In the end, it wasn’t even close.
Miami-Dade County residents turned out in record numbers for a special election, apparently itching for a chance to unseat the county’s first “strong mayor,” Carlos Alvarez and a member of the county commission, Natacha Seijas. Polls had shown the “oust Alvarez” vote hovering at over 60 percent. With final votes still rolling in Tuesday night, the margin was more like 88 percent voting to show Alvarez and Seijas the door. Turnout was above 16 percent, far higher than you normally get in a Miami-Dade special election. More than 176,000 voters cast ballots against Alvarez, and nearly 17,000 voted to say goodbye to Seijas. With 85 percent of precincts reporting:
And while the position isn’t particularly partisan, both Alvarez and Seijas are Republicans.
And from the Miami Herald:
Results will be likely be certified by Friday, when Alvarez