Author Archives: Michael Froomkin

Coral Gables Election 2015: Candidates for Mayor Debate

The Coral Gables Mayoral Candidates (technically, Group I), had a debate sponsored by the Coral Gables Forum on Monday night. I went down to Coral Gables TV to get a copy of their recording of it. Turns out that I needn’t have bothered: thanks to quick work by the CGTV guys you can see the whole thing on YouTube.

For that decreasing fraction of the population that prefers to read stuff rather than watch videos, I thought I’d offer my reactions below. Since the whole video is now available to everyone, not just Comcast and AT&T cable subscribers, I don’t think I will bother with a pseudo-transcript as I have in the past.

Before starting, though, I should state my predispositions. Unlike Group V, where I went in with absolutely no idea how I was going to vote (see Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates), I came to this debate with some views about both candidates. Both have been around the block a few times: Jim Cason is of course the incumbent, and Ralph Cabrera previously served on the Commission; he also ran unsuccessfully against Cason two years ago – so this is a rematch election.

Back in 2013 I wrote a post trying sum up the pros and cons for both candidates. I wasn’t overwhelmed by or against either, but ended up “leaning Cabrera. But just a bit.” I certainly wasn’t a big Cabrera fan, and I wrote that I could understand why some people, with different policy preferences (i.e. those who valued balancing the books above all) might like Cason.

Since then, however, there has been one major event in Coral Gables that has very strongly soured me on Jim Cason – and should bother you too. It transpired that the then-City Manger (the most important official in town) had been hiding traffic accident data from the Commission. From a distance it is not clear whether he did this at Mayor Cason’s direction, or with Cason’s connivance, or if Cason was unaware of it until after the fact. What isn’t debated is that Cason supported the City Manger even after the deception came to light.

To me, that’s more than just a policy dispute or a case of bad judgment. That’s subverting democracy. It’s fundamental. And Mayor Cason’s failing to see that is a big black mark in my book. So, even though I have never been a big Ralph Cabrera fan, I went into the debate leaning strongly his way. You might want to discount what follows accordingly.

Once again, the debate was moderated by Coral Gables resident Channel 4 TV journalist Elliot Rodrigez.

My overall impression about the debate was that it was slightly mean and not all that informative. It was striking that – other than in his closing — Cason time and again tried to frame the issues not as being about his own successes, but about problems not having been solved back when Cabrera was a Commissioner. When an incumbent spends more time trying to tear down his challenger (who has been out of office for some years) than he does boasting about his own record, that’s a tell. Then again, Cabrera too was punching fairly hard, although you’d expect that from a challenger.

The first big topic – crime – showed both candidates’ unattractive side. Both of them want to look as anti-crime as possible. Both took shots against the other: Cason said crime was higher back when Cabrera was on the Commission, which seemed like a cheap shot. Cabrera said condescendingly that he was glad Cason was finally talking about crime. Cabrera scored a point in calling for more lighting in the northern part of Coral Gables. Cason said Cabrera’s proposals were things that the city is already doing – although he undercut himself with one of his examples being that someone not-yet-hired would be working on lighting. Both candidates came out for installing surveillance cameras – license plate readers, although Cabrera’s repeated references to keeping out “the criminal element” grated badly.

Fact is that whether crime is ticking up or ticking down, we’re just not having a crime wave. The crime issue may poll well, leading both candidates to pander on the issue, but myself I just can’t get excited; this isn’t what the election should be about.

The discussion of the development issue – a much bigger deal in my opinion – got less time than it deserved. Neither candidate got very specific. Cabrera said he supports planned development, balance, and noted a need to revise the gables master plan – but didn’t have time for details. Cason seemed oddly nervous on this topic, said there is a master five-year plan to look at traffic issues. Perhaps the reason was that he expected Cabrera’s zinger, which came on the followup about the Agave project, in which Cabrera said Cason’s first eight $1,000 campaign contributions were from Agave – how can he be objective about it?

