Miami power vacuum is big break for new mayor Tomás Regalado
Sudden vacancies at the top are nothing new at Miami City Hall, where some mayors, commissioners and city managers have made a virtual civic tradition of getting evicted from their posts by scandal, indictment or political score-settling.
But these latest events may top it all.
In the space of a few days, a new mayor was sworn in, a nationally recognized police chief stepped down and two commissioners — Angel Gonzalez and Michelle Spence-Jones — were forced out by corruption charges.
Though not entirely unexpected — rumors of the criminal charges had circulated for weeks — the events turned City Hall upside down as the new mayor, veteran commissioner Tomás Regalado, steps into the official suite at Dinner Key.
But the political vacuum may be a lucky break for Regalado, allowing him the rare chance to influence — if not determine outright — the choices to fill two vacancies simultaneously on the five-seat commission.
Tracking the changes, and the potential fallout, almost requires a spreadsheet.
Regalado, who during former Mayor Manny Diaz’s eight years in office was often on the losing side of 4-1 votes, now appears poised to secure a solid commission majority. Both Gonzalez and Spence-Jones were staunch allies of Diaz, Regalado’s political nemesis.
That puts Regalado and his chief lieutenant, newly anointed Commission Chair Marc Sarnoff, firmly in the driver’s seat at City Hall.
“Regalado has a gigantic opportunity to shape the commission,” said Florida International University politics professor Kevin Hill. “He could really shape what he wants to do for the next year or two.”
In fact, Regalado could enjoy the rare political fortune of a commission composed entirely of allies.
In Tuesday’s runoff for the District 4 vacancy created by Regalado’s election, both candidates, Francis Suarez and Manolo Reyes, have been sending out fliers with the new mayor’s picture on it, even though Regalado has stayed out of the race.
Newly elected Commissioner Frank Carollo, meanwhile, has been glued to Regalado’s side since the election. Regalado has taken to calling Carollo “Frankie.”
Carollo — a former cop and brother of former Miami Mayor Joe Carollo — replaced another Diaz ally on the commission, Joe Sanchez, who was crushed by Regalado in the mayoral race.
“I really think that we are going to have a very friendly commission,” Regalado said in an interview. “Remember, the three Manny Diaz votes are gone.”
Only once has there been a worse political vacuum at Miami City Hall: In 1938, voters recalled Mayor Robert Williams and two commissioners — a majority of the commission, since the mayor sat on the panel then — amid allegations of bribe solicitation. All three, members of what The Miami News dubbed the “termite” administration, were charged but later acquitted.
ECHOES OF THE PAST
To some veteran observers, the unfolding scandal carries unwelcome echoes of the trouble-plagued late 1990s, a period of near-constant upheaval at City Hall under Mayors Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo — bitter rivals nicknamed Mayor Loco and Crazy Joe, respectively, by wags.
“Good Lord, this is like Groundhog Day,” said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks of the newest round of scandals. “I wish we would learn how not to keep doing this to ourselves.”
First, there are those familiar last names, with not just a Carollo back at City Hall, but potentially also a Suarez — the District 4 candidate is the former mayor’s son.
Both Frank Carollo and Francis Suarez, a political novice, have been scandal- and antic-free.
Not so their elders.
Between 1996 and 2001, City Hall at times resembled a revolving door. Going to prison at various times on extortion, bribery or money-laundering charges were a city manager, Cesar Odio; a commissioner, Miller Dawkins; a lobbyist; a finance director; another city manager and one-time police chief, Donald Warshaw; and one more commissioner, Humberto Hernandez, convicted not only in a bank-fraud case, but also of conspiring to conceal vote fraud in a city election.
The first four fell in Operation Greenpalm, a 1996 federal investigation into kickbacks at City Hall. Greenpalm also revealed a stunningly mismanaged city on the brink of fiscal collapse, forcing then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to appoint an oversight board.
