Absentee ballots are out and being returned, so I should try to figure out what I think of the Mayor’s race between incumbent Jim Cason and challenger Ralph Cabrera.
As a lawyer, my training is to make the case for and against both sides and then weigh them. It’s not easy, since the key issues seem to require a closer observation of the workings of the Coral Gables Commission than I have been able to make. The fact is that, like many voters, I don’t follow Coral Gables politics much — except in the run-up to elections. But here’s how it looks to one voter who is trying to make sense of things. I welcome comments and corrections.
Both candidates are endorsed by people with good track records and who are more attuned to Coral Gables politics than I am, so that doesn’t help me much. Similarly, both candidates have run mildly ugly campaigns, so I’m prepared to treat this as a wash. Cason repeatedly quoted Cabrera ludicrously out of context to try make him look bad on the pensions issue when the original remark clearly meant the opposite of what Cason was trying to suggest. Cabrera has been pushing dated statistics on crime – a real, if arguably misguided, concern of many residents. In an effort to make Cason look bad, an independent expenditure committee linked to Cabrera’s people also sent out an anti-Cason mailer with a cropped photo of Cason with a ceremonial cognac bottle.
The Case For/Against Jim Cason
The case for Jim Cason is based on the substance of his plans for Coral Gables and his demonstrated muscularity at getting what he wants. Cason also has articulated a big-picture vision of his plans for Coral Gables that has many attractive qualities – making the City a place where young professionals want to spend an evening, and worrying about competition from South Miami seem like the right sort of things a Mayor should be thinking about. (Its main deficiency is a missing concern for the regional planning and environmental issues that Group II Candidate Ross Hancock has been championing.) Cason has worked hard, and can boast a two-year track record of delivering on promises, both good and bad.
The heart of the case against Jim Cason is what appears — from a distance — to be a disdain for process values. It is no secret that the Commission has been factionalized these past two years, and that Cason has been part of a 3-2 majority. Both Cabrera and the other Commissioner in the minority are term-limited this year. To me, the most significant of Cabrera’s criticisms of the Mayor is that major decisions are made in private, with the City Manger, and not subject to much discussion or review at full commission meetings. Commissioner Anderson, who I think of as a pretty reasonable voice, has made public comments that suggest information-sharing is at a low ebb. That isn’t good.
On substance, the biggest negative is the City’s treatment of its lower-paid workers, or rather Cason’s seeming disinterest in the issue. Chopping 20% of their take-home pay is not a joke; that some have allegedly been driven to food stamps as a result should be ringing alarm bells for all.
Another knock on Cason is his support, along with other Commissioners, for big spending on things like palm islands on LeJeune – a project whose effect on property values seems likely to be small, whose cost will be ongoing, and whose effect on traffic is unwelcome.
The Case For/Against Ralph Cabrera
Commissioner Cabrera wins big on process values. Both because of temperament and experience it seems likely he would run a more open ship. This is no small thing, especially if, as seems more likely than not, the Kerdyk-Quesada-Cason faction will likely pick up at least one more vote from the Group II or Group III elections. I think we would benefit from some debate on the Commission and I worry about ideological monoculture.
Substance is a more mixed bag. Cabrera is convincing when he says the small declines in the millage rate that the incumbent Mayor brags about are mostly counter-balanced by the increases in fees (although there is a distribution effect that is beyond my abilities to figure out). And Cabrera can point to his opposition to plans (like those expensive palm islands) that seem like mis-steps, but he has, at least in this campaign, done a better job of explaining what he is against than what he would be for. And some of what he is for – like more traffic calming – I don’t especially like because, in my neighborhood at least, it produces far more inconvenience than calming.
Cabrera will undoubtedly foster an atmosphere that will be better for workers, especially those further down the totem pole. And he likely will exercise greater oversight over salaries – and especially the number of positions – for more highly paid employees.
The case against Ralph Cabrera starts with an absence of the vision thing. Maybe having a 12-year track record means there’s less call for a vision – what you’ve seen is what you’ll get. But it also means Cabrera hardly qualifies as new blood. In this campaign, Cabrera has seemed more reactive than proactive. Perhaps that is a consequence of being cut out of the information loop. Or it may be that Cason is right, and being a full-time Mayor with a federal pension is an advantage over having to earn a living.
It’s clear Cabrera and the City Manager do not get on well; it’s clear also the City Manager and Cason are so tight that the City Manger feels empowered to diss other Commissioners from the dais. Voting for Cason will keep things cozy, and keep the rest of us more in the dark, but more may get done. Voting for Cabrera suggests we’ll get more sunshine, but raises the possibility of strife.
Well, Who Then?
The Kantian choice – based on the maxim that we should treat people as ends rather than means – leans strongly for Cabrera. The Habermasian choice – based on the principle that no political decision is legitimate unless it is the outcome of a fair process — also weighs a bit for Cabrera. But the realpolitik choice is less clear. If you are the sort that likes omelets but doesn’t care about how eggs get broken along the way, there is a case for Cason’s damn-the-torpedoes approach to governance so long as you agree with his overall goals.
The good news is that Coral Gables sounds like it is in decent shape, and neither of these candidates is going to run it into the ground. They actually seem to agree on many issues. I think at the end of the day, I’d feel better about a City that prized treating its lowest-paid workers well, and that was a model of openness. The price of that decision is losing an energetic ambassador for the City who does have some good ideas.
I guess I am leaning Cabrera. But just a bit.
[See my previous Coral Gables posts.]