I went to the Coral Gables candidates’ debate this evening, sponsored by the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce. I walked in genuinely undecided about all the races, and in some cases pretty uninformed. I walked out knowing there was no choice in Group 5, and I think I may have figured out who to vote for in the Mayor’s race, but I remain undecided in Group 4. Today I’ll write about the Commission debate. I’ll try to post my account of the Mayor’s race debate tomorrow.
The event was on the UM campus, in the Bill Cosford Cinema. There were, I would guess, about 150 attendees, including about 20 in shirts or stickers supporting Somerset Academy Charter School, which is seeking a massive expansion of the school located at the University Baptist Church
on University Ave between Bird and the near the Coral Gables library. The debate was taped by Coral Gables TV for rebroadcast on cable and internet (although if anyone can figure out their schedule please let me know, because it’s mostly invisible on my computer).
The debate format was not that great, as the large number of candidates made it impossible to both cover many topics and allow anyone to be thoughtful. Candidates got to make very brief opening statements, followed by answering questions for a minute to 30 seconds depending on how time was going. Then they got to make a short final statement (a minute for the Commission candidates, 90 seconds for the Mayoral candidates). The Chamber chose the questions, and it seemed like they were almost all about business issues on the Chamber’s agenda. I would not have minded so much if they hadn’t made a big deal of having asked for questions from the audience by email and on index cards; those they used, if any, sure seemed to be on issues that a Chamber of Commerce would be interested in. But then again, given the publicity for the event, maybe that’s who was in the audience. (I also got irked by the Chamber spokesman’s introductory commercials for the Streetscape project, in which he kept emphasizing that taxes would not need to be raised because the costs are already in the budget. Just because the money has been budgeted already doesn’t mean that it’s somehow free. We may not have to raise taxes to pay for it, but that money could always be spent for something else for which otherwise we’d have to raise taxes.)
The event was divided into two parts: one panel with all eight candidates from the Commission Group 4 & Group 5 races appearing together, then a second panel with just the three Mayoral candidates.
Group 4 is a tough race. The three leading candidates are Brad Rosenblatt (raised $153,623 per most recent filings). Frank Quesada (raised $77,330), and Gonzalo Sanabria (raised $31,370). The other three candidates are Rene Alvarez, Jackson Rip Holmes and Richard Martin.
The major candidates
Given his civic record, his early candidacy, his fundraising edge, Brad Rosenblatt should have been running away with this race. He’s not, due to a negative campaign disclosing a sealed plea of no contest to embezzlement arising from a failed business venture ten years ago. Rosenblatt’s defense is that the charges were false, a key witness has since recanted, he was only 25 at the time, he’s learned his lesson.
It’s hard to know what to make of the Rosenblatt affair. On the one hand, how many 25-year-olds could get a company going and run up $1 million in debts. He’s entrepreneurial, and now runs what appears to be a successful small business. On the other hand, by his own account the guy admits he signed a raft of blank checks, and now says we shouldn’t hold his ignorance at 25 against his current much more mature 35-year-old self. I find that very hard to get over: my students often graduate from law school around age 25, and I and their clients expect them to be much more responsible than that. Plus, having been to Ransom Everglades School and then Tufts University, the case for excusable irresponsibility seems weak. Then again, Rosenblatt’s c.v. has a boatload of charitable and civic activities over the past few years. What more could one ask of a person to demonstrate their reform? But even if one accepts he’s reformed does that mean we should elect him? Especially when he didn’t have the political sense to let leak his scandal 18 months ago when he started running — had he done so, it would be old news by now. But he might not have the same line up of endorsements, either.
Rosenblatt had a good debate. He worked the room before the event, greeting supporters and others. During the event, his answers were meaty and to the point. He started strong, opening by claiming to be “the most qualified candidate” with the most civic experience, and noted that Commissioner Anderson and former Mayor Dorothy Thompson are supporting him. Rosenblatt is the strongest supporter of the “Streetscape” project, a revitalization of Miracle Mile. The controversial part is that it is expensive, and that they want to fund it with a $14 million bond issue, only 75% of which would be paid by taxes on the businesses. Rosenblatt’s case was that “cities around us” such as South Miami “are passing us by.” Coral Gables “should have done this ten years ago.”
On city pensions, Rosenblatt said that there was a serious problem because some workers could get pensions much larger than their salaries. He promised to “protect taxpayer dollars before employees.”
Rosenblatt (in my opinion correctly) rejected an opportunity to pander to the Chamber by advocating financial incentives for businesses. He said it would suffice to “make it easy for them” and make Coral Gables “a place people want to come to.” Interestingly, he said the city should not require businesses to build Mediterranean buildings, “just good buildings”.
Frank Quesada had a pretty good debate. He came off as a bit wonkish, which I think is good, but the down side of that was that he didn’t commit himself to much except studying issues very carefully and at times left himself open to the perception he was either not fully informed or dodging issues. His opening combined his best and his worst. It started warm, with him saying that “I work here, I live here, and I play in Coral Gables.” Coral Gables, he said, is one of the true communities in South Florida where you can walk your dog, see your neighbors, enjoy what is going on. Then suddenly the warm fuzzies ended: fees are going up. “I want to take the lead on cutting” the budget, cutting spending (but without specifics).
On the Streetscape issue Quesada agreed that it is important to get Miracle Mile up to date. “We all love to walk there,” to dine there, and so on. Plus, he noted, this a good time to be doing building works as construction costs are low. Even so, Quesada said, it would be better to deal with the pension issue before deciding if we can afford Streetscape, which he would thus put off until after Sept 30 renegotiation with city workers.
Quesada, who has a lot of local experience, did not commit to anything on the pensions issue. He said would “need to look at alternatives” to the current defined benefit program. This coming May’s actuarial report coming will give better picture of the City’s position; meanwhile “I’ve been researching what other municipalities do” and weighing options such as a cash balance plan or a maybe a 401(k) plan. (Having looked up cash balance plans quickly this evening, it’s not clear to me how that would really help the city. But it’s not my field.)
On the incentives to business issue, Quesada said he agreed with Kerdyk (for whom he used to work at Kerdyk real estate and to whom Quesada says he was an ” aide “), it’s the character of the city that brings in business. So we must concentrate on cutting costs and reform pensions.
Quesada’s final statement included promises to fight for permanent senior center, to work with the Biltmore operator to create a sustainable plan, to solve the pensions problem for which “I am actively looking for a solution. Most importantly, I will look at issues objectively, looking at all facts,” making the decision best for the city.
Gonzalo Sanabria had an odd debate. When I walked into the room, almost half an hour before the event finally began, I spotted Sanabria sitting alone in one of the back rows. He sat there quite some time while other candidates worked the aisles glad-handing, before finally coming down to do a little of the same himself. And Sanabria’s opening was unusual. This is only an imperfect paraphrase, not a verbatim quote, but it went something like this: I want to talk about the personable side of me. The friendly, the team maker … I have over many years of public service. … 25 years to the community. … You will learn about me you will like me and I hope you will support me.” It was the charm offensive all over, but not nearly as successful as the one-on-one variety.
Once things turned to the issues, Sanabria seemed better able to make his pitch. He opposes the Streetscape project. The city, he said, should not pay to fix commercial spaces, while neglecting the Water Tower, fountains, and residential areas. Under the plan residents would be guarantors of a loan to merchants, as the city was when it co-endorsed the loan for the Coral Gables Country Club. When the tenant left, the city paid the price. The city should, however, fix the sidewalks.
On pensions Sanabria said “we need dramatic change to survive”. The current plan is “unsustainable”. He supports replacing the defined benefit plan with 401(k); negotiations with city workers start in next 12 months. (Note that this stance does not appear to comport with speculation raised about a deal between Sanabria and the police union for their support.)
Sanabria repeated his pro-developer plan to have a “thirty-day building permit process”. He insisted that it is “doable” and argued it would spur growth and increase the real estate tax base. But Sanabria, like the other major candidates, said the city is not in a position to give economic incentives to businesses. Rather, the city should maintain the beautiful things about the city that bring corporate entities here.
Overall Sanabria was a glowering presence on the stage. If his opening was personal, his final statement made a technocratic pitch: I’m the only candidate with a degree in economics, the only candidate now serving on a Board with $130m in revenue. I know how to make efficiencies work. His last words were a warning: when he ran two years ago, he lost by 323 votes. In that election, Sanabria said, we were told there were $10m in reserves and that the Biltmore was fine. We learned otherwise right after election.
The minor candidates
Rene Alverez mostly seemed like a normal if slightly pushy person. Some of the things he said were quite sensible, such as changing zoning codes for downtown to encourage night life and his refusal to bash the code enforcement department, but generally he seemed less informed than the leading candidates, and wasn’t as effective in getting his ideas across.
Jackson Rip Holmes is a weirdo, not least because in 1988 he was convicted of threatening Jeb Bush while Jeb! was under secret service protection, and then spent three years in jail for it. In the spirit of disclosure, I should note that before the debate started, Holmes advanced on me, thinking I was my reporter brother, and then announced that he was one of Dan’s biggest fans, a regular reader of his columns, and had even tried to nominate Dan for a Pulitzer (not that non-journalists can actually nominate anyone). During the debate Holmes’s answers to the questions were cheerfully bizarre, sometimes off topic. His answer to the problem of economic development was to bring a department store to Miracle Mile, maybe two (I wondered how, by waving a magic wand?). “Where do you do your shopping?” Holmes asked the audience. Amazon.com, thought I. “Department stores, so you know you can find what you are looking for!” Holmes crowed. His closing statement asked voters to “Make me the luckiest guy in the world by making me elected” – and that is what it would take.
Richard Martin got beat up in the Miami Herald’s recent background check of the candidates. The Herald reports that Martin falsely claimed to have graduated from USC, although he did in fact attend. His first explanation as to why he claimed a degree he didn’t have was to blame identity theft for a refusal to answer. That’s a deal breaker for me even though I thought Martin had a pretty good performance in the debate. He was the least likely to duck tough questions, and I liked his defense of Building & Zoning, his refusal to pander by endorsing financial incentives for businesses (although he wasn’t alone in this). I also sort of liked his direct if perhaps misguided answer to a question about school quality, in which he took the bull by the horns and said if this was a question about Somerset, he didn’t think the plan was very good. It may be wrong for a Commission candidate to prejudge a matter that will come before them in their quasi-judicial capacity, but it seemed straight-up, as did many of his remarks.
There are only two candidates in Group 5: incumbent Vice Mayor William “Bill” Kerdyk Jr. and consultant Richard Namon. Kerdyk, whom I had never seen speak before, was surprisingly offputting and slick. By the time the evening was over I sort of wanted to vote against him. But there’s no chance I will do that, as Richard Namon is not a serious candidate. He seems to be a crotchety old guy, with the occasional reasonable idea among a bunch of stuff that seemed pretty crazy. Most notably nuts was his suggestion that foreclosed and abandoned homes be re-zoned for schools or other uses. Right. Just the way to protect residential zoning. [Update: It seems I heard this wrong — see comments for details.] So for Group 5, it’s clearly Kerdyk. This time.
A Final Thought
There are about 30,000 registered voters in Coral Gables. The election date of April 12 is at a weird point on the calendar (why can’t the city put itself on the same schedule as state and national elections?), and thus turnout could be low. In the case of Group 4 there are six candidates, at least three of whom are plausible. It may not take a lot of votes to get elected.