Otherwise, we had the usual suspects, Streetscape, pensions, Fire Station #1, controlled choice. Cabrera was convincing that the Gables needs to take better care of its infrastructure (the Fire Station #1 building is in such danger of collapse, the Fire Dept. won’t park a truck in it!). On pensions the only news was that Cason now seems to think he’s wrung what he can from the workers, and that some of the unfunded obligations will need to be funded out of general revenues. I found that a welcome change from his past position. Both candidates said controlled choice is history, and they’re fine with that, although Cabrera cautioned that the change needs be done in a way that won’t reduce residents’ access to local magnet schools.

On a less expected issues, like the environment, neither candidate was specific at all. Both candidates said they were for the environment. Cabrera did attack the fire fee as a regressive tax, and any candidate who opposes regressive taxes gets a point from me.

There was a little more light when the candidates returned to the development issue after a question on how to attract young professionals to the city. Cason repeated his line – a good one – about making Coral Gables a foodie destination. Trouble is, it’s the same line he used two years ago, and the promised changes, such as Streetscape, are still in the future. That’s not primarily Cason’s fault, but it the line doesn’t wear as well with repetition. Cabrera’s response was interesting, although I don’t know how realistic it is. Cabrera argued that the problem is that young people can’t afford to move here; plus, the planned development in the NE quadrant will continue to price people out as the duplexes and apartment buildings there are going away. “There is something wrong with that.” We need, he said, housing for people who are working here, people starting families. Other than slowing the destruction of affordable housing, he didn’t supply much of an idea of how to achieve that.

More generally, although both candidates said they supported long-range planning, Cabrera said it a bit better. He sounded like he meant it when he complained that “we have no long-term vision.” Instead, he said, everything is short term, one project at a time. We need balance, and master plan, and attention to infrastructure such as sewerage in the CBD. Cason’s response that we have multiple master plans looking ahead for youths, seniors, and transportation didn’t seem to quite grapple with the idea that maybe a bigger vision was needed.

Cabrera returned to the campaign contributions issue towards the end of the debate, noting multiple contributions from developers to Cason, and suggesting developers supported Cason because when it comes to development Cason is (in my words not his) a pushover. On the one hand, the idea that the pugnacious Cason is a pushover on anything was sort of funny. On the other hand, when it comes to development, I couldn’t help but wonder if it might not be true. Cason’s response was half tu quoque (some developersarchitects contributed to Cabrera) and half that the projects are in fact meritorious and are supported by their neighbors. In rebuttal Cabrera said that one of his developer contributors was an old friend from Little League, another a long time client (this is good???). More importantly, Cabrera promised to ‘hold developers’ feet to the fire’ and disputed Cason’s claim that neighbors of Agave are all for it – but just as things were getting interesting, time ran out.

In the closing statement Cason finally started to talk about his achievements and his plans for the next two years – but then ran out of time despite it being rehearsed. Cabrera talked of his roots in the city, said he’s not beholden to special interests and will “ask the difficult questions.” (Cabrera also said he wants to move election day to November to increase participation.)

So quite some heat, a trickle of light. As I said above, I went in leaning to Cabrera, and although parts of the debate reminded me why I’ve never been his greatest fan, I did think he made a much better case for himself than two years ago, especially in the parts where he talked about having to take a long-run view of city planning. There were not a lot of specifics, but I like the tone. Cason is still Cason, but he seemed off his game compared to past campaigns. I wonder if he’s seen a bad poll?

At the end of it all, I came out with no new reason to forgive Cason for his support of the former City Manager’s bad behavior, and slightly more positive about Cabrera than when I went in–mostly for his stance on the development issue. So I score this debate a clear win for Cabrera, although not a knock-out.

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Bear With Me

The Coral Gables Mayoral candidates had a debate last night. I do plan to write about it, but not until I get back in town and have a chance to view a recoding of it. Check back for something late Wednesday.

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Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates

Yesterday I attended the Coral Gables Forum candidates’ debate for Coral Gables Commission Group V election. This is the race with the most candidates, making the events most difficult – they’re not real debates, and every candidate only gets to speak in short intervals – just 2 minutes for an answer, and a minute for a response.

The six candidates are Ariel Fernandez, Jackson Rip Holmes, PJ Mitchell, Sandra Murado, Norman Anthony (“Tony”) Newell, and Jeanette Slesnick.

