Voters will choose today between Mayor Joe Carollo and former Mayor Xavier Suarez for Miami's newly strengthened top post after a bitter race in which the city's $68-million deficit was described as a hoax.
"They have always represented rival factions in city of Miami politics," said Dario Moreno, a professor of political science at Florida International University in Miami. "The campaign language has just been attack, attack, attack. They call each other cowards, liars, thieves."
Carollo, then in office just a few months, declared a financial emergency in December 1996 after a $68-million deficit was discovered in Miami's $275-million budget.
Suarez, who was Miami's mayor from 1985 to 1993, contends Carollo fabricated the crisis so he could improve his own stature by solving it.
At most, Suarez says, the shortfall would not have exceeded $21-million. "And that's the kind of thing you deal with by tightening your belt," he told the Miami Herald.
Said Moreno: "Most people who know anything about the city's deficit crisis reject this as a piece of nonsense. But what it has done, it plays very, very well in Little Havana.
"What Suarez is basically saying to poor and elderly people is they're not going to have to raise taxes or have cuts in services and everything's just fine in the city administration. He's telling them what they want to hear."
Amid the crisis, Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed an oversight board to ride herd on city spending, and the Wall Street bond rating agencies cut Miami's debt to junk status.
Miami has since adopted a five-year plan to eliminate the deficit through union concessions, spending cuts, fee increases and land sales. It projects a $30-million surplus this year and has seen its bond rating restored to investment-grade.
Carollo blamed the problems on "the lack of leadership that we had in the past." He and his supporters said the city consistently spent more money than it raised, as far back as the late 1980s, when Suarez was mayor.
"I don't think anyone could have worked as hard as we have at the city of Miami to come back as quickly as we have," Carollo told Reuters in September.
Both Suarez and Carollo are naturalized U.S. citizens who were born in Cuba. Their history is one of long-standing animosity.
Their wildest attacks on each other have come during interviews on Spanish-language radio stations. While Suarez has accused Carollo of fabricating the financial crisis, Carollo has accused Suarez of lying on his campaign reports and hiding under his bed when his house was robbed, Moreno said.
Carollo, 42, runs a seafood exporting company and was a city commissioner for eight years. During that time, he was known for strident anti-Communist rhetoric and for comparing rivals to Adolf Hitler. Voters ousted him from office in 1987 but re-elected him to the commission in 1995, when he campaigned as a "kinder and gentler Joe."
Suarez, 48, is a Harvard-trained lawyer who embraced the label "pothole mayor" during his previous terms, focusing on local concerns such as street paving, garbage collection and cleaning up graffiti.
Opinion polls are mixed, at times showing Suarez ahead, then giving Carollo a slight lead.
The winner will have unprecedented power under the "strong-mayor" form of government that Miami voters adopted in September. It gives the mayor veto powers over the City Commission and allows him to hire and fire the city manager.
Currently, the mayor automatically becomes a member of the City Commission but has no more power than the other four commissioners.
The election comes as Miami struggles with a corruption scandal that outraged voters, prompting a failed effort in September to dissolve the city as a political entity and put it under the government of Dade County.