved the county mayor stepping to the microphone and recalling a decades-old idea by Suarez to ease Miami gridlock by deploying helicopters to pluck stalled automobiles from highways using giant magnets.

“All these great, grandiose ideas, none of them have come to pass, and thank God they haven’t,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who worked for Suarez in the 1990s when the commissioner was Miami’s mayor and Gimenez was the city’s fire chief. “I can’t imagine having helicopters carrying all these cars around the roads. With magnets.”

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Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor and the father of the current Miami mayor, said he expects to run again for county mayor in 2020.

Gimenez said Suarez floated the idea during a meeting in the Miami mayor’s office about 25 years ago, but that the concept never gained altitude in city government. Gimenez cited the helicopter plan as an example of why voters shouldn’t listen to Suarez when it comes to the right moves for transportation. Suarez later confirmed the gist of the idea, saying he got the idea from a military helicopter capable of lifting vehicles. “I said maybe there is an application that could be looked at here,” said Suarez, who was elected to the County Commission in 2011.

He dismissed Gimenez’s mocking tale as an attempt to distract from the transportation problems that infuriate voters today: tolls, congestion and shortcomings in the county’s transit system. “You get some creative ideas, and they try to make fun of it,” Suarez said. “That’s not what people want.”

Suarez earlier this summer waded into the District 12 commission race by endorsing Diaz’s opponent Rafael Pineyro, citing Diaz’s support for both the 836 extension and Gimenez’s plan to bring a rapid-transit bus system to South Dade instead of pursuing federal funds for Metrorail.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Díaz, center, answers questions from reporters during an Aug. 23, 2018, press conference in Doral Thursday afternoon. He’s flanked by commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, left, and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Both have endorsed Diaz in the Aug. 28 primary for the District 12 seat. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

This week Suarez used money from his political committee, Imagine Miami, to produce a Spanish-language television commercial attacking Diaz. The ad includes misleading language that suggests the 14-mile extension would be funded by the county’s sales tax for transit projects. Toll money is the sole source of funding for the proposed $1 billion extension into West Kendall. The proposed project has won broad support from residents of the area, which is not served by Metrorail.

“One of my colleagues, Commissioner Suarez, has gone out and intentionally confused the voters ... with lies and deceit,” Diaz said at his rented campaign headquarters in Doral. “I can’t stand for it.”

The ad also links Suarez, an independent, with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from West Miami, because both have been critical of the 836 plan. The ad said both Suarez and Rubio oppose using the transit tax for more roads and more tolls, even though the senator had only raised concerns about the 836 route’s potential impact on Everglades restoration. Rubio’s lawyers released a letter urging television stations not to run the ad, noting the senator endorsed Diaz in the District 12 race. Later Thursday, Suarez said he would reissue the ad with the Rubio references dropped.

Suarez said he based the attacks on efforts by Miami-Dade and the Florida Legislature to divert some toll money from the toll board that operates the 836 to county transit projects. While the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority, an independent toll board that Gimenez now leads as the appointed chairman of the board, has agreed to fund express buses on the 836 and the proposed extension, it has rejected requests to spend far more on new rail lines along the expressway.

With the MDX planning to use toll reserves to fund the initial construction of the 836 extension, Suarez argues that’s the equivalent of taking money away from Metrorail expansion. “That money was supposed to be used for transit,” he said. No tax dollars go into the MDX expressway system, and agency leaders say big-ticket projects like a rail system would upend the agency’s finances and lead to significant toll increases for drivers.

While the focus is on the Aug. 28 primary for Diaz and four other incumbent commissioners (the rest of the commission is up for election in 2020), Thursday’s back-and-forth involved a far wider political lens.

Suarez’s son, Francis Suarez, now serves as Miami’s mayor himself, and has been engaged in his own feud with Gimenez over the county mayor’s opposition to a ballot item that would dramatically expand the city mayor’s authority. In his remarks, Gimenez said the elder Suarez’s actions could be a problem for the son.

“The actions of his father, I think, are going to have a negative effect on Francis Suarez,” Gimenez said. “Because people are starting to say: What’s going on here? Why is Xavier Suarez doing this? I think it’s about power, I believe. It’s about trying to be mayor of Miami-Dade.”

Both Diaz and Gimenez accused Xavier Suarez of using the District 12 commission race to jump-start his 2020 run for county mayor, when term limits will require Gimenez to give up the post. Suarez confirmed he’s interested in running, but said his opposition to Diaz isn’t a political stunt. “I can’t think about 2020,” Suarez said. “I do things now.”