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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One Response to Coral Gables Election 2015: Candidates for Mayor Debate

  1. Buffy Roller says:

    CORAL GABLES DESERVES BETTER NOW….I received a ‘flyer’ from them excoriating Jim Carson. Who are they?. Also one from Ralph Caberra on crime and need for more officers etc….Last debate from commission candidates all said there were 20 vacancies on police force unfilled due to lack of qualified candidates…Ralph must know this….seems a scare tactic flyer ..?? B.

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