Miami’s mayor has a familiar foe: Miami-Dade’s mayor. And this war is getting heated

Friendlier times: City of Miami Mayor FrancisSuarez and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez threw out the first pitch of the Marlins’ season on March 29, 2018. Now the two are on opposite sides of Miami’s referendum on a new “strong-mayor” form of government..
Friendlier times: City of Miami Mayor FrancisSuarez and Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez threw out the first pitch of the Marlins’ season on March 29, 2018. Now the two are on opposite sides of Miami’s referendum on a new “strong-mayor” form of government.. mocner@miamiherald.com

Brian Goldmeier, the longtime fund-raiser for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, signed on this year to raise money for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s campaign to make himself the city’s chief administrator. The job eventually sparked a break with the county mayor, a former city manager who opposes Suarez’s “strong mayor” plan and wanted Goldmeier to help him, too.

“This is to inform you that Brian Goldmeier is no longer working for me,” Gimenez wrote in a Labor Day weekend text to a string of donors, many of whom also gave to Suarez. “I am not in agreement with the strong-mayor initiative of the city of Miami as written.”

Weeks later, a Gimenez son who is a city lobbyist emailed Goldmeier with a video clip from “The Ides of March,” a political drama in which Philip Seymour Hoffman berates a fellow campaign operative for communicating with a rival. “There’s only one thing in this world I value,” Hoffman says in a profane speech on the clip. “That’s loyalty. Without it, you’re nothing.“

“I highly recommend you watch this movie clip,” wrote C.J. Gimenez, a political adviser to his father and another active player in the effort to defeat the Suarez referendum. “It is frankly scary how much of it applies to you.”

The behind-the-scenes drama captures the fierce split between the Miami area’s two leading politicians, who only a year ago seemed to be ending an eight-year feud between City Hall and County Hall. Suarez and Gimenez shared a fund-raiser in Goldmeier and a campaign manager in Jesse Manzano-Plaza. They also shared a rival in Tomás Regalado, the two-term Miami mayor whom Suarez briefly challenged in 2013 and whose daughter, then a school board member, challenged Gimenez in 2016.

“Francis has always claimed to have great relations with the county mayor,” said Regalado, whose daughter, Raquel, lost to Gimenez in a November runoff two years ago. “I’ve never claimed that.”

Now Gimenez’s political committee is funding attack mailers calling the proposed strong-mayor system a power grab. “I’ve always been an advocate for the balance of power,” said Gimenez, a 64-year-old Cuban native who came to Miami as a boy. “You have to remember where I came from.”

While Gimenez is criticizing Suarez’s plan to continue working as a lawyer while running the city’s government, the Miami mayor is pointing out that Gimenez has the luxury of a $135,000 city pension from his time at the fire department and as city manager.

“It’s very easy for someone not to take an outside employment who makes more money from a government pension than I actually make as mayor,” said Suarez, 41, who earns about $130,000 as the city’s mayor. “While he’s making that amount of money not to work, I’m making that money to work.”

At the heart of the fight is Suarez’s proposal for a historic rewrite of the city charter to place control of the government agencies in the hands of the mayor instead of an appointed city manager. The question is on the Nov. 6 ballot for city voters.

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Suarez is the first Miami mayor who was actually born in the city. He calls the strong-mayor plan a chance for Miami to step up into a more accountable and sophisticated form of government, appropriate for a modern city. He said residents would be better off knowing they elected the government’s top administrator, who would no longer have to work for both a five-person commission and a mayor — and possibly be fired by either.

“You have a situation where you have a city manager that has to work for two political bodies,” he said. “He’s got to work for the mayor and he’s got to work for the commission, and he’s got to keep them happy at all times.”

Miami-Dade voters approved a similar “strong mayor” system in 2007 when then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez campaigned for the expanded powers. As a county commissioner, Gimenez opposed eliminating the county manager system, then ended up as the strong mayor himself when he won a 2011 special election after voters recalled Alvarez.

Gimenez’s criticism of the Miami plan zeroes in on a few elements he claims shift too much power to the mayor.

Suarez would serve as chairman of the City Commission, while county commissioners elect their presiding officer. Suarez would have the ability to choose a temporary successor to serve up to seven months until a special election is called, while in Miami-Dade the commission chairman takes over if the mayor leaves office early. Suarez would also have the power to appoint the city attorney, a post in Miami-Dade filled by the County Commission.

The biggest flash point involves Suarez’s plan to continue working part time at his Miami law firm while assuming full authority over the city’s bureaucracy at a higher salary.

“STRONG MAYOR IS ABOUT TOO MUCH POWER,” reads the mailer from Miami-Dade Residents First, the Gimenez political committee, which has raised about $70,000 since the summer. “MORE MONEY. PART-TIME WORK.”

The strong-mayor proposal would mean a raise for Suarez, since the revised city charter — if approved by Miami voters next week — would set the mayor’s compensation at a minimum of 75 percent of what the county mayor earns. Gimenez’s latest budget proposal boosted his pay from $150,000 to $250,000, and county commissioners approved the plan in September. That would mean at least $187,500 for the city’s mayor, more than a 40 percent boost. Suarez says he will not accept the raise that was triggered by Gimenez’s recent increase.

Gimenez’s former campaign manager, Manzano-Plaza, is running the strong-mayor campaign for Suarez. Goldmeier is handling the fundraising.

