Who to Vote for in the Coral Gables 2021 Mayoral Election? It’s Not Easy

If I’d written this post a week ago, when I planned to, it would have been a strong endorsement of Vince Lago in the upcoming April 13, 2021 Coral Gables election for Mayor (and two critical Commission seats too).  I’d have mentioned how he’s been a tireless Commissioner, sponsored more new ideas than anyone else I know of in my 20+ years of keeping half an eye on the Commission’s doings. I’d have told you he’d earned the job. But that was then; now things are much more complicated.

Lago is great on the environment, both as a Commissioner and as citizen: installed solar power on his home (just down the street from me, I should note), uses an electric car.  He is famously available to constituents with an open door office and town meetings.  He answers email quickly.  Basically, he’s worked really hard, and been right on most issues: after an initial flirtation with development in reaction to the freeze-everything-in place NIMBY view that predominated before his electoral class changed the balance in the Commission, Lago became the lone voice at times against over-development.

[For context, here’s my current view on the development issue: I was persuaded several years ago that the lid had to come off on our anti-development policies at least a bit in order for Coral Gables to remain, as someone put it, ‘A place where people live and stop, not just a place they drive through.’  At the time South Miami looked like it was trying to eat Miracle Mile’s lunch, and not doing too bad a job of it, and the same could be said for other places South of us too.  So some limited changes seemed needed.  What we got, though, was — I came to believe — far in excess of what we needed or was good for us: big developments on the US 1 corridor, and a giant shopping/living/office thing that I have trouble visualizing but that seems poised to do additional harm to Miracle Mile shops — and whose developers clearly got a steal in terms of minimal offsetting benefit payments for the variances the Commission gave it.]

Had I written this post a week ago, I would have mentioned a couple of negatives, but dismissed them as minor in the grand scheme of things. The biggest negative, I would have said, was that Lago’s a Republican, and that the non-partisan post of Coral Gables Mayor might be a springboard to state or Congressional office — and that he’d be tough to beat in one of those races.  Why create a monster? Another, related, negative, is that my neighbor who flew a Trump flag for weeks, even well after the attempted putsch at the Capitol, has a big Lago sign in front of his house.  I usually think that anyone that neighbor is for should be avoided.  But maybe, I would have said, this is the exception? After all, half the neighborhood seems to have a Lago sign.  Former Mayor Jim Cason endorsed Lago too.  Another negative. But then so did former Mayor Don Slesnick, a positive. In fact a whole bunch of people, some of whom I disagree with a lot, and some of of whom I tend to agree with, all endorsed Lago.

The case for Lago was strengthened by the nature of the opposition.  Jackson “Skip” Holmes is a perennial candidate slightly reminiscent of the UK’s Official Monster Raving Loony Party–right every so often on an issue, but just sort of randomly. (Note to Mr. Holmes: Dutch engineers cannot save South Florida because unlike in the Lowlands, the water comes at us from all six sides, including up from the porous rock; dikes will not work here when the water table rises.)

Pat Keon, the other serious candidate, has not lived up to my (perhaps inflated?) expectations. I’ve heard from people that she’s pretty abrupt with them, although I’ve only experienced a mild form of that myself.

The two big problems with Keon turned out to be on the development issue and on the ethics of campaigning. As I explained above, I’m not against all development; life is change. But I do think the city has gone overboard. Keon, however, has voted for all or most of it and doesn’t think what we got is problematic.

The thing that I would have told you sealed the deal against Keon — and for some reasonable people still could — is the lying dark money campaign supporting her, funded by some development interest. Some group no one ever heard of, an astroturf citizens group, has been papering my mailbox with lying fliers claiming that Lago is the pro-development candidate in the race.  Keon of course says she knows nothing about all this even though “the PAC has the same chairman and treasurer and the same Fort Lauderdale address as the PAC she’s registered to raise funds for”.  But for me it’s pretty much an iron-clad rule to vote against anyone who has lying dark money support.  That movie never ends well.

But wait. All that was then. This is now.

Now we learn something really ugly about Vince Lago, and the question is whether it is disqualifying, indeed more disqualifying than Keon’s electoral practices, or whether the two somehow cancel out and Lago wins on his record after all. It’s not easy.

Here’s what we learned. Back in October, 2020, Lago signed a letter that someone circulated among parents at Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart, the prominent local Catholic girls’ school. There’s really no way to sugar-coat this.  The letter is so blind as to current realities faced by Black people (and even, in one, part delusional in a Fox-commentator-talking-point kind of way) that it can fairly be called racist; some people also have suggested that the letter also has an anti-Semitic dog whistle, but that is, in context, a small side-issue.

The back story is a bit complicated, so bear with me. Apparently, in the wake of the George Floyd killing and other national developments, and perhaps (although the school won’t admit it) in response to online anonymous testimony by Carrollton students about the difficulties they’d encountered as Black students in the school, Carrollton tried to take on the racism issue seriously.  As the Miami Herald reported,

Carrollton’s Board of Trustees adopted a Social Justice, Inclusion and Diversity Statement on Aug. 2, 2020. The web page listing Carrollton’s mission and goals also changed after Oct. 31, 2020, according to archives of the website.

Goal III, titled “Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate a social awareness which impels to action,” now includes: “The school, drawing from Catholic Social Teaching, educates students to analyze and work to eradicate social structures, practices, systems, and values that perpetuate racism and other injustices.”

That was too much for some parents. They objected to the decision and claimed it wasn’t appropriate for a “Catholic-based education”.  A letter went around, dated Oct. 23, 2020, and Vince Lago, along with more than 150 parents and alumni who included a number of local political heavyweights, signed it.

The text of the letter that has been posted is not pretty reading. Part of it is a cry against modernity and against thinking, part of it is so tone-deaf about modern racism as to amount to bigotry, and then there’s the bonus shout-out to a nutty theory about anti-racism being a Marxist plot.

The signatories clearly want their girls to be told to memorize stuff and not question it. No modern discussion of problems like abortion or racism please.  (It makes me think of Laura Ingraham’s infamous instruction to LeBron James to ‘shut up and dribble’.)  Reading between the lines, the authors seem to hate the idea that the students, girls, who should it seems be quiet and subordinate and taught “the tools to pursue their faithat a deeper level, and turn to their faith in times of crisis,” had the temerity to criticize the school for not being inclusive — and that rather than smack them on the back of the hand, like in the good old days when nuns ruled with an iron ruler, Carrollton actually listened.

While stating that “racism and any form of discrimination are sins,” the letter suggests that these problems are small and remote. To suggest otherwise is, they say, to adopt a “subversive ideology” and “anti-Catholic indoctrination.”  And all this is due to a “critical theory worldview”: indeed

“[t]erms such as systemic racism; marginalized communities, systemic justice; racial equality; implicit bias, microaggressions, emanate from critical race theory, of of the many offshoots of critical theory, developed at the famous Frankfurt School in Germany in the 1920s.  As a reference, the Frankfurt School was founded with the aim of developing Marxist studies in Germany.”

This is really bad, even if it appears in a footnote. The letter-writers object to a high school discussing systemic racism and systemic justice, implicit bias, microaggressions, and marginalized communities. These terms, we’re told, are just foreign Marxist (fighting words in Miami!) inventions, not realities. But who, looking at the world around us, can seriously suggest that at least the large majority of items on this list are not urgent, contemporary problems?

So it is a very ugly letter.  Is it racist? Blind? Willfully blind? Whatever it is, it’s upsetting, and arguably disqualifying for any candidate running for any office in 2021.

But wait. We’re not quite done yet.

I don’t expect my local politicians to be experts on the Frankfurt School (even if I personally think some of its offshoots are pretty interesting).  I do expect them to read and to be responsible for what they sign, even its footnotes, even if they are not lawyers (Lago isn’t).

Lago’s explanation to the Herald for signing the letter is this:

he signed the letter because he hoped for the school to return to the institution his wife and sister remember, with nuns in the classroom and a stricter adherence to Catholic teachings. He said talking about issues of race is important, but “shouldn’t be the focus of their education.”

“It should be walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ,” said Lago, who proudly noted during a Miami Herald Editorial Board interview that he was the only elected official in the city to kneel with police and protesters during a summer rally that made national headlines.

“My wife and I make significant sacrifices to send our daughters to Carrollton,” he said. “The reason why I signed [the letter] is because I want Carrollton to uphold the value and focus on faith-based education for my daughters.”

In other words, more the authority thing than the race thing. That could be true; it could also be the case that if you are planning to run for Mayor now (and maybe something else later), and your friends in the PTA plus lots of big names in Miami politics ask you to sign a letter demanding a school turn back the clock to some good old days, you do so.  Neither version is very good, and both show some serious deafness to the racial aspects of the letter.

Yet here’s the thing. Lago’s record on racial issues is pretty good. And no one is actually suggesting he’s a racist. As Lago  said, he was part of the Coral Gables BLM demo.  He was also a key figure “in making a long-promised community center in a predominantly Black neighborhood of the Gables a reality.”

If the alternative were a candidate who I thought wasn’t as good, but didn’t have any ethical issues of her own, I’d agree with the people who’ve withdrawn their endorsement of Lago.  Both the Miami Herald editorial board (after initially changing to a “less enthusiastic” endorsement and then caving to pressure), and also SAVE have done so, although apparently without giving Lago a chance to explain himself.

But we don’t get that easy a choice. I think this was a deeply dumb move, but I’m not convinced it should be fatal, especially when the other major candidate is playing the evil dark money game. (Vince Lago having a big issue just before an election does have a certain rerun feel to it though.)

This race has generally turned ugly and you could defend a vote either way. I don’t know Lago at all well, but I’m betting that this event will make him even more eager to make sure that the views of Blacks and other minority groups get heard if he’s elected.  And so, with trepidation, I’m still planning to vote for him.

Coming up (if I can find the time….):

Group II: I’d suggest a vote for Claudia Miro (#77) (youth, new ideas, a masters in public administration — and a single parent who would, I think, be a new perspective for the Commission), or if that sounds too risky, then vote for Rhonda Andersen (#73) (experience, dues paid, probably knows half the City’s residents by name, committed to transparency, but not by nature a boat-rocker, and supported by much of the old Coral Gables establishment, and by the Miami Herald which has very unreliable instincts in local government).

Group III: Vote for Alex Bucelo (#81), faute de mieux. Yes, he’s young and inexperienced and maybe even under-qualified, but he’s the last man standing after you eliminate all the others, which you should.

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