Coral Gables Candidate Debate: Part 1 – Commission Group 4 and Group 5 (Updated)

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

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., 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.

Group 5

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.

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31 Responses to Coral Gables Candidate Debate: Part 1 – Commission Group 4 and Group 5 (Updated)

  1. In evaluating an idea, one must first hear correctly, and then remember what was said before commenting on its value. I suggested the possibly of using vacant commercial zoned properties for new school locations. I did and do not suggest using residential properties for schools. I am against the expansion of Somerset Academy’s student enrollment from 110 to 735 students. I wonder if the reviewer, Prof. Froomkin, supports that expansion.
    Richard Namon, Sr.
    Candidate for Commissioner Group V

    • Thank you for the correction.

      I don’t have a view on Somerset, not having studied it. Knowing none of the facts, I think the burden (legally and morally) is clearly on the proponents to explain why the proposal is not larger than is sensible for the location. I don’t know if they have met, or could meet, that burden. Whether it is sensible for Commission / Mayoral candidates to opine on a matter they will have to vote on when sitting in a quasi-judicial capacity is yet another issue, one I thought Mayoral candidate Tom Korge dealt with especially well.

  2. Just me says:

    As I have said before, I think the strength of this blog is your coverage of local politics.

  3. Whatsup says:

    Mr. Kerdyk Jr’s facial expressions, smirks at other candidates remarks, were indeed offputting and quite hard to watch, slick and demeaning to other candidates.

    I clearly heard Mr.Namon state the use of Commercial buildings for private, charter or public schools, not homes, and his idea was touted by two other candidates in the debate.
    Regarding Mr. Rosenblatt, IMHO he was totally flat and did not have a good forum., when he tried to refute Mr. Sanabria’s claim that sooner or later Taxpayers would be left with the cost of the Miracle Mile project, it came back to haunt him.

    Regarding Mr. Quesada, he has come a long way from the first forum, he is young, privy to a team of research, and will, in the future make a good, solid candidate, but, not this time.
    Regarding Mr. Sanabria, I also noted his sitting alone before the forum while a bevy of well known local marketing consultants, political campaign gurus were in the lobby making the rounds, giving out absentee ballots by the stairs, fluttering around, and some of the candidates made the rounds with their backers, taking pictures and doing the usual political thing, again, this is my personal take on it, I found Mr. Sanabria’s behaviour refreshing and sincere, he had no campaign gurus, no campaign manager tutoring him or fluttering around, it was just him and from what I could tell a couple of members of his family. actually, his non-political stance, together with the fact that as far as I could see, of the three main contenders, he had no written notes to follow on the podium, convinced me that he is definitely the best suited candidate.

  4. Whatsup says:

    Regarding your take on Mr. Sanabria’s strong stance on 30 day permitting, you label it as pro-development, frankly I as well as many others would label it pro-Gables homeowners, who sometimes do not even refurbish their homes or delay any work because of the lenght and complexity of the permitting process. Why stick a pro-development label on it instead of a pro-gables resident label.

    • Two reasons: First, I presume that the commercial permitting is in the main more complex, so this rule will put much more pressure there than in the residential. Second, I gather that they are getting some of the kinks out of the residential permitting already, so it seems to follow that many of those cases will be taken care of in a reasonable time without this bright line rule.

      I don’t like the sound of a rule that says a complex proposal always should be dealt with that fast — say it’s an entire shopping center? Or a new type of construction?

      I did a complicated house renovation a few years ago, which involved a sheaf of permits. All but one of the permitting experiences were good to OK. The one for the staircase railing was a nightmare of epic proportions. I believe the issue there was the person, not the system. A better system would perhaps manage that person better, but the answer isn’t to go all Procrustean.

      • Whatsup says:

        Just saw your reply to my post. You bring up some interesting points, let me take a stab at answering based only on my personal estimates and opinions.,
        First, Coral Gables must give its approval for any new construction, based on zoning approval, So, 30 day permitting would not in any way interfere with the zoning board’s timing to study, approve or deny new projects in the Gables, as it is a totally different procedure, only after approval would be given by the city would permitting take place and the 30 days only applies to obtaining a permitting, not finishing construction.
        Second, although it was stated last night that streamlining of the permitting process is taking place, gables residents speak quite negatively of the time, and complications involved with pulling permits.
        Third. Lets not forget that Mr. Sanabria stated 30 days for pulling or obtaining permits, this did not mean IMHO, 30 days to complete work, there is a vast difference, and what the residents are so upset about is the time involved in even pulling and obtaining a permit.
        Fourth. You sound like you had an overall good experience with your permits and renovation and I am sure others have also, but, the time spent to obtain permits is still a big issue in the gables and that is what the 30 day permit is asking for.

