Thoughts on Coral Gables Commission Group III 2021 Election

Group II is stuffed with plausible candidates.  In relative, and maybe absolute terms, Group III is a desert.

There are four candidates:  Javier Baños (#80); Alex Bucelo (#81); Kirk Menendez (#82); Phillip “PJ” Mitchell (#83).

There are two elephants in this race: Baños and Menendez.  I have trouble with both.

If you just went by the two candidates’ forums (fora?) you would have to say that Baños was the most well-spoken and authoritative. As a CPA and lawyer, he likely wins on paper too. The problems are the substance of what he says, and the baggage he brings with him.  I have never been a fan of candidates who say their number one priority is to take it out of the hide of city workers, yet that is what Baños said in response to a question.  Over the last decade Coral Gables, like a lot of municipalities, has made some changes to its pension system to reduce long-term liabilities; apparently that’s not enough for Baños, who wants more. At at time when the city faces major environmental challenges and some serious issues about the pace of development and the degree of citizen notice and involvement in commission decisions, this is an odd first priority.

Then there’s the baggage. Baños’s experience is outside the Gables, from Miami and Miami Beach. Local blogger Elaine de Valle suggests he has ties not just to Miami Commissioner “Crazy Joe” Carollo, which is bad, but also to Marc Sarnoff, the great failed hope of progressives turned political Svengali, and the money trail (see below) supports that claim.

People also are beating up on the other elephant, Kirk Menendez, for supporting zoning changes in the Crafts district which just happen to greatly increase the value of his property. Personally, I can’t get excited about that ‘issue’.  What gets me is the anemic platform, the likelihood that he’d be a negative force on the Commission. He’s for parks, civility, and “hometown charm.” That’s nice but not really responsive to the issues of the day.  He’s for “smart development” too, whatever that is, but it’s mostly a nostalgia agenda.  I want a lot more.

Menendez’s main claim to fame–and it seems, office–is a long career as a soccer coach at the Coral Gables Youth Center. (Although, in fairness, Menendez does have a law degree from St. Thomas.) He knows a lot of folks, and they like him. But listening to him in the forums, reading his rather scanty online platform, makes me think he’ll be, at best, a follower, and not necessarily of the right people. He’s all about keeping things the way they are–or were. Either pablum, or code for bad things. I think pablum, probably, but who knows.

It’s petty, but Menendez also is the only candidate in either Group II or Group III who has spammed me. (Keon spam-texted me.) My neighbor who flew the long-past-its-sell-date Trump flag has a Menendez sign (along with his Lago and Cruz-Gimenez signs), so that isn’t good either.

I spoke with PJ Mitchell on some of his previous campaigns, and found him likable and sincere — but very very committed to an anti-spending agenda, which inevitably would impact public services.  Other bloggers, who have done a better job than I of covering this race, have tended to characterize his last-minute campaign this year as not serious, and he hasn’t done a good job of responding to questionnaires.  I like the guy, but I’m not a fan of the agenda, whether or not he’s in it for real.  Judging by the mailer volume at my house, he’s way underfunded compared to the other candidates.

That leaves Alex Bucelo. He didn’t cover himself with glory at the candidates’ forums. Sometimes he sounded fine, sometimes he seemed a bit over his head. On the plus side, he’s endorsed by former Mayor Dorothy Thomson, whose endorsements I think carry weight. On the minus side, former Mayor Cason endorsed him too. On the plus side, so did former Mayor Don Slesnick.

The dark money mailers tell a confused story in this race.  “Citizens for a Better Miami-Dade Government” (based in Miami, Bradley Cassel, Chairman) sent me attack mailers against Bucelo and Menendez. The Herald reports that

Cassel is a former member of the South Miami pension board, on which he served alongside Javier Baños, who is competing with Menendez in Group Three.

The political committee has reported only $30,000 raised, all of it last month. Most of the money — $25,000 — came from Truth is the Daughter of Time, another political committee chaired by lobbyist and former Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. Alvarez, Carbonell, Feltman & DaSilva PL, a Gables-based firm, contributed the other $5,000.

Meanwhile, the “Communities First Project” (based in Tallahassee, chaired by Christian Camara) sent me attack mailers against Bucelo, Menendez, and Baños. Camara is a Republican politician based in Tallahassee; what the connection is to Coral Gables might be (or to Mitchell, who would seem to be the beneficiary of these mailers) isn’t clear.

The absence of dark money mailers sent to benefit the Bucelo and Mendendez campaigns is a point or two in their favor.

There really isn’t a candidate I can feel happy about in this group.  Bucelo seems the least bad in the bunch, if only because least formed.  Baños seems the most competent — but would, I fear, use those talents to take us in the wrong direction. Menendez is the candidate of old Gables, a flavor that has no attraction for me. Mitchel might have made a case for himself if he’d tried harder.

So I guess I would say Bucelo is the least problematic of the bunch, followed, I guess, maybe by Menendez. But who knows, really?

The fact is that voters like me, people who really only focus on local politics every so often, have been particularly badly served by this campaign, especially if we were sheltering in place.  The Herald has done a sort-of-decent job of coverage, but circulation is way down, some key articles were paywalled online. The candidates’ forums were too crowded for us to get much sense of what candidates thought about issues, a round-robin format where no one got to speak very much, although the Chamber of Commerce/UM event organizers did their best to manage the crowd of candidates.

On the other hand, the second forum, held at Carver, was an informational disaster.  Most of the questions were, unsurprisingly, about education-related issues. But that is a subject that the Coral Gables Commission has very little sway over, that being the role of the county-wide School Board.  We were treated to three hours of discussion that concentrated on it anyway.  And, at the end we were told that there was no time for the audience questions that had been promised, either. (I wanted to ask about the weird, excessive, traffic calming proposal unveiled a few weeks ago. No go for the question–or future cars either.)  Yes, there is/was one genuine schools related issue: the existing Commission’s back-room deal to allow a gas station to be built across from Carver Elementary. Trouble is, both serious candidates in the Mayor’s race were part of it, and none of the Group II or III candidates were, so by and large they were free to bash it at will.  Didn’t tell us much, and could have safely been one question amidst many more diverse ones in a properly organized event.

A few local blogs have tried to fill the gap, but sometimes in a partisan way. And of course all the mailers — I’m really tired of the mailers, but what else can candidates do?

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3 Responses to Thoughts on Coral Gables Commission Group III 2021 Election

  1. Javier Baños, Esq CPA says:

    I appreciate the commentary and the introduction. Remember that no candidate is anyone thing, and the Bucelo campaign has spent significant money with their paid blogger, to paint the wrong picture of my campaign. My only relationship to Carollo is that my firm did the campaign books and public reporting in 2017. However, given my experience in public life, vs a candidate in bucelo that has zero experience and does not actually pay taxes in the city, they use a paid blogger to generate chisme cloaked as journalism yo “ask questions.” It is an old trick. I have advocated for the elimination of out of scale development, and for the financial health of the pension plan because those two items will prevent or limit any environmental proactive action for the future. I welcome any question 3055195581. Javier Banos

    • It’s a common hit on Bucelo that he ‘has never paid property taxes in Coral Gables’; since he claims to live here, I presume he’s a renter. Is the theory that renters are less entitled to a voice on the Commission?

      Also, there’s the matter of the anonymous hit mailers in the name of groups created for that purpose only….some of us are not reconciled to the by now common run-around on transparency rules that campaigns routinely use at elections. Fine. We just don’t have to vote for it. For all that it may have received some developer money, the Bucelo campaign does not appear to have sunk to that.

      PS I am not a paid blogger; but it is sadly clear that some other blogs are not very even-handed.

      • Javier Baños, Esq CPA says:

        There is no anonymity. I could be wrong, but in these local elections, where people’s hard earned taxes (and how they are spent) are the main source of debate, I (as a voter) find it a bit problematic to put forward a candidate that has received all the developer assistance and pays none of the consequences for his future decisions. These are moneyed interests that want a sure support on the commission bought and paid for a candidate who will need them in the future. I have spent 15 years serving my local community — I am doing this because we most participate in order to have the government we deserve. I don’t have all the answers and it will be in the hands of voters, as it is rightly the case, I can only promise to do the best I can to Sever their interests. I have not received nor will I accept any of their money.

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