Politics

Beleaguered Miami-Dade Mayor Awaits Ides of March

Carlos Alvarez appears ripe for recall in county's Tuesday election
By: Kenric Ward | Posted: March 14, 2011 3:50 PM

Norman Braman and Carlos Alvarez

Norman Braman, owner of Braman Motors and Mayor of Miami Dade County Carlos Alvarez | Credit : Lynne Sladky

Hurricane season is still a couple of months away, but a perfect political storm threatens to blow away Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez in a recall election Tuesday.

Dogged by an ongoing fiscal crisis and allegations of inappropriate government-employee dealings on his behalf, Alvarez is widely expected to lose. Heavy turnout in early voting indicates that the mayor could be swamped at the polls.

A recent public opinion survey found that 67 percent of respondents want Alvarez out. Sixty percent also favor the ouster of County Commissioner Natacha Seijas, whose name appears with Alvarez's on Tuesday's recall ballot.

Alvarez has been a political lightning rod for critics who blame him for Miami-Dade's financial woes. He didn't help his case when he engineered a controversial multimillion-dollar deal to build a new stadium for the Florida Marlins, raised property taxes and awarded fat raises to top aides.

"It really is the perfect storm -- a sour national mood, a bad local economy and frustration with government generally," says Sean Foreman, an assistant professor of political science at Barry University in Miami Lakes.

Alvarez defends his record, noting that he has actually cut spending by $300 million in the past two years and "realized an unprecedented $225 million in concessions from employees."

"Tough decisions have been made, but Miami-Dade County remains financially stable," says Victoria Mallette, communications director for the county.

But Norman Braman, the South Florida auto magnate who organized the recall campaign, is unimpressed with the claims.

"There's a $17 million 'Office of Information' cranking out press releases," he notes.

Without predicting the outcome of the recall election, Braman said he feels good about the effort and optimistic about Miami's future.

"The amazing turnout shows that people aren't as apathetic and complacent as some might think. It's helped to create interest and empower people."

Foreman said Alvarez's costly domed stadium deal at the site of the old Orange Bowl angered many taxpayers.

"Hundreds of millions of [tax] dollars were spent without a public referendum. This has a been a catch-all for his opposition," the professor said.

Foreman said Alvarez's spending policies in the past two years have become more "conservative," but that a restive electorate continues to view him as a big spender beholden to public-employee unions.

The negative impression was reinforced last month by reports that at least one Miami-Dade transit worker was doing political work for Alvarez's campaign.

Mallette responded, "The union claims the individual was not working on county time. However, if the allegation is proven to be true, action will be taken."

Mallette said Miami-Dade County's government work force has been reduced "by hundreds" under Alvarez.

"We are smaller today than we were in the mid-'90s. Our budget is balanced, we have emergency cash reserves and we enjoy good bond ratings."

In a potentially bad sign politically, an energized electorate turned out in droves during early recall voting, with totals rivaling the turnout in the November election. That robust turnout mirrors the heavy response to Braman's petition drive and could more than offset any organized get-out-the-vote efforts by public-employee unions.

Braman said the groundswell of opposition is even bigger than officially tallied because 200,000 of 220,000 absentee ballots were "expunged."

"That's made our effort a little more difficult," he acknowledged.

Braman maintains that county officials have actively worked against the recall. In one recent example, a mandatory "informational meeting" of 1,000 parks and recreation employees was called during work hours.

"The county manager went into a long speech on why they had to support the mayor -- and campaign against the recall," Braman related. "He left them with a warning that if the mayor was voted out, they would be in trouble, too."

On a positive note, the Alvarez administration touts its collaboration with Gov. Rick Scott to “deep dredge” the Port of Miami to accommodate supersized Panamax ships that will be coming through the widened Panama Canal.

"This [dredging] project will create approximately 33,000 jobs and position Miami-Dade County to remain globally competitive in trade," noted Mallette, speaking for Alvarez.

Miami-based political consultant Roger Stone says the mayor will be long gone by the time the dredging is done.

"The intensity is against Alvarez. He is toast," Stone predicted.

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Reach Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.


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