  5. Whatsup says:

    Is there a technical difficulty?, my comments seem to have disappeared.

  6. Audience Member says:

    I don’t think anyone should be labeled a weirdo. To each their own and at least we were entertained. Some people are eccentric.. and this is ok with me. Re: Mr. Sanabria being pro development because he wants to streamline the permitting process to 30 days?! Seriously? I work for a company who has a site acquisition phase to its project solution base and whenever the words “coral gables” come up in a meeting, it is utter moans and chaos that comes from people’s mouths. The process needs to be enhanced, tweaked and improved. Why is that a bad thing? Seriously? Also, why is it a warning when someone, Mr. Sanabria makes a clear definitive statement regarding the facts? I find it interesting when people are able to opine on issues and give them a personal interpretation instead of delivering the issues and verbiage as they are spoken. What is the purpose of that? Mr. Sanabria was the most poised and professional, as well as the most experienced speaker in Group 4 last night. Every point he made was based on experience as well as factual input. Mr. Sanabria is the right choice for Coral Gables! I also would like to add that Mr. Namon is an intelligent man and eloquent speaker and was well versed on his responses.

    • By ‘warning’ I didn’t mean to suggest I thought it was a threat. I though it was a warning about other candidates. Although I wasn’t entirely sure about which, since none of the incumbent candidates is in the Group 4 race. Was it directed at Kerdyk?

      Sanabria has virtues, as do some of the other candidates. He is clearly smart, hardworking, savvy. I like that he’s an economist. But he is late to the civic party, not having even voted during most of the years he was concentrating on business. That doesn’t bespeak of civic engagement. And his votes to move the UDB are to me a bright flashing red flag that makes me very very wary despite his other qualities.

      I remain genuinely undecided. Sanabria may have relevant experience, and meaningful civic engagement, but has IMHO the least attractive track record on policy. Rosenblatt has the best history of civic engagement, and seems good, maybe best, on policy (although I don’t know what to think about Streetscape) but in the most charitable view the jury remains out on his judgment and political savvy. Quesada seems earnest and hard-working but is harder for me to figure out on policy. I plan to interview him next week.

      • Audience Member says:

        Gosh.. do you like repeating yourself or what? I just recently read an article about “Sanabria being Charming”- I don’t recall the actual title at this point in time. However, it was almost exactly what you just wrote.. then again, you might have done a “cut and paste.” I also believe that Mr. Sanabria has made significant progress and enhancements to his approach and campaign style and strategy since 2009 and I believe he indicated those ideas and changes while you had that interview.. at least that was the impression I got from the article, not sure. Yeah, using words like “warning” and identifying someone as a “weirdo”- are not flattering for you, at all. Perhaps today is “w” day? Need to check my calendar.

  7. concerned for the Gables says:

    It was an interesting forum. Two way race between Rosenblatt and Quesada. BUt Rosenblatt has the most experience…was well-informed and has served the community very well over the past 7 or 8 years. In looking at his background I understand that he had some issues in his early life…but they are behind him. I applaud him for his service and ability to learn from past errors. He got my vote….

    • Audience Member says:

      Wow- I find it ineresting that someone would be ok with endorsing and voting for someone who basically stole, cheated, got a free education and defaulted on student loans… feels that commercial retailers should pay for a development project that they might not believe in- because “they had issues in their early life?” – Man… must be nice to default on your student loans and claim to be a “problem solver!” Hmm…. that’s not a corporate terminology I am aware of? I should check the dictionary.

      • Student loans have not been dischargable in bankruptcy since 1976, I believe. So I have no idea who you are talking about.

        • Audience Member says:

          I stand corrected, if I am wrong. However, I recall a public mention re: defaulting on student loans. However, being arrested for embezzlement is a serious charge also. Perhaps I should indicate the order of preference on one vs. another… hmm… something to think about.

  8. Audience Member says:

    Additionally, Rip seems to be a good person and it takes a lot of work and dedication to be on a campaign. Labeling people negative names is just not necessary, so let’s not go there!

  9. MAndersonCG says:

    Sanabria said: “His last words were a warning: when he ran two years ago, he lost by 323 votes.” From certified City Clerk records, it says Anderson 3301 votes and Sanabria 2656. If my abacus is working correctly, that’s 645 votes and 10.82% margin of victory. The math is a little fuzzy, proving that an undergraduate degree does not an economist make. It’s okay Gonzalo, you’ve done well for yourself being a successful developer, so please just drop the other nickname, it’s misleading, and we all know that didn’t fly in 2009.

    • MAndersonCG says:

      Correction to earlier post, Michael Froomkin said: “His last words were a warning: when he ran two years ago, he lost by 323 votes.”