It looks like in addition to the perennial issues of crime and whacking worker pensions, the big issue in this campaign will be – or at least should be – a surprisingly massive amount of development that will be hitting Coral Gables in the next year or two.

I went into the debate with a very open mind, and absolutely no idea who I wanted to support. I came away from the debate a bit confused. On the basis of this debate, I won’t be voting for Holmes or Mitchell, but I thought each of the other four candidates did well in different ways although their differences on most issues — to the extent there are issues — was not all that great.

Ariel Fernandez had clearly done his homework, and had facts at his fingertips. He answered questions. He also had what sounded like a really good idea about garbage fees that seemed to fly right over the head of most of the other candidates. (I’ll explain more in a future blog post.) It’s the sort of thinking out of the box that elevates a candidate above the pack. And he was the only candidate to note that developer money has a big sway in the election. I was impressed. But he was weak on the controlled choice question, basically saying it’s over and done with — although I suppose that is a view that many other voters will agree with.

PJ Mitchell hurt himself at the start of the debate with his attempt to wrap himself in the Kerdyk legacy. (My reaction was “run away!”). It got a little better as it went on, but there was a somewhat Kerdykian lack of substance. [[Update: I should give PJ Mitchell props for his answer on PENSIONS.] (corrected)]

Sandra Murado was perhaps the best speaker in terms of delivery. She sounded smart and I like smart. She had some facts and figures at her fingertips. But she also had a number of answers–especially on development–where she really didn’t answer the question. Then again, she ended strong, noting that her immigration law practice involves no issues that ever come before the Commission, and that she has no conflicts and she’s beholden to no special interest.

“Tony” Newell tried for vision and poetry and hit the mark (especially in his closing) more than he missed it. He was the candidate who spoke most about having a master plan for development and controlled growth rather than dealing with issues case-by-case although he was utterly vague about what he would want in this hypothetical plan. But Newell’s background, not to mention his election campaign two years ago, suggests a much more developer-friendly – even libertarian – stance than his presentation, so it looks like I have more research to do there. Has he changed? Newell also raised my eyebrows by suggesting that the police should be required to introduce themselves to two new citizens a day – maybe knock on your door to say hello. I’d find that creepy. I couldn’t figure out what I thought of his enthusiasm for a Crimewatch app, especially when it turned out to be a social media sort of thing in which residents would panic each other about something, and the police would not be obligated to respond, but would just monitor the app looking for patterns. On the one hand, I like the attempt to harness new technology – there’s a lot of ‘smart city’ stuff we could be doing – but on the other this did not seem the place to start. Plus Newell was the most outspoken about abolishing controlled choice-–on the grounds that parents should have complete control over their children. This sounded much more libertarian than neighborly.

Jackson Rip Holmes is a perennial candidate who rarely gets more than a few votes. He actually made considerably more sense in this debate than in any previous one of his that I have seen, but to be honest the bar on this one wasn’t that high.

Going in to the debate, Jeanette Slesnick was said by many to be the favorite due to her name recognition (wife of the former Mayor) and a long c.v. with extensive civic roles and connections in her own right. Many of her comments were about showing off her long civic record. Along the way she said some sensible things and, indeed, seemed very well informed. But she certainly didn’t hit this one out of the park.

There was a big audience turnout – far more than the number of chairs. The event was moderated by Coral Gables resident Channel 4 TV journalist Elliot Rodrigez (and, we were told “best dressed man in Coral Gables”). Attendees were invited to write questions on cards and after asking his questions, the moderator picked among them. (He didn’t pick mine.)

I still don’t know who I am going to vote for.

Below the fold, I reprint my detailed summary notes.

Continue reading

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Coral Gables Candidates Forums

The Coral Gables Forum (previously known as the Ponce Business Association) will be running candidate debates for the upcoming Coral Gables Commission election. According to the calendar at their web page, this is the planned schedule:

  • March 2, 2015 – Candidate Forum for City Commission Seat
    Group V – Coral Gables Congregational Church 7:00pm
  • March 9, 2015 – Candidate Forum for Mayor Seat
    Coral Gables Congregational Church 7:00pm
  • March 16, 2015 – Candidate Forum for City Commission Seat
    Group IV – Coral Gables Congregational Church 7:00pm

According to an announcement reprinted at the Watchdog Report,

events will be held at the Coral Gables Congregational Church (3010 DeSoto Boulevard) from 7:00pm to 8:30pm.The doors will be open at 6:45pm so audience members can submit questions to ask the candidates. Our moderator will be Eliott Rodriguez of CBS WFOR-TV. If you have any questions please contact us at coralgablesforum@gmail.com.For more information on the Candidates Forum and future events please visit our website at www.coralgablesforum.com.

I attempted to find out yesterday if the events will be televised on Coral Gables TV, but was unsuccessful. All I could learn is that they haven’t decided yet. (I sure hope so – I’m going to be out of town on the 9th; anyone available to video it for me if need be?)

There will also be a Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce event, held on the UM Campus a location TBA, but according to the charming lady who answers their phone, they haven’t set a date yet. When they do, it will appear either on the front page of their web site or events page. Last time it was in the fieldhouse on the UM campus.

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Warring Columba Bush Profiles

Amazing contrast between today’s NYT and today’s WaPo treatments of Jeb Bush’s wife, Columba. And surprisingly, it’s the NYT that does the puff piece, so puffy as to be a whitewash. And it’s the Post that does the journalism.

In the very long NYT article, you get down about 2/3 of the article — a long way from its front-page start — before you read this sympathetic portrayal of smuggling:

But Mrs. Bush also found the public spotlight searing. Returning to the United States in 1999 from one of her regular trips to Europe, Mrs. Bush lied to customs officials about her overseas purchases: She said she had spent only $500, but receipts were found for $19,000 in clothes and jewelry. A spokesman for Mr. Bush said at the time that she had underreported the goods because she did not want Mr. Bush to know how much she had spent. (Mr. Bush is known among his friends as frugal with his own clothing, at least.)

The episode only increased Mrs. Bush’s reluctance to deal with reporters, and her desire to withdraw from public scrutiny.

And then it’s back to all her charitable works and home making — which, oddly, doesn’t include cooking as the article mentions, literally in passing, “Mr. Bush usually made the family dinners, because she rarely cooks.”

Contrast this to the Post, which leads with this,

In 1999, Columba Bush, the famously private wife of then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, was detained and fined by federal customs officials for misrepresenting the amount of clothing and jewelry she had bought while on a solo five-day shopping spree in Paris.

The incident left the Florida first lady deeply mortified and her husband politically chagrined. Jeb Bush said the first lady had misled customs officials because she did not want him to know that she had spent about $19,000 on the trip.

“The embarrassment I felt made me ashamed to face my family and friends,” Columba Bush said in a July 1999 speech to the Central Florida Make-a-Wish Foundation, not long after the incident. “It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life.”

The ordeal did not stop her from spending freely, however. Less than a year later, she took out a loan to buy $42,311.70 worth of jewelry on a single day, according to records filed with the state of Florida by Mayors Jewelers.

That purchase was part of a pattern by Columba Bush of borrowing to buy tens of thousands of dollars of jewelry at a time from the South Florida store over a 14-year period.

Paging Newt Gingrich.

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Contested Race in Group IV

Democracy is saved! Frank Quesada has drawn an opponent in Coral Gables Commission Group IV: Enrique Lopez, alternately described as a brilliant man and a “crony” of former Mayor Don Slesnick.

Not that there seems any groundswell to replace Quesada, but it’s still good to have a contest. Even good representatives should have to justify themselves to voters periodically. If, as George Volsky suggests, Lopez is allied with Slesnick, and given that Jeannett Slesnick is very much a candidate in Group V in her own right, it looks as if the sub-text, or maybe the actual text, of the election may shape up to be Casonites v. Slesnickites.

That could get heated.

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And Then There Were 6

Official City of Coral Gables : Candidates page now shows six candidates — perennial candidate Jackson Rip Holmes is back in the fray.

With this many candidates every candidate’s event is certain to be unsatisfying since they will just get a chance to soundbite, and there will little substance and less back-and-forth. Unless of course the people organizing the events change the round-robin format, and that is Not Gonna Happen…

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