Miami-Dade County is getting a new mayor, with a crowded field of candidates squaring off in Tuesday's election to try to fill the position.
The candidates are seeking to replace Carlos Gimenez, term limited this year after being first elected to the position in 2011.
One candidate must earn a majority - 50% plus one vote - to win the seat. If not, the top two vote getters go to a runoff in November.
The Three Commissioners
Three county commissioners are bucking for the mayor’s seat, all of them veterans of Miami-Dade politics.
Daniella Levine Cava is ready to break the glass ceiling and become the County’s first female mayor if elected.
“I do bring things as a woman to the office that have been missing," she said. “I am compassionate, I am a problem solver, I’m someone who knows how to collaborate and bring people together."
Levine Cava has been the representative in Commission District 8, stretching from Homestead to West Kendall, since 2014. She boasts of a career forged in public service, known for championing causes like women’s issues, climate change, discrimination, social justice, gun violence and distrust in government.
The current county government, she says, is not operating properly.
"Let’s just deal with the COVID situation, unfortunately, too little too late,” Levine Cava said. “I’ve been telling from the beginning. We need to have massive testing, we need to have contact tracing.”
The county’s top priority, outside of coronavirus, says Levine Cava, is the dire need for affordable housing.
“There are many, many things that we can do and it has not been taken seriously,” she said.
Levine Cava resigned her commission seat to run for Mayor.
Commissioner Esteban Bovo is hoping his conservative approach to local politics moves him into the mayor’s office.
His campaign emphasizes staunch fiscal policies and law and order.
“I could not have predicted back in October when we launched our campaign that we would be living in such an evil, where police officers and the work they do is being assaulted,” said Bovo.
On the first day of early voting in Miami-Dade, Bovo enjoyed the endorsement of the South Florida Police Benevolent Association. Several officers joined him outside the Westchester Regional Library, one of the early voting sites in the county.
During a time of police scrutiny and calls for the defunding of police departments, Bovo pushes back hard.
"It’s very unpopular in our community, this is a community that wants law and order and the taxes that they pay they expect certain services and I think police falls right into that wheelhouse,” said Bovo.
He has represented District 13, which includes Hialeah and Miami Lakes, since 2011. Bovo started his political career as a Hialeah City Council Member and he also served in the Florida House of Representatives.
If Bovo becomes mayor, he promises not to raise taxes. Transportation, to include expanding rail service, would be his top priority.
“We have people stuck in traffic here. It is a great economic engine if we can move people in an efficient way,” he said.
Bovo is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump. The commissioner recently welcomed the president to South Florida as he stepped off Air Force One at Miami International Airport.
“His style points are his style points and they work for him and, quite honestly, since the onset of his presidency he’s been under assault,” said Bovo.
A recent knock against Bovo is that he accepted a $1,000 campaign donation that reportedly had ties to a Venezuelan state-run oil company. Bovo said he returned that donation.
”Anybody who knows myself personally, my family history, not only find it laughable, all these allegations, but quite honestly a little insulting to be perfectly honest,” he said.
Xavier Suarez is the third Commissioner to throw his political hat into the mayoral race.
He has a bank of memories of being Miami’s mayor back in the 1980’s.
“We had a lot of disruptions on the city commission, led to it being called 'banana republic,'" Suarez said during a recent interview.
He likes to take credit for what he calls the city’s rebound, beating back Miami’s reputation for crime and drugs, and Time Magazine’s cover in 1981 with big bold letters spelling out how South Florida was "Paradise Lost."
“I solved the pension deficit, $200 million, brought three professional franchises, built 1,500 units of affordable housing when the department did not even exist, two police substations, mini stations, and a lot of diversity,” Suarez said.
He served as Miami’s mayor from 1985 until 1993 and represented county commission district 7, neighborhoods that include Key Biscayne, South Miami and Coral Gables since 2011.
Transportation, he says, would be his No. 1 priority, and he wants to make bus rides free for everybody. He’s confident the county budget can handle the elimination of the $2.25 fare.
He believes getting people around would spark the economy, reduce carbon emissions and improve the air we breathe.
“Oh my God, it solves the problem of congestion,” Suarez said. “Free public transit will help a lot, particularly the working class, the people have to work on the premises."
Creating more affordable housing also tops on his list.
