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Former mayor outmaneuvers current one in Miami race

Published Oct. 2, 2005

When Mayor Joe Carollo realized a year ago that the city of Miami was in dire financial trouble, he called in state help to begin navigating the treacherous path back to stability.

He successfully campaigned against a movement to dissolve the city and managed to strengthen the mayor's role in city government in the same referendum.

That might seem a perfect platform to launch a re-election campaign, but Carollo is on the defensive these days.

The heated mayoral campaign is being waged by two Cuban-born politicians largely in the Spanish-language media. More than half of the city's voters are Hispanic, a fourth are black and a fifth non-Hispanic white, or Anglo as they are called here.

His leading opponent for Tuesday's mayoral election, former Mayor Xavier Suarez, claims Carollo exaggerated the city's financial problems, needlessly cut city services and is too temperamental to be mayor.

"Miami does not have a fiscal emergency," Suarez said in a recent interview. "It's a subterfuge for raising taxes, like the fire-rescue fee."

The campaign has been nasty and personal. Some in a recent poll that showed Suarez with a narrow lead said they thought Carollo had done a good job but planned to vote for the more polished Suarez anyway.

Despite his recognized efforts on the city's financial crisis, Carollo may still suffer from past perceptions.

"Joe is a victim of his political adolescence," said Miami political consultant Ric Katz. "People are waiting for the old Joe to come charging through."

Carollo was notorious in 1980s for his political stunts and for often claiming a communist conspiracy among his opponents. While a commissioner, Carollo once showed up to endorse then-Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre at a news conference only to take the microphone and blast Ferre.

But Carollo, a 42-year-old seafood exporter, has mellowed considerably and got the endorsement of the Miami Herald, largely for his apparently successful handling of the city's emergence from a $68-million budget shortfall. Carollo supported a controversial increase in the city's fire-rescue fee as a last resort to gain state approval of the city's recovery plan.

"When you're elected mayor, you're elected to make the tough decisions," Carollo said after a recent debate with Suarez. "I've made the tough decisions to get us out of the deficit, out of a jam that (Suarez) left us in."

Carollo emphasizes his aggressive recruitment of new businesses and city development, and he notes the city's financial health and crime rate are improved from when Suarez was mayor.

Suarez, a 48-year-old Harvard-educated attorney, was mayor from 1985 to 1993 and was credited with prudent leadership of a city undergoing a turbulent transition. He became prominent nationally when he worked to calm the riot-torn city in 1989. But Suarez left politics saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

He attempted his political comeback to run for the powerful new position of Dade County mayor, overseeing an umbrella of services for the county's 2.1-million residents. But his trademark shoe-leather campaign was overwhelmed by the television advertising of his opponents, and he didn't even make the runoff.

Now, Suarez has set his sights on his old job governing Miami's 375,000 residents, and his personal campaign style and reputation as "Mayor Pothole" with a focus on neighborhood problems has more resonance.

Suarez wants to push the state's financial oversight board out of the picture even though that move could cause problems with the nation's bond-rating houses. He said he would deal with Miami's problems internally and minimize the city's financial headaches, rather than going to Tallahassee for well-publicized help.

In his anti-crime ads, Suarez campaigned on Spanish-language radio to roll back portions of the Bill of Rights, proposing the elimination of bail for criminal defendants, loosening search-and-seizure laws and curbing the right against self-incrimination. These are not areas within the authority of a mayor.

Carollo is frustrated he has not communicated his accomplishments more effectively.

"I've been putting in 14-, 16-, 18-hour days to save the city, or we would not be having an election at all," he said. "I did not have time to defend myself from the attacks of him and his allies."

To the northwest of Miami, the one-time protege of longtime Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez is trying to wrest control of that city's government from his one-time mentor.

City Council President Herman Echevarria has the support of the Cuban-American political establishment, including the two Cuban-American members of Congress and Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas.

Despite the strong support, including Hialeah's police union, Echevarria appeared to be losing momentum and trailed in local polls.

Martinez, who faced an intense corruption probe and survived federal indictments, continues to leverage charisma and the image of a strong leader into widespread public support.

"People were expecting Herman to be romping over Martinez," said political consultant Phil Hamersmith. But that hasn't happened.

The election was not only a test for Martinez, who after being re-elected while under a federal corruption indictment appeared invincible, but for Penelas and the establishment that turned its back on Martinez to support Echevarria.

"Raul is an institutionally popular guy, a very difficult guy to knock off," Hamersmith said. "This is a man who is bigger than life, able to live beyond a very basic death blow in all of those grand juries and indictments and survive."