  10. Audience Member says:

    ?? speculation gets you no where

  11. TellingItLikeItIs says:


    A great summary. Reinforcing some of your points: surprisingly, Kerdyk came across as dismissive and condescending; Sanabria seems smart but his loner behavior prior to the debate was odd; Quesada does seem wonkish – a good thing. Have to disagree with you about Rosenblatt, who I thought was pretty smug. Also, his past is too much for me to ignore. Patronizing his business is one thing; electing him to represent me is quite another.

  12. Whatsup says:

    The math for an election is rather simple, if Sanabria’s opponent won by 645 votes, it means exactly as he said, he lost by 323, actually, 322.5, plus 1. That is the way the math is calculated in elections, no need for abacus or digs at candidates’ degrees, HTH.
    And the loner label, well, I was there, frankly the scene at the lobby was rather depressing to me personally. To see so many paid gurus, campaign managers, publicity gurus, candidates with their entourages, handshakes for political gain only, etc., was a total turnoff. Rather see a candidate by himself and being super low key than the show of politically savy business seeking atmosphere in the lobby., to each their own.

    • MAndersonCG says:

      Whatsup – You write a lot like a political consultant that loves political voodoo mathematics (…he lost by 323, actually, 322.5, plus 1he lost by 323, actually, 322.5, plus 1. That is the way the math is calculated in elections, no need for abacus or digs at candidates’ degrees, HTH.). And the thing about an undergraduate degree in economics is true…you need a Ph.D. No digs, just facts.

  13. Richard Martin says:

    Professor Froomkin,

    While you take my comments about “identity theft” as a “deal breaker” for my candidancy let me tell you what a brief internet search has discovered about you. You live at 1436 Urbine Ave in Coral Gables. You & your wife Caroline M. Bradley purchased the property in July 1992. The purchase price was $215,000. You had an addition & work done on the property in both 2004 and 2007. Your taxes for 2010 were $5,514.22 and were paid on Nov. 29, 2010. Public records indicate that your wife may or may not have been arrested for cocaine possession (a felony) with a judgement of gulit in June 1992.

    You have been rated by students with the following comments, “extremely rude”, “very unprofessional”, “A nightmare for 1L”, “very rude in class”, “covers material very quickly.”, “Avoid him.”, “Picky grader”.

    For a small payment of $20 I can get both you & your wife’s SSN, credit history, bank records, education history, and not to mention establish credit accounts that will drive you down the same road that my wife and I have experienced for the last five years.
    Identty theft is one of the biggest crimes in our society today. Unfortunately legal authorities take the same callous approach that you did in your blog.

    • Yes, I take your refusal to explain why you apparently made a false claim to a degree by then making a vague and irrelevant reference to identity theft as a problem.

      Here, to refresh your memory, is the quote from the Herald:

      Martin said in a November interview that he had graduated from the University of Southern California in 1980 with a bachelor’s degree in real estate, but school records showed he attended but didn’t graduate. When asked to provide a copy of his diploma for verification, Martin wrote, “Several years ago my wife and I were victims of identity theft. As such, based upon advice of counsel, we do not release any personal information.” Now he is saying he attended the school but didn’t graduate.

      If you did not falsely claim to have that degree, please feel free to call the reporter a liar. If you did falsely so state, then identity theft has nothing to do with why you made that statement.

      It is a novel response to the problem of privacy in digitized information — something I’ve written about often in my career (see for example The Death of Privacy?, 52 STAN L. REV. 1461 (2000) and Creating a Viral Federal Privacy Standard, 48 B.C.L. Rev. 55 (2007)) — to suggest that a candidate for public office should offer a false biography. But there it is.

      As for dragging my wife into this — a person who has never been arrested much less convicted of anything and indeed was not even yet resident in this country in June 1992 — that is really a sign that you are not fit for office. Or polite society.

  14. Boy am I glad Eye on Miami stayed out of the Coral Gables race this time around. What did I call it: A sewer pit.

    I can’t believe a candidate would write that to you…a reporter. Sort of makes me happy I am semi-unknown.

  15. Robert Burr says:

    Thanks for your assessment of the event. Clearly there is much to be subjective about as evidenced by all the disparate opinions expressed by your readers. I prefer a season of interesting possibilities rather than the bland, incumbent-certain races of the past decade.

    I look forward to your review of the mayoral candidates event.

    BTW: I went to Harvard, MIT and the Berklee School of music in Boston, then I had lunch in Cambridge.

  16. TheIt says:

    Genius, we know your njame, wife’s name, address, home state etc. but you are not a player so you are being ignored because of irrelevance. Where is your outrage at Rosenblatt? Seems like it passed you by as a great journalist-fact-finder

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