Hernandez’s misdeeds carried the gravest consequences for the city. A judge threw out the 1997 reelection of Suarez and handed the mayor’s office to Carollo, citing extensive vote fraud largely engineered by Hernandez’s campaign — including a vote cast in the name of Manuel Yip. Who was dead.
Also convicted in that case: Hernandez supporter Angel González, who received a withhold of adjudication, allowing him to run for office. He then got himself elected and reelected to the commission, until he was forced to step down this week after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in a scheme to help his daughter obtain a no-show job with a contractor.
Note also that Hernandez, too, won his fraud-plagued election after he was indicted — and suspended from office the first time — for money laundering and mortgage fraud.
Xavier Suarez, a Hernandez ally, was not implicated in vote fraud, but his political career was finished.
While still mayor, Joe Carollo later spent a night in jail after launching a tea-carton at his wife’s head during an argument.
Not all of the reshuffling was a consequence of malfeasance.
Shortly after the judge put him in office, Carollo fired Suarez’s city manager, Jose Garcia-Pedrosa. That was on a Monday. Garcia-Pedrosa was reinstated to the post by the commission on Friday, only to be refired by the mayor that same night. Carollo fired Garcia-Pedrosa for the third and final time less than two weeks later.
His replacement: Former top cop Warshaw. While city manager, Warshaw was charged with fraud for stealing from a charity he had started while police chief. It was called Do the Right Thing. Warshaw was sentenced to a year in federal prison.
Perhaps the most tragic case came four years after Warshaw’s disgrace. Facing charges of pocketing payoffs in exchange for city contracts while running the Community Redevelopment Agency, Commissioner Arthur Teele fatally shot himself in the lobby of The Miami Herald in 2005.
Those were hardly the first Miami city officials to fall amid scandal. In 1973, Mayor David Kennedy was removed from office after he was charged with trying to bribe a judge. Though he was cleared, he didn’t run again. A park in Coconut Grove was later named after him.
THE TIMES AHEAD
Regalado, first elected to the commission in 1996, was untouched by the scandals of the day but suffered his own ethical missteps, though no charges were ever filed: In 1999, the state attorney’s office investigated Regalado’s use of his city gas card, which was used to buy fuel two or three times a day, pumping twice what his Jeep’s manufacturer said the tank holds.
That same year, Regalado’s commission paycheck was garnished as the IRS attempted to collect thousands of dollars in back taxes.
But Hill, the FIU professor, doesn’t think last week’s round of scandals bodes a return to the “circus” of the ’90s.
“At least I hope not,” Hill said. “He (Regalado) is well respected by a lot of people. I just don’t see that kind of instability coming from him.”
Just what a pro-Regalado majority on the commission means for Miami’s residents could be harder to determine.
Regalado, who built his campaign on his opposition to big Diaz projects like the Florida Marlins stadium and the planned Port of Miami tunnel, has not articulated a vision beyond looking out for the city’s neighborhoods.
But it could strengthen Regalado’s hand in dealing with City Manager Pete Hernandez — should he decide to keep him on — or give him nearly free rein in choosing a successor. The mayor appoints the manager but needs commission confirmation.
That, in turn, could give Regalado a bigger say in selecting a successor to Diaz’s police chief, John Timoney, who resigned under pressure from the new mayor. The manager technically hires the chief, but a manager beholden to the mayor for his job is unlikely to buck him.
A Regalado commission majority could also spell future headaches for the Marlins. All three commissioners who unwaveringly supported the stadium — Sanchez, Gonzalez and Spence-Jones — are gone.
Regalado said the Marlins should not expect a warm embrace if they come back to the city for more money. Under Diaz, the city agreed to help finance parking garages and commercial space around the Little Havana stadium, which is now under construction.
“They won’t get past Bayshore Drive,” Regalado said with a laugh, referring to the main drag fronting City Hall. “They won’t even be able to come into City Hall.”