After three months without a top brass to run a big bureaucracy, a general election, two weeks of campaign mudslinging and a bizarre turn of events that led to a complaint against a former mayoral candidate, Miami-Dade County finally has a new mayor.
Former county commissioner Carlos Gimenez landed the county’s top job during Tuesday’s special run-off election, defeating former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina, who placed first in the May 24 general election, in a razor-thin margin race that was too close to call.
With about 90 percent of the precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Gimenez collected 50.99 percent of the votes to Robaina’s 49.01 percent in the closest Miami-Dade mayoral race ever.
In the May general election, among 11 candidates, neither Robaina or Gimenez picked up at least 50 percent of the votes last and were forced in a run-off to determine a winner once and for all.
Though Robaina’s campaign war chest reached $2.6 million, which was twice as much as Gimenez’s $1.3 million, voters picked the underdog who finished second to Robaina last month.
The mayor-elect will serve out the remaining term of former mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted from political office during a recall election in March, which ends in 2012.
Gimenez can run for reelection then.
Surrounded by his family members and supporters in Coral Gables, Gimenez said people must excuse him for not celebrating over his victory to become Miami-Dade’s third mayor.
“People are asking me ‘why aren’t you happy?’ “Because we got a tough road ahead of us, and come tomorrow, we got a lot of work to do,” he said during his victory speech. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and get to work right away.”
Gimenez’s biggest challenge is cutting about $400 million from the county’s $7 billion budget for the next fiscal year during an economic downturn, where Miami-Dade is still reeling from the recession.
“I will not make the same mistake Carlos Alvarez made,” said Gimenez, referring to the former mayor who raised property taxes by 11 percent but gave out hefty raises to county employees.
In Doral, Robaina said he called Gimenez to congratulate him and was gracious in defeat.
“I want to thank everyone for their support,” he said after he took the stage, surrounded by family member and supporters. “We fell a little short but there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed in the next 16 months. We will see what happens.”
Robaina hasn’t ruled out running again in 2012.
“He’ll be back,” said a male Robaina supporter. “The right guy for the job lost the election.”
From the start, Robaina’s campaign seemed formidable, fundraising tour deforce, and being involved in the local GOP, picked up endorsements from Republican heavyweights such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
But his chances of winning the race grew slimmer when The Miami Herald this month released the results of a poll conducted by Bendixen and Amandi International a week before the election and showed Gimenez had a commanding lead.
To get his campaign back on track, Robaina blamed Gimenez for the county’s ongoing financial problems.
“I have not been part of the problem for the past 7 years,” he said. “County Commissioner has been there.”
Gimenez countered, saying: “Mr. Robaina is going to say and do anything to capture a vote but the voters are smarter than that.”
Gimenez, a former county commissioner, is also a Republican but has never run in a partisan seat.
He picked up a key endorsement from former U.S Congresswoman Carrie Meek during the run-off campaign.
An endorsement to score political points with the black community might have done more harm than help for Robaina county-wide.
Former rapper Luther Campbell, who finished fourth in the mayoral primary race, was rumored to endorse Gimenez during a press conference but abruptly changed his mind and backed Robaina.
During a press conference at the African Cultural Arts Center in Liberty City in June to officially endorse the former Hialeah mayor, Campbell arrived late just as Robaina was leaving but returned when he saw Campbell drove up.
Many would-be supporters believed it was a publicity stunt and shied away from Robaina’s campaign.
When reporters asked why he was late, Campbell said: “I like to make people sweat.”
Conceivably, a poor choice of words for Campbell.
“That’s what I’m not looking for in a candidate,” said Mary Williams, who regretted voting for Campbell during the general election. “That’s not how a former candidate acts when endorsing someone for mayor.”
Robaina and Campbell both denied the New Times political columnist endorsed Robaina in exchange he hire one of his friends, Pierre Rutledge, for a county executive job if elected.
The complaint piqued the interest of the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which has yet to suggest whether it will investigate the matter.
Then, the two candidates’ campaigns turned ugly.
Robaina in a controversial decision tainted by allegations of fraud, has also seen a substantial numbers of his supporters moved to Gimenez, according to the poll.
Then, Robaina reportedly accused Gimenez of offering Campbell a lot of money for his endorsement.
Gimenez vehemently denied the accusation.
Nevertheless, Gimenez prevailed.
“I’m so glad he won,” said Marlinia Rodriguez, a Gimenez supporter. “It really was getting nasty. But the right man won.”
Tuesday’s election was a relatively low voter turnout compared to the March recall election.
According to the Miami-Dade Elections Department, about 199,862 registered voters voted in the run-off election, which is 16 percent of the 1.2 million county registered voters.
About 208,000 residents voted during the recall election, and 194,467 residents voted in May.
Miami Beach City Commissioner Michael Gongora, who’s been a public supporter of Gimenez, said the mayor-elect is up to the challenge of turning around the embattled county government.
Gongora said Gimenez’s track record as a city manager for Miami proves he can get the job done.
“I find him to be honest and hardworking,” said Gongora, who was with Gimenez during his victory celebration. “His background experience as a city manager shows what he can do.”
Gimenez helped closed a huge budget shortfall for the city of Miami before he left to run for county commissioner in 2004.
Gongora said Gimenez must sharpen his pencil and scrutinize the county budget to help balance the spending plan that won’t affect county residents.
“He can combine departments and eliminate some positions and cut unnecessary spending,” Gongora told the Sun Post. “He has a tough job ahead of him, but I know he can pull a rabbit out of his hat.”