Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)

This evening the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce hosted its candidates’ forum for the upcoming elections on April 14. Group V, which went first, started with a moment of actual drama, and then had another dramatic moment with an unexpected question.

There are three races, and the forum had three long hours. Rather than splitting the time into three parts, the Chamber gave about an hour and a half to the Group V race (six candidates), but only half an hour to the Group IV race (2 candidates); it gave a full hour to the Mayor’s race (Group I). This probably reflects the competitiveness of the respective contests. The event was televised on channel 77, will be rebroadcast on Coral Gables TV, and is supposed to be upon on YouTube soon.

This post is about the Group V forum. For some background and a list of candidates see my post on Campaign Web Sites, Coral Gables Commission Group V and Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates.

I’ll try to write up the Group V and Mayoral events soon, work permitting. For now, though, I want to point out a very odd feature of the other two parts of the forum: in the Group IV debate the challenger almost always got called on to speak first, so that the incumbent usually got the rebuttal, without the challenger getting to reply to what the incumbent said. In the Mayor’s forum — twice as long as Group IV — the incumbent Mayor never had to speak first on anything. I think this undermined the event as a fair forum. The Chamber owes us a more level playing field. Or else why not just endorse publicly before the event and get it over with?

There was a big turnout, a couple hundred or maybe more. Juan Mendieta, director of communications at Miami-Dade College, served as moderator. Most of the questions came from the Chamber, but they also invited questions from the audience and might maybe have used one or two.

For the information of those wanting to discount my bias, I went into the Group V debate with no clear idea of who I wanted to vote for. But I have formed some ideas about the issues. One is that the crime “issue” is a non-issue. The second is that the two biggest issues are related: whether and how Coral Gables wants to change how it regulates development, and what Coral Gables will do with the potential tax windfall coming from all the development currently in the pipeline.

But first, the drama.

Candidates, sadly, were asked not to debate but to address the audience; I thought that meant we were in for soundbite city. In at least one case I was wrong: Norman Anthony (“Tony”) Newell’s opening was a direct and seemingly unprovoked attack on three of the other candidates in the guise of self-praise for running a positive campaign.

Couching the attacks as things he could have but didn’t put into his incessant mailers (we come to bury Caesar?), Newell (1) accused Ariel Fernandez of being linked to notoriously crazy former Congressman David Rivera, (2) accused Sandra Murado of claiming to be a citizen activist but never having served on a city board, and (3) accused Jeanette Slesnick of wanting “the power to reshape property in the morning so she can sell it at night” something I couldn’t hear related to development (I’ll update with a better description when I hear the tape). The audience gasped at this rat-tat-tat attack, and I felt like I was seeing a candidacy go down the tubes. Newell settled down after that, but I think the irreparable damage was done.

Each candidate Newell attacked had a response.

(1) Ariel Fernandez responded on stage by saying “I take offense of comments by Mr. Newell”. After the debate I asked him about Rivera and Fernandez said he had worked for Rivera as his Deputy District Director while Rivera was in Congress, having been hired out of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office. Fernandez said he soon realized the job was a mistake, and tried to get a new job but felt he couldn’t afford to leave until he had one as he needed health insurance for his diabetes. Fernandez also stated that he brought an ethics complaint against Rivera, but being a lousy reporter I didn’t get the details…and Mr. Google didn’t lead me anywhere when I got home.

(2) Sandra Murado responded by saying she had in fact served on a city board: the Parks & Recreation Board 2012-13. (Incidentally, I wonder how many city boards has Newell served on? I know he was on the Coral Historic Preservation Board. Any others? Can’t be much more than Murado.)

(3) Slesnick later responded that she did 100% residential real estate.

The other highlights were less dramatic, but they had their moments. (Please note that EVERYTHING in this blog post is my paraphrase unless in “quotes” in which case it’s my best effort to write it verbatim.)

Agave Mediterranean Village

On the Agave Mediterranean Village project, Fernandez suggested the city should first take care of incumbents on Miracle Mile.

Slesnick said that the Agave group builds beautiful buildings and knows what they are doing. We need reassurances from city on height extensions; more generally we need ‘smart growth’ and need to pay attention to the variances in this and other projects. The problem is the Master Plan isn’t being followed.