Back in 1998, a judge overturned Suarez’s mayoral election win, saying it was an orchestrated voter fraud scheme. Suarez was never criminally charged but others were, including a campaign worker.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez is Xavier’s son, and if the senior Suarez wins, the pair would be the city and county’s top politicians.
“We occasionally disagree and we try to work out our differences,” Suarez said of his political conversations with his son. “Politics has been my life for 41 years, and his life I think I heard him say 13 years, almost since the day he got married. Every once in a while we talk about getting out of politics and having a normal life."
Miami-Dade’s ex-mayor wants his old job back.
Alex Penelas has been out of government for more than a decade. He wants back in.
“Having experienced the private sector, I think it has taught me some lessons that will allow the second go around to be even better,” Penelas said.
He is a veteran of South Florida politics, serving as Miami-Dade County Mayor from 1996 to 2004. Before that, he was a Miami-Dade County Commissioner and also a Hialeah City Council member.
On a recent virtual news conference, his focus was advancements in the county’s Black communities.
“Homeownership among minority and Black communities is much lower, we still have a huge income disparity among Black families in this community and then there’s gun violence,” said Penelas.
If elected, he promises to create opportunities for Black-owned businesses and also improve WiFi in Black communities and work on expanding access to healthcare in Black neighborhoods.
Some knock Penelas on issues from his political past, saying he misled voters on a half-cent transportation tax and redirected millions of dollars earmarked for affordable housing.
He defends his actions as mayor.
“I am the author of the The Ethics Commission, we fully implemented the Inspector General, I passed a cone of silence ordinance and appointed an anti-corruption czar,” he said.
The Two Newcomers
The political newcomers in the race also want to shatter the glass ceiling, like candidate Levine Cava, and become the County’s first female mayor.
Ludmilla Domond is a mother, pastor and educator. Now, she’s adding another title to her repertoire: political candidate.
She’s confident she can be Miami-Dade County’s next mayor, and bringing people together is her goal.
“Miami-Dade County needs unity,” she recently said in an interview outside an early voting center in North Miami. “By having me as a diverse individual, and would be the first Black woman mayor in Miami-Dade County, woman first, Black first, for me I believe in definitely showing the unity."
Domond was born in Haiti and came to America when she was a kid. She graduated from North Miami Senior High School, Florida International University and continues her studies, aiming for a PhD at St. Thomas University.
Improving mass transit, to include expanded rail and bus service, is one of her top priorities.
She feels community policing needs to be expanded. And she’s adamant about ending domestic violence and human trafficking.
Affordable housing, she says, needs a new approach.
“If the average income is $30,000, why are we building homes where you have to actually make about $70,000, $80,000? It doesn’t make sense," she said. "Because what you’re technically saying is we no longer want you here."
And as South Florida continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Domond says special attention needs to be paid to economic development and small business owners.
“A lot of people are still out of jobs, it is still a pandemic, it’s still a crisis… we are having issues right now," she said.
Domond is confident she’ll make history in becoming the county’s first Haitian-American, female mayor.
“I am going to stay on a positive note,” she said.
Monique Barley rounds out the field of six candidates. She’s skipping lesser offices, like commissioner or zoning board member, and bucking for one of the most powerful political positions in South Florida -- Miami-Dade County Mayor.
“It’s common sense, basically,” Barley said recently in an interview outside an early voting site in Miami Gardens. “You have to be the one to protect the taxpayer’s money, you have to be able to determine what is going to cause the taxes to go up and go down."
Politics, she says, is in her blood. Her cousin Keon Hardemon is a Miami City Commissioner. Her father, Roy Hardemon, is running for a seat in Florida's House of Representatives.
Several of Barley’s opponents are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on slick campaigns, including expensive television commercials.
Barley doesn’t have a political machine behind her. She’s banking on her confidence.
“I believe that I can make it to the runoff, so I have to work a little harder while they pay all of the money they have to pay to their consultants and pay people to work for them," she said. "I’m just going to work hard.”
If elected, Barley promises to take on the county’s transportation gridlock. Her other priorities include creating more affordable housing, teaching financial literacy in the county’s poor communities and encouraging first-time homebuyers.
Barley says her years as an entrepreneur have been good preparation for managing the state’s largest county.
“I own my own debt collection agency, so I have experience in accounting, budgeting, human resources,” she said.
Barley disagrees on the notion of defunding local police departments.
“(If) we have a big crime here, you can’t call a social worker to come out to the scene to help. You need the police officers who are trained and have the capability to handle the situation," Barley said.