When Gimenez pressed Goldmeier to help him call donors for Miami-Dade Residents First in August, the 35-year-old consultant declined, citing his work with Suarez. “He was given an ultimatum from Francis,” Mayor Gimenez said Wednesday. “He could raise money for him, or he could raise money for me. He chose Francis.”

Suarez disputed the term “ultimatum” but called Gimenez’s proposal that Goldmeier help raise fund for both sides of the strong-mayor debate an obvious conflict bound to force the consultant to pick one side or other. “The fact that he asked Mr. Goldmeier to fundraise against an issue that he been involved with for four months was unethical,” Suarez said of Gimenez. “Brian did what he thought was the ethical thing to do. ... The mayor didn’t like it because he’s not used to hearing ‘no.’”

Gimenez, whose 2011 underdog run for county mayor thrust Goldmeier into the spotlight as an up-and-coming fund-raiser, was privately furious that the young consultant would pick the city mayor over him. In a statement, Goldmeier said he “expressed the ethical dilemma” to Gimenez in refusing to raise money with the county mayor until after the strong-mayor election. “It resulted in him firing me and sending out text messages to donors and clients of mine,” reporting the break.

C.J. Gimenez and Goldmeier declined to comment on their email exchange. The Oct. 4 message from the mayor’s son was a reply to a mass Goldmeier email to donors to the campaign supporting another measure on the Nov. 6 ballot, the higher school tax. “Brian,” the younger Gimenez wrote, copying the chairman of the “please be so kind as to remove me from your list FOREVER.”

The seeds of a split between Carlos Gimenez and Francis Suarez came weeks after Suarez’s lopsided win in the November 2017 mayor’s race. In a campaign for an open seat on the City Commission, Gimenez and family backed former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo. Suarez’s father, County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, rallied support for Alfonso “Alfie” Leon.

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Miami-Dade County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, Mayor Francis Suarez’s father and former Miami mayor himself, has been feuding with Carlos Gimenez. C.M. GUERRERO cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

It was a race that revived decades of political scores and allegiances: The elder Suarez was ousted as Miami mayor in 1997 by Carollo, who later appointed Gimenez as his city manager. As Gimenez geared up for reelection in 2015, one of his first hiring moves was a $6,000 monthly consulting fee for Carollo.

Carollo’s return to Miami City Hall after a runoff with Leon was a setback for Francis Suarez, then only weeks into his tenure as mayor. Carollo quickly became Suarez’s top critic on the commission, going after both the mayor and his chosen city manager, Emilio Gonzalez, on the way they want to run the city. While Gimenez is the most prominent foe of the Suarez strong-mayor campaign, Carollo is the most vocal, blasting Suarez as a power-hungry politician who will have dictatorial powers if the referendum passes.

“This is not a strong mayor. This is a dictator mayor,” Carollo has repeated in interviews and on Spanish-language radio.

Carollo’s rise also made money for the Gimenez family. C.J. Gimenez is a regular in Carollo’s office. Carollo’s 2017 campaign committee hired C.J.’s wife, lawyer Tania Cruz, and paid her about $93,000 for mailers.

Cruz has been another regular in Carollo’s office. Gimenez’s other daughter-in-law, Barbara Rodriguez, wife of son Julio Gimenez, also received a $1,000 consulting fee from Carollo. She also was paid about $15,000 in consulting fees by a Carollo committee, Miami First, that is running attack ads against the strong-mayor proposal. And Cruz received about $52,000 from Miami First for mailers and consulting fees.

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City Commissioner Joe Carollo, Francis Suarez’s most vocal critic and an ally of Carlos Gimenez. Roberto Koltun rkoltun@miamiherald.com

With two generations of Gimenezes on one side of the strong-mayor fight, there are two generations of Suarezes opposing the county mayor. Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor himself, holds Gimenez’s old County Commission seat, where he has become the mayor’s loudest critic on the 13-member board.

The increasingly bitter rivalry between the two stretches back to the 1990s, when Suarez was Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor and Gimenez was the city’s fire chief. Gimenez beat Suarez in his first run for the County Commission in 2004, and Suarez — who won Gimenez’s District 7 seat in 2011 when Gimenez resigned to run for county mayor — ran television ads criticizing Gimenez in 2016 as the commissioner considered challenging the incumbent.

Two years later, the feud has only gotten sharper. Suarez funded campaign mailers in the summer’s commission races accusing Gimenez of favoring toll roads over transit. Suarez and his son both sit on a powerful county transportation board, and both voted against Gimenez’s plan to bring a new rapid-transit bus line instead of Metrorail to South Dade.

Both have reached back decades to claim superior stewardship of public finances. The pair engaged in a two-day Twitter war in September about the relative size of their budget surpluses when one was Miami’s mayor and the other the city’s manager.

Gimenez’s recent intervention in city politics has raised speculation that he might be interested in Francis Suarez’s job after the county’s term-limits rules prevent him from running again for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020.

He says his dispute with Miami’s mayor is isolated to the strong-mayor issue, and that he doesn’t expect the election-season fight to ruin the relationship.

“I’m just against this issue,” Gimenez said in a recent interview. “I have a feeling maybe Francis didn’t have much to do with writing it. Because if he had a lot to do with writing it, I don’t believe Francis understood what was going on. ... There are so many things wrong with it, I just can’t support.”

“I hopefully will have a better working relationship with him after this is done,” he said. “And maybe even help him craft something that will pass.”