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Voter’s Guide to Coral Gables Election Group I

Group I is the Mayor’s Race.

This is the easiest vote in the election. I have never been Ralph Cabrera’s greatest fan, far from it, and I think his campaign’s focus on the so-called crime issue has been something between lame and ludicrous. But get Cabrera off that poll-tested issue, and he actually makes quite a lot of sense. Yes, he’s a bit prickly. But so is incumbent Mayor Jim Cason. And, as I’ve said many times before, I cannot forgive Cason for supporting the former City Manger’s undermining of the democratic process; once it was proved that the Manager was hiding information from the Commission he had to go – and Cason couldn’t see that. So Cason has to go.

Don’t let the absence of a better choice dissuade you: Vote Ralph Cabrera for Mayor. Cason Must Go.

Read about my interview with Ralph Cabrera.

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Right and Wrong Way to Go Negative

The Coral Gables Commission Election is tomorrow. Many will have voted by absentee, but some us insist on voting in person.

The mud is certainly starting to fly. Mayoral candidate Ralph Cabrera filed an ethics complaint alleging that “staffers from Mayor Cason’s political campaign are holding themselves out to be agents of the city and are actively identifying constituent complaints and then using the Mayor’s public office to generate official action by the Coral Gables Public Works Department in an effort to garner votes.” The Herald article reporting the comlaint also notes the creative math that Cason used to calculate he’d been to 5100+ “events” as Mayor — turns out that includes meetings in his office — including meetings with City staff!!! Couldn’t Cason at least lie better?

Blogger and paid Cabrera campaign adviser Elaine de Valle (aka “Ladra”) attacks Mayor Cason’s advertising. Meanwhile de Valle herself has been the subject of some muckraking (see April 13, 2015 entry).

The family mailbox continues to be filled with all sort of mailers, many of them negative. (For an earlier installment see Tis the Season…For Negative and Misleading Campaigning.) Some of these have been fair or nearly fair (and signed by opposing candidates), some very unfair. Let’s start with the unfair ones (click on any photo for a bigger version).
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Sandra Murado’s Confusing Candidacy

Before my talk with her I had no idea at all what to make of Coral Gables Commission Group V Candidate Sandra Murado. Murado has been a lawyer for 22 years. She has worked at the state attorney’s office, then as a divorce lawyer, and now has an immigration law practice.

She’s seemed, and to some degree remains, the most confusing candidate in the Group V race. On the one hand – no wait, we’re going to need a lot of hands here, let’s try that again.

Item: I put some serious stock in word of mouth. Murado is getting some good word of mouth. I’ve had more people spontaneously tell me that they were impressed by her than any other candidate. OK, that makes her score about four, but that’s still two more than anyone else.

Item: I like some of her friends. Daisy Baez is one of the people who came told me how great Murado is. Murado also has an endorsement from SAVE, which is a big plus.

Item: I do NOT like some of her friends. Reportedly she was recruited to run by Mayor Jim Cason, and shares his campaign consultant. As I’ve said before, I think Cason’s support of (or if you go with some stories, domination by) the old City Manager was a big problem. And continuing to support Salerno after he was caught misleading the Commission is just totally unacceptable to me. Ms. Murado was noncommittal when I put this point to her, refusing to take one side or the other. That really worries me.

Item: She’s been a strong advocate for a good cause, fighting the proposal for Somerset, the mega-charter school proposed for the University Baptist Church site.

Item: She’s a poster person (see page 18) for the James Madison Institute – a really really far right political group that thinks it is a think tank. The James Madison Institute lauded her for helping to “rein in excessive growth in government spending” by fighting to limit pensions as a way to limit the City’s unfunded liabilities – an issue that will likely endear her to many voters.

Item: Local gadfly George Volsky is talking her up – a very bad sign on its own, and further evidence of the Cason connection since Volsky is totally in the tank for Cason. Murado reprints a cranky Volsky column prominently on her campaign web site, one trashing Ariel Fernandez and Jeannett Slesnick.

Item: Murado is very articulate, seems smart. I like that.

Item: Murado’s lawyerlyness trips her up sometime. More than once in the two candidates’ events she’s given legally correct but politically tone-deaf answers to questions.

I put my standard list of questions to Murado a couple of days ago.
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PJ Mitchell — Sincere and (Too?) Frugal

I had a chance to talk to PJ Mitchell last week about his candidacy for the Coral Gables Commission. He’s a good, soft-spoken, advocate for himself.

I asked Mitchell the same questions I’ve been asking everyone, starting with development. Having served on the economic development board, Mitchell had seen some of the proposals in some depth, and he wanted to distinguish between those that sought variances from the code (possible) and those which sought to have the code changed to their benefit (like Agave), a process that was quicker for them, but not in his view better for the city. Each project should be judged on its merits, he said, and the problem with Agave’s initial proposal is that it created a ‘city within a city’. Coral Gables needs to have the project connected with downtown, so pedestrians go from Agave to Miracle Mile and back. Mitchell said more than once that seeing the animated version of what the project would be like had shown him just how big it was – too big.

On green space, like everyone else he was for it in principle. On the sea level rise question, Mitchell said he thought that the state and federal governments needed to take the lead, and create a master plan in which Coral Gables could then participate.

Regarding the potential new tax revenue, Mitchell’s first response was that “cities will spend any of amount of money that comes in” – an anti-spending attitude to delight an penny-pincher’s heart. He allowed, however, that there were infrastructure needs. When I pressed him for his top three priorities, Mitchell listed the fire stations as number one, noting that some new police officers are already in the budget and that we might also need to replace one or two missing fire fighters. I had to nudge him to list any others, but then he said eliminating the city’s $75 million debt, and then attacking the unfunded pension liabilities would be his next priorities.
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Tony Newell is Not a Libertarian

Tony Newell, Coral Gables Commission Group V candidate, wants me to to tell you that despite some suggestions in this space in the past, he’s not a libertarian. We spoke on March 17, between the two major candidate events, and thus before his spectacular, seemingly unprovoked, public attack on three of his fellow candidates (see Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)).

I wanted to ask Newell about my list of issues, but I have to admit, the libertarian thing was my first question to him in light of his endorsement by a libertarian publication in the previous election. Newell replied, “No. I am a big believer in market principles. I resist the false choice of ‘all market’ or ‘everything regulated’.” Yes, Coral Gables “does attract people due to – I wouldn’t call them Draconian – rules. We place a high premium on zoning … The Gables brand was based mostly on aesthetics. The conservative part of me says, that’s the tradition, don’t abandon it … on zoning, new development I’m a big believer on strict regulations.” On the other hand, “When it comes to business impacts, we should let the market do it. I don’t think it is our job to protect businesses. By creating an environment in which business can thrive the city has done its job.” In other words, the City should not be “picking the ratio of restaurants to boutiques.”

This led to us to the Master Plan question. Newell said he wants to create a “real master plan” not a “nominal” one like we have now. In his view the current plan lacks “cohesive vision”. Newell, however, disclaimed a right to decide what that vision should be, as “it’s up to the people” but he suggested we might start with “low hanging fruit” such as how far outside the CBD we would allow certain projects, or whether we keep existing boundaries. That debate is one for a large committee staffed with local residents, like a bigger version of the committee shepherding Streetscape. And we could use the Metroquest platform to stimulate public engagement online.

What Newell says he wants is clearer rules that would give developers a clear sense of what we would and wouldn’t allow; what he opposes is the current system where the Commission can demand things like trees or trolleys in exchange for allowing deviations from the zoning rules. The Commission shouldn’t be doing that, he tells me: that’s imposing their views rather than having consistent rules. “I don’t have very specific designs for the city. I don’t want to be … a taste Czar.”
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Jeannett Slesnick: the Big Name in the Race

Whatever the outcome of the Coral Gables Commission Group V election, I think we’ll all owe Jeannett Slesnick thanks for setting the agenda. Under her leadership the Gables Good Government Committee (GGG) has done more to publicize the surprising amount of development coming to Coral Gables than anyone else. Former City Manger Pat Salerno and incumbent Mayor Jim Cason certainly made no effort to tell us. That job fell to the GGG which put out a newsletter in November 2014 saying Here Come the Cranes! and then did a full print magazine in February 2015 describing the coming development in much more detail (see pages 22-46, it’s pretty amazing). The magazine is also viewable online at

Those publications, more than anything, set out an account of what will be built around us in the next year or two – and it’s a lot. But that alone doesn’t mean Slesnick is the best choice for Commissioner.

Jeannett Slesnick also has the longest Gables c.v., having served on – or run – a ton of entities both public and private. And, of course, she’s also the wife of an ex-Mayor, Don Slesnick, although he hasn’t been visible in her campaign, and when I interviewed her about my issues in their Gables home on April 1, he was nowhere to be seen and she made of point of saying that she decided to run on her own, while her husband was out of town and surprised him with the news by phone.
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Ariel Fernandez – a Grass Roots Candidate With a Past

Ariel Fernandez is the alphabetically first candidate for Coral Gables Commission Group V. We met on March 13, at what seemed to be his defacto campaign office at the Liberty Caffe at the Coral Gables Country Club. Despite the tony address, it’s not a formal place. (Half price gelato on Tuesday! Free parking!) I wanted to ask him about my list of issues.

Broken sidewalks got Ariel Fernandez into Coral Gables politics. His background is in constituent services. Fernandez worked for Illeana Ros-Lehtinen for 11 years and also for David Rivera for two years (a fact omitted from — or perhaps it would be better to say utterly obfuscated on — Fernandez’s online bio). Local gadfly George Volsky, whom I used to respect until he started attacking the people who rightly demanded that former City Manager Pat Salerno resign for misleading the Commission, basically says that Fernandez lied on his bio by claiming 11 years with Ros-Lehtinen. Volsky claims that, “Records of the U.S. Congress state ‘Ariel Fernandez’ worked for Ileana as a Congress employee for only 18 months, thus all the other years he must have been, if true, a volunteer.” I asked Fernandez about this on April 7 and Fernandez replied that he worked for Ros-Lehtinen in various capacities part time while attending FIU, so his work record is a combination of part and full-time but it does cover 11 years. And he says he has the online pay records to prove it. Because the records on that page are locked to subscribers I have not actually seen the linked entries, but on the surface their very existence would seem to be strong support for Fernandez’s version of this story. Fernandez says that Volsky — who unlike me used to be a professional journalist — never called to get Fernandez’s side of the story. (I called Volsky this morning and asked him whether he had called Fernandez to check out the story, and Volsky confirmed he had not, saying he’s writing an opinion column and that the rules are different for opinion pieces and it was enough to rely on the Congressional Record; that’s a correct statement of the dominant journalistic ethics, but in my opinion — as an opinion columnist — a poor rule to go by nonetheless.)

Although one should have expected greater candor about the Rivera connection, dealing with constituent problems has to be good training for being a Commissioner, and it’s a key part of Fernandez’s narrative about himself. The way he tells it, he didn’t plan to run for Commissioner, he was just trying to organize some residents in his neighborhood to ask the City for some improvements to sidewalks and trash pits and other issues. Pat Salerno, the former City Manger not only ignored them, he denied there were any broken sidewalks in Coral Gables, and a campaign was born. There’s little danger that Fernandez sees this job as a springboard to higher office; it’s clear from the way he talks that he doesn’t want to live anywhere else, and indeed resisted pulls by his former employers to move to Washington.

There’s something attractive about a grass-roots candidate. But what about the issues?
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