The tweet from Hillary Clinton’s Florida campaign account seemed routine: A few hours after she met him for the first time at a Miami healthcare clinic, she thanked County Mayor Carlos Gimenez “for your response to the Zika threat.”
Behind the scenes, however, last month’s Twitter shout-out to Gimenez, Miami-Dade’s highest-ranking elected Republican, from Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, represented a significant and deliberate step in an ongoing political courtship.
The Cuban-American Gimenez had dismissed Republican nominee Donald Trump’s rhetoric toward Hispanics as offensive. Might he be willing to go a step further and endorse Clinton?
He came close to doing so before last Tuesday’s primary. But Gimenez, who is risk-averse by nature, chose silence.
“Endorsements don’t mean anything,” he declared.
He’d wait for after the primary, which he expected to win outright. Then, if he endorsed Clinton, it wouldn’t look like pandering. It wouldn’t jeopardize his conservative reelection support.
But Gimenez ended up in a runoff against School Board member Raquel Regalado. And now he’s in a political bind: Endorse Clinton and risk appearing insincere. Remain silent and risk having Regalado, a moderate Republican like Gimenez, endorse Clinton herself.
Up for grabs are hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters who tend to turn out in big numbers in presidential elections in deeply blue Miami-Dade. Both Gimenez and Regalado are registered Republican, though both serve in nonpartisan offices. Both have said they won’t vote for Trump.
“The electorate in August is very different from the electorate in November,” said Dario Moreno, Gimenez’s pollster. “The electorate in August is more Republican than it is in November. And it’s older. The election in November will be younger.... So those are the considerations.”
Gimenez’s campaign manager, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, declined to comment, as did the Clinton campaign. Regalado did not respond to requests for comment. She indicated to Miami Herald news partner WFOR CBS 4’s Jim DeFede in an interview taped Friday for his Sunday “Facing South Florida” show that she won’t endorse Clinton.
“I do not believe that the mayor of Miami-Dade County should get involved in presidential races,” she said. “I’m not going get sucked into either one campaign or the other.
“Carlos Gimenez is going to endorse Hillary Clinton,” she predicted, “because he wants Hillary Clinton’s donors.”
Her campaign spent the days since Tuesday’s primary positioning itself to respond to a Gimenez move to the left. Regalado’s spokeswoman, Elaine de Valle, speculated in a blog post that Gimenez might switch his party registration to Democrat. Two years ago, he contemplated becoming an independent.
In an email thanking supporters Wednesday, Regalado herself alluded to the political parallel between herself and Clinton.
“On Nov. 8, we will have excited voters who want change, voters who want common sense solutions, voters who want to make history electing the first woman president — and the first female mayor of Miami-Dade,” she wrote.
Though Regalado’s father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, is a lifelong Republican, his daughter has bucked the GOP before: In 2010, she campaigned for Democrat Alex Sink for governor over Republican Rick Scott. Three years later, Regalado’s name was nevertheless floated as a potential Scott running mate.
Gimenez’s Democratic advisers urged him to back Clinton before last Tuesday’s primary. An endorsement might solidify his support among reliable Democratic primary voters: non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.
His Republican advisers, however, advised caution. They noted Gimenez had already won two countywide elections, in 2011 and 2012, with strong support from non-Hispanic whites. His poll numbers had already improved with African Americans. And he needed some Cuban-American Republicans to keep his electoral coalition whole.
The mayor’s Democratic circle includes County Hall Communications Director Mike Hernández, Clinton donor Chris Korge and fundraiser Brian Goldmeier. His Republican crew includes Manzano-Plaza, pollster Moreno and campaign chairman Marcelo Llorente, an attorney and former state representative.
Gimenez, who first endorsed Jeb Bush and then Marco Rubio for president, went as far as meeting with Clinton on Aug. 9 at the Borinquen Health Care Center in Miami’s Midtown neighborhood, near the Wynwood Zika outbreak. By design, to underscore his political importance, he was the only elected official invited. He spoke to national Clinton reporters, vowing not to endorse a presidential candidate ahead of his Aug. 30 reelection bid.
A week later, Hernández met with Raul Martinez Jr., Clinton’s Florida coalitions director, and Reggie Cardozo, Clinton’s deputy Florida state director, for breakfast at Versailles Cuban restaurant. Martinez tweeted a photo of the trio, though none of them publicly talked about what they discussed.
Endorsing Clinton could inoculate Gimenez from Regalado’s tying him to Trump. Two years ago, after golfing together, Gimenez and Trump secretly discussed a potential Trump takeover of the county-owned Crandon Golf Course on Key Biscayne. (The deal never took place.) One of Gimenez’s sons, Carlos J. Gimenez, is a registered lobbyist in Doral for Trump National Doral golf resort.
(“It means nothing,” Trump told the Herald last month about Gimenez’s lack of support. “Maybe he’s got some political reasons.”)
Regalado, who had little money to advertise, didn’t seize on the Trump connection during the primary, though a political committee linked to her campaign mailed a flier blasting Gimenez over the “sweetheart” attempted golf deal with Trump. A mysterious political committee later sent fliers comparing Regalado to Trump, citing a Miami Herald editorial that characterized Regalado as making “over the top” charges against Gimenez, “much like Donald Trump’s.”
Now in a runoff, the rivals must decide how far to take their anti-Trump stances. In a County Hall interview Wednesday, Gimenez was unwilling to say if he’d endorse Clinton — or even vote for her.
“I’m not ready,” he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.