Suarez Becomes High-Profile Latino Political Force : Things Getting Lively for Miami’s ‘Dull’ Mayor

Associated Press

Xavier Suarez gained national attention when he was elected as Miami’s first Cuban-born mayor. Around here he quickly gained a reputation as the “pothole mayor,” competent but dull in the land of “Miami Vice.”

He was considered by many to be an unimaginative technocrat, seemingly uncomfortable in public and lacking the urbane, high-profile style of his predecessor.

Suarez steered away from the foreign policy issues that often dominate the local news media, saying his job was not to overthrow Fidel Castro but to get the garbage picked up.


That was four years ago. No one calls Xavier Suarez boring anymore.

From a $5,000-a-year job that carries no actual executive powers because Miami has a city manager system, Suarez has built a political empire.

His influence has spread from Dade County to the state capital and Washington, as well as to Latin America.

Cisneros’ Departure

With the departure of San Antonio Mayor Henry G. Cisneros from politics because of personal problems, Suarez is one of the highest-profile Latino politicians in the United States.

Reelected in 1987 with 62% of the vote, Suarez last year was under serious consideration to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. This year he was the only mayor in the White House team of observers sent to monitor the elections in Panama. He often meets with Latin heads of state and travels to Latin countries as a speaker.

Suarez also claimed national attention for his personalized role in trying to ease the Overtown race riots in January.

In a poll conducted by a veteran Democratic consultant in February, Suarez got 76% overall approval ratings from Miami’s three major ethnic groups--blacks, Latinos and Anglos.

“He’s close to unbeatable,” says Raul Masvidal, the banker defeated by Suarez in 1985.

Still officially independent, Suarez has allies in both major parties.

With all this political clout, what’s next for Xavier Suarez?

“A U.S. Senate seat would always be interesting,” Suarez says. “A high-level Administration position. It would take a pretty high level to get me out of here. Someday, governor. To manage a $23-billion budget and do it efficiently would be challenging.”

Suarez has an easy explanation for how he moved so far so quickly: He is still at heart a pothole mayor interested in efficiency, and he has learned that the most efficient way to get things done is with political networking and pressure.

“I used to say: ‘I’d rather beg forgiveness than ask permission.’ It seemed better to let everybody else follow. Now I have found that it’s a lot easier to have people agree with you. You get things done a lot quicker.”

Also, he has found he has more of a taste for politics than he realized.

He learned that his own popularity is a commodity with value beyond getting him reelected easily and enabling him to dream of statewide office.

“If you have good ratings in the polls, you’re in a position to negotiate with both parties,” Suarez says. “You can exert a lot of influence, but you have to win a lot.”

Suarez, a Villanova-trained engineer and Harvard-educated lawyer, had lost three city elections before 1985. He and his associates aren’t losing many these days.

In 1987, Suarez backed the opponent of his chief nemesis on the city commission, fiery anti-Communist Joe Carollo. Suarez said it was time to get city meetings away from exile politics and onto current concerns.

Built a Coalition

Suarez built a coalition on the city commission after Carollo was ousted. That enabled him, the Miami Herald reported, to go through the two city commission meetings in January without losing on a single one of the more than 100 votes in each meeting.

Last year, Suarez backed candidates who ousted three county commissioners who had a total 44 years in office among them. He also backed several judges, legislators, and Cabinet officials in their successful election campaigns.

He decided to stay out of the Miami area’s special congressional election Tuesday to fill the seat left by Rep. Claude Pepper’s death at age 88.

A visitor to Suarez’s office three days after Pepper’s death found him in the middle of alliance-forging.

Phones rang every few minutes: Republican Party leaders, a state representative interested in running, political consultants. Finally, Suarez agreed to support Republican state Sen. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen for Congress and state Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart for her seat.

Suarez stresses, though, that people who assume he will become a Republican when he decides to run for a partisan office could be mistaken. On foreign policy, he is more in line with current Republican philosophy, as are most Cuban-Americans, but his domestic policy viewpoints run to liberal Democrat, as do most of the nation’s other Latinos.

Democrats Woo Him

Democratic Party state chairman Simon Ferro, a friend, says he doesn’t consider Suarez a Republican and hopes to have him run under the Democratic label someday.

Suarez clearly relishes his new-found political standing, which sometimes evinces the stubborn streak that drove him to spend weeks in 1983 searching for his car that was stolen. After two months, Suarez spotted his blue Impala parked in front of an apartment, got his keys, and “re-stole” it.

There are those who whisper that Suarez’s clout has gone to his head.

He angered some legislators this year with a strongly worded, threatening letter demanding their support for a 2% food and beverages tax (which later passed).

Told someone is canceling an appointment with him, Suarez says: “Tell him that’s the last appointment he gets with me.” Told U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, has been courting influential Cubans for support of his 1990 gubernatorial bid, Suarez snorts: “He hasn’t talked to me yet.”

While voicing ambitions beyond Miami, Suarez says he still has much left to do here. He streamlined the government of what he called “the city that doesn’t work” in his 1985 campaign that saw the defeat of incumbent Maurice Ferre. But as the January riots showed, work remains to be done in the inner cities he pledged to make a priority.

Suarez has sheaves of statistics to show progress made in adding housing, spurring businesses and improving services in the impoverished black neighborhoods, but he concedes that more needs to be done to lift the spirits and hopes there.

Suarez drew praise by walking virtually unprotected through riot areas, and his ratings among blacks were strong in the poll taken by political consultant Sergio Bendixen. He said Suarez was in a unique position among Cuban-American politicians because of his cross-ethnic appeal.

Ethnic-Bloc Politics

Getting away from Miami’s ethnic-bloc politics has been a major goal. He opened a press conference with Latino journalists by warning there were two questions he wouldn’t answer: “What’s it like being the first Cuban mayor?” and “How do you compare yourself with Henry Cisneros?”

“I’d rather just talk about being mayor of Miami,” Suarez said.

That job, though, turned out to include being a special figure in Latin America, just as Ferre had been and Suarez had scoffed at. Nearly all Latins view Miami as something of a suburb, he explained, a place to shop, to invest, to get medical service, to cut deals, to catch up on what’s going on in the region. The Miami news media is followed throughout Latin America, Suarez said.

“I did take a low profile on international issues at first. I wanted to batten down the hatches and get the city moving,” Suarez says. “Now I realize you can do it totally parallel to being mayor.”

For now, he will run for reelection in November, this time to a four-year term after two two-year terms. He hopes to see voter approval of a strong-mayor system, and also a strong-county-mayor system.

He, his wife and four young children are planted firmly in Miami, Suarez says, for the near future.

“It’s a very exciting city,” concluded its not-so-dull leader.