Last night I attended the Coral Gables Commission Candidates’ Forum for the Mayoral Candidates, organized by the Ponce Business Association. The candidates in Group I (Mayor, two year term) are Ralph Cabrera and incumbent James Cason. Cabrera is an incumbent Commissioner but is term-limited for running to retain his current seat.
It was standing room only (about 150?) at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. There was a larger and more animated crowd than last week’s Group II Debate and they frequently offered partisan applause. This was not your average crowd and I wondered if there were many undecided voters present or if they all were supporting one campaign or the other — when the moderator flubbed a biographical fact about Cabrera during the introductions half the audience shouted “no”. There were even polite demonstrators outside, handing out fliers in opposition to the Coral Gables garage. Many of the questions submitted from the audience read like plants, designed to help one candidate or the other.
Local CBS4 news anchor Eliott Rodriguez again served as moderator. The format of the Forum was similar to last week’s: three-minute openings from each candidate, then questions from the moderator followed by some audience-submitted questions read by the moderator. Each candidate had two minutes to reply to each question, and at the end there were three-minute closing statements.
The word about this election is that the two candidates represent different, very divided, factions on the Commission. You can get a flavor of the gossip from Political Cortadito’s post Gables mayor’s race has third ‘candidate’ — the manager.
Both candidates made remarks that were rude or easily misinterpreted; Cason was more pugnacious than Cabrera, but nobody won this debate on style.
On substance it’s also a tougher call than I expected, in part because I still feel like I don’t know who is right about many facts on which the candidates differed.
- Is the Coral Gables crime rate up (Cabrera) or down (Cason)?
- Is the City Manager doing a great job (Cason), or worth retaining but needs his feet held to the fire sometimes (Cabrera)?
- Is Cason deferring too much to the Manager (Cabrera), or meeting privately with the Manager to shape the agenda in a manner that excludes other Commissioners (Cabrera), or a tireless public servant and paragon of openness who would happily meet with all Commissioners regularly (Cason)?
- Is Cason more confrontational with the Unions and City workers than necessary, and has he missed out on opportunities to negotiate in favor of shoving concessions down their throats?
- Is it true, as Cabrera charges, that the City would save money if it let the general municipal union leave the city pension fund, but the Mayor and Manager refuse to consider this option because it would mean less control over their workers?
Cason wins points for doing what he promised. Two years ago I thought it was fair to say Cason was a risky choice because, as a recent arrival to the City and to City politics, he was basically an unknown quantity. That argument cuts no ice today: Cason has a record on which he stands or falls.
So, while Cason wins points for doing what he promised, was what he was doing actually good? In some ways, yes; in others, not so much.
I think everyone agrees the City’s finances are in better shape today than they were two years ago. The whole Commission, and especially Cason, deserves credit for that.
I also agree that the City needs to upgrade infrastructure including roads and sidewalks. Cason wins a point for emphasizing that, although I didn’t hear Cabrera disagreeing with the objective, just the manner in which it was pursued without sufficient opportunity for citizen, or even Commission, input.
Cabrera has a record too. Cabrera wins points for opposing some initiatives that I don’t think were at all good:
- Forcing low-paid employees to take a 20% salary cut – which was moved into pension contributions — is pretty bad, especially if, as Cabrera charged, it made some employees lose houses or cars or forced them to go on Food Stamps. A de facto 20% pay cut is no joke for people living on a budget. Not making highly paid employees take a similar haircut seems to just underscore that someone has a management philosophy we cannot be proud of. Cason says that ‘City workers have tremendous salaries sand pensions,’ but how can that be true if some need Food Stamps?
- Spending $305,000 – yes $305,000! – on a bunch of “skinny palms” in a bunch of utterly pointless traffic islands on LeJune – a road the City doesn’t even own but will now have a continuing duty to pay to maintain a piece of. (Cabrera also claimed Cason pushed through the change without allowing citizen consultation or checking with Fire and Police about the negative effect on emergency service access during rush hour.)
- Waiving City procurement rules with some regularity and allowing no-bid contracts.
- It seems pretty clear that Cason takes a Tea-Party-like approach to unionized workers: he would rather impose things on unions than have to negotiate with them. That saves money in the short term, but isn’t a great labor relations strategy for the long term.
Cason tried to harp on Cabrera not winning any divided Commission votes in the past two years. That hardly seems surprising if there is a Cason-Kerdyk-Quesada majority that regularly votes against Cabrera-Anderson. The issue for me isn’t who was winning those votes, but who was right. And as I noted above, without key facts, it can be tough to answer that question. Meanwhile, Cason’s implicit argument that winning proves you are right and losing a divided vote proves you are wrong just reinforced his opponents’ narrative that he’s a bully.
Bottom line: I dunno. Neither candidate scored a knock-out in my view. I tend to agree with Cabrera’s view of labor relations and public participation much more than with what appeared to be Cason’s. On the other hand, Cason is better at articulating a vision of what he wants Coral Gables to be like and other than his strong anti-worker vibe has some sensible things to say about what is needed to achieve those goals – infrastructure repairs, a downtown night life that makes people want to stay after dinner. I just don’t much care for what I hear about his means of getting us there. One might argue that the advantage of a bull in a china shop is that it does tend to get where it is going. Or one might worry about who and what gets trampled on the way.
Below I reproduce my notes of the event for those who want a less filtered account of the forum and don’t get Coral Gables TV. The event was recorded for Coral Gables TV, which is available on Comcast Cable (channel 77), or Adelphia Cable (channel 97), or online if you have not disabled the vulnerable Siverlight plugin from your browser.