The time-(dis)honored tradition of big-city mayors buying votes doesn't appear to be working for Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
A citizen revolt, led by South Florida auto magnate Norman Braman, has Alvarez up for recall on March 15. With polls showing him losing, Alvarez is fighting to block the election in court.
But the mayor's previous legal gambits have failed, and the once-popular politician faces a stunning fall from grace.
Alvarez's unraveling is shaping up as a sequel to the November elections, when free-spending politicians were ousted by voters across the state and nation.
Though Miami-Dade is Florida's biggest municipal borrower and was weighed down by budget deficits of up to $50 million, Alvarez increased spending in ways that inflamed taxpayers.
He pushed to boost taxes on homesteaded properties by 60 percent while committing hundreds of millions of dollars to build a baseball stadium for the Florida Marlins, a port tunnel and museums.
Meantime, he handed out big pay raises to his inner circle, including a $70,000 retroactive check to his chief of staff.
MIAMI VISE: ALVAREZ FEELS THE SQUEEZE
As head of a consolidated city and county government, the mayor oversees more than 27,000 employees and an operating budget of more than $7 billion.
Public works projects and targeted spiffs for public employees have long been the bread and butter of big-city bosses. But Alvarez's perceived favoritism to political and corporate insiders riled taxpayers.
No one was angrier than Braman, who sued two years ago to stop the $3 billion public works plan he called a "shell game" that soaked working-class taxpayers to benefit millionaire businessmen.
Though Braman's challenge was rejected in court, the former owner of the Philadelphia Eagles continued to chafe at Alvarez's spending. So he organized a recall drive last year that quickly collected 114,349 signatures. Of those, 95,499 were certified -- double the 51,922 needed to trigger an election.
"People have been complaining for the longest time. They were dissatisfied with the quality of government they are receiving and they saw this as an opportunity to express themselves," Braman told Sunshine State News from his Biscayne Boulevard office.
Despite bureaucratic rules requiring that recall petitions be printed in three languages and that each page -- containing one signature apiece -- be notarized, the mountain of paperwork was completed in just 30 days -- half the time allotted.
Braman said the trigger for community action was the $178 million in new taxes and the $132 million in salary increases ramrodded by Alvarez.
"You have 3,300 county employees making more than $100,000, with 23 in the county manager's office making more than $200,000," Braman fumed. "The mayor has three receptionists earning a combined $500,000, not counting benefits."
Braman does not claim Alvarez, a retired veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department, is corrupt. "I just think he is unfit for the job," Braman said.
A lengthening line of would-be successors agrees.
Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina's spokeswoman Ana Carbonell said Alvarez's foes "are the very people who voted for him two years ago."
Polls have shown68 percent of county residents favor recall, with fewer than 20 percent wanting to retain Alvarez. The mayor's unfavorable rating stands at 58 percent.
Robaina, in announcing his candidacy for Miami-Dade mayor last month, said, "We will not be able to create the jobs we desperately need or convince businesses to expand or relocate here until trust is restored in county government."
He has called for term limits and an independent inspector general's office.
If Alvarez loses his job, the County Commission will set a date for an election to fill his seat or, alternatively, appoint an interim replacement.
Other prospective special-election candidates include former 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell, former state legislator Marcelo Llorente and County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez. Doral Mayor J.C. Bermudez says he plans to run in 2012, when Alvarez's four-year term would expire.
MAYOR'S MODEL: EISENHOWER OR OBAMA?
But Alvarez isn't going quietly. He hired well-known South Florida attorney Bruce Rogow, who last week went to court to challenge the validity of the recall signatures. Rogow alleges that all but 10,000 petition signatures are invalid because of a failure to print, type or stamp notaries' names below their signatures.
"I am sure that the proponent of the recall will call the issues raised `technical,' and accuse the lawsuit of raising `hair splitting' issues. ... But the issues are not `technical,' some are based on mandatory language in the Florida Statutes regarding the integrity of, and procedures for, the notarization process," Rogow said in a statement.
As for policy, Alvarez calls his pricey public-works effort, "not so different from Eisenhower's Interstate Highway System or Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration ... both of which had a profound impact on the physical, economic and cultural landscapes of our country."
Alternatively, Alvarez says Miami-Dade government under his stewardship "is a leaner, more efficient organization that is spending less."
But as this Miami tea party heats up, restive voters say Alvarez's actions are more reminiscent of Obama-style porkulus and self-dealing politicians who morph from public "servants" to well-heeled masters.
Alvarez's expenditure of $490 million in tax funds to build a stadium for the privately owned Marlins strikes critics as particularly inappropriate when the mayor bridles at bailing out the county's financially troubled public hospital.
The controversial deal with the Marlins -- one of Major League Baseball's most profitable franchises, despite dreary attendance numbers -- brought Braman full circle in his nearly three-decade crusade against Miami-Dade politicians.
In 1982, he helped defeat a city sales tax that would have renovated the Orange Bowl for the Miami Dolphins. The aging OB was demolished two years ago to make way for the Marlins' new stadium.
In 1999, Braman campaigned against then-County Mayor Alex Penelas' bid to impose a 1-cent sales tax that would have funded mass-transit improvements.
Braman, who says he never negotiated for a dime of public funds while he owned the Eagles, said Alvarez is "grasping at straws" in attempting to derail the recall. But as the Ides of March approaches, the automobile dealer acknowledged that anything can happen in court, and that there are no sure bets on Election Day.
"He'll get the union vote," Braman said of Alvarez. "It all depends on who shows up at the polls."
Roger Stone, a Miami-based Republican strategist, opines ironically that the free-spending Alvarez cannot raise enough money to beat Braman, who ranks among Fortune 400's wealthiest Americans.
"Alvarez's tax increases and opulent public spending are a killer.He's toast," Stone says.
Reach Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.