Running his third campaign for Miami-Dade mayor, Alex Penelas faced off against four sitting county commissioners on Monday to litigate which 2020 candidate carries the most blame for the county’s stagnant, underfunded transit system.
It was the first forum to draw the former mayor and the Miami-Dade commissioners running to replace Carlos Gimenez next year. A transportation question quickly turned to the half-percent sales tax passed under Penelas in 2002 with a plan for a historic expansion of rail and bus service that never materialized.
“The half-penny was a bold-faced lie for the residents of Miami-Dade County,” said Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a commissioner since 2011 who, like Penelas, started his political career on the Hialeah City Council. “It was not going to solve all the issues that were promised.”
Speaking at a union hall in Doral before transit workers and other members of labor groups, Penelas said he expected the $3.4 billion generated by the tax over the last 16 years to dominate the debate over who is best to take charge of county government in 13 months.
“I think this is going to be one of the really defining issues of this campaign. I find it very interesting that some of the very same individuals who have been consistently voting to misspend that money for the last eight, nine or 10 years now have this very convenient political narrative.”
The back-and-forth captured some of the broad strokes of a mayor’s race that requires existing officeholders to overcome the name recognition and fundraising network that Penelas brings to his comeback bid.
Xavier Suarez, the former Miami mayor and sitting commissioner making his second bid for county mayor, has been on a countywide ballot before — when he lost to Penelas in 1996. Suarez’s fellow commissioners Daniella Levine Cava and Jean Monestime, like Bovo, have not. Neither have the candidates who didn’t appear at the South Florida AFL-CIO forum: former commissioner Juan C. Zapata, and the two hopefuls seeking their first elected offices: Monique Nicole Barley and Robert Ingram Burke.
Miami-Dade commissioners have been exploring new transportation options since Gimenez launched the 2016 transportation study known as the SMART Plan. So far, the board has approved spending for two new routes: a $243 million rapid-transit bus line in South Dade, and $76 million for a station the for-profit rail company Brightline plans to build at the Aventura Mall in exchange for starting service there from Miami.
More studies are either underway or awaiting approval from the commission and other transportation boards, giving sitting commissioners a few more chances to show progress on transit before all the candidates face each other in a nonpartisan August primary. Meanwhile, the failings of the transportation tax are a common theme when the mayoral candidates for the commission discuss transit.
“The half-penny... under-performed because it was over-promised. These kinds of promises erode everyone’s confidence, not just in transit but in everything the government does,” Levine Cava, a commissioner since 2014, told the forum audience at the Firefighters Memorial Hall. “Let’s not lie to people once again.”
Aside from the transportation crossfire, the forum gave candidates a chance to try and distinguish their lanes in the race to succeed a term-limited Gimenez, who has been in office since 2011. It’s the first regular election for an open seat in the mayor’s office since term limits required Penelas to leave in 2004. Gimenez took office in a special election called after the 2011 recall of then-Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
Monestime, a commissioner since 2010, pitched himself as the candidate best able to champion a prosperity agenda by laying out his personal immigration story: a teenager from Haiti arriving in a rickety boat, then sweeping floors in a donut shop and driving a taxi before landing a teaching job and then a career in real estate.
“I didn’t speak a word of English. I was alone,” said Monestime, who in 2014 became the commission’s first Haitian-American chairman. “I want to become the next mayor because I want to demonstrate and show that the American Dream is possible for all of us.”
Suarez, first elected to the commission seat Gimenez vacated in 2011 to run for mayor, told union members in the audience he was already a champion against county management. “Bureaucrats are deaf,” Suarez said. “But they will hear when I’m the county mayor, I guarantee it.”
Suarez joined Levine Cava on the losing No side earlier this month for the vote to pay Brightline with transportation-tax dollars to build the for-profit train station in Aventura. Bovo and Monestime voted for it.
At the forum, Penelas joined the opposition to the Aventura deal, calling the Gimenez initiative “a $76 million giveaway” that will produce round-trip tickets costing riders $20. “It’s not what I would refer to as public or community transportation,” he said.
He urged the crowd to blame later administrations for mismanaging the transportation-tax dollars while giving him credit for getting the new funding source passed. “The transportation mess we have today, I foresaw 20 years ago,” he said. “I had the courage to do something about it.”