Sandra Murado noted that Building and Zoning unanimously passed the project 7-0; then there was a commission hearing. On April 2nd commissioners will have first reading on the project – it will die or pass. If it passes it goes to the state. And then in July or August it comes back to the new Commission for its 2nd reading.

PJ Mitchell said that the animation of project to scale showed that project was too big. It eliminated the buffer zone around the property. Parking is not inadequate. It’s too high. It is, he said, a beautiful project but we have a lot of concerns. But as of right they could do one million square feet1, which is comparable to village of Merrick Park. Citizens need to show up April 2nd and tell the Commission what you think of the project.

A Cuban Consulate in Coral Gables?

The surprise question of the night was what the candidates would say about the idea of a Cuban Consulate in Coral Gables, given the US has now normalized relations with Cuba.

Ariel Fernandez went first, and he hit it out of the park. Until the Castro brothers are gone, and there is true democracy in Cuba I would not support such an office. But with ur current Mayor2 I highly doubt they would come to Coral Gables. Cubans have suffered. My grandparents suffered. It upsets me that someone would say lets normalize relations.

Everyone agreed in a different way, starting with Jackson Holmes.

PJ Mitchell said that Cuban-Americans built much of this area. Absolutely would not want a consulate out of respect for what has happened.

Sandra Murado agreed on the “emotional” issue, but noted that “legally speaking” that will never come before a commission – this is an issue of the relations between two countries. (It was the right answer bust risked sounding like she had a tin ear.)

Tony Newell said his view was “over my dead body” until the Castros are gone.

Jeanette Slesnick said “emphatically no”. It needs to be elsewhere.

Controlled Choice

PJ Mitchell had the only interesting and surprising comment here. He said “I am not in favor of eliminating school choice at this time.” Coral Gables gets a preference on magnet programs – if the Gables dropped controlled choice, other areas would challenge the preference. Beware unintended consequences. Beware rash decisions. (I thought that was at least gutsy and probably wise.)

Random Other Comments

(All lifted out of context from other questions and answers.)

Ariel Fernandez said he thought Commission elections should have a runoff, as it looked likely that whoever won this election would have only a minority of the votes and that would be unfortunate.

Jackson Holmes said he’s an Uber driver in addition to his other jobs.

Sandra Murado suggested we calm traffic by making streets more narrow and the spaces around roundabouts tighter. (Hearing that, I resolved not to vote for her.)

Tony Newell suggested a local ordinance to prohibit texting while driving; the current county ordinance on this is only a secondary offense, he said, and thus a cop can’t stop you just for texting.

PJ Mitchell suggested that Coral Gables ought to reorient its economic development strategy to borrow the best features of Miami-Dade’s “one community one goal” plan – but Coral Gables should focus on attracting technology companies here.

My Takeaway

Tony Newell really hurt himself with his opening; he calmed down after that. Jeanette Slesnick didn’t say anything wrong, but once again she failed to stand out.

This time, the two best performers in the group were Ariel Fernandez and – surprisingly given the first debate – PJ Mitchell, who spoke really well. Last time I saw him he was hesitant; this time he was fluent and seemed to speak from the heart and he said a lot of reasonable things.

Of course there much more to a candidate than a performance in one event. I hope to have some more to say about some of the candidates’ views in future posts.


  1. the proposal asks for approval of 1.3 million square feet of mixed use, only 300,000 sq feet of which is commercial []
  2. Jim Cason’s claim to fame is that when he was the US’s highest ranking diplomat in Cuba, he specialized in annoying Castro. []
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One Response to Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)

  1. Hurricane says:

    Tony Newell’s first one minute was the worst I have heard. But I think the impact on his campaign is overstated. The number of undecided voters at the debate, watching on Coral Gables TV, reading this blog or the Miami Herald, etc. probably isn’t a large number. And he did settle down, demonstrating the best overall knowledge of the issues. His list of supporters was also impressive.

    The constant asking of the first question to Ariel Fernandez and the challengers in the other races was due to the seating in alphabetical order. It was the moderator’s fault in not rotating this amongst the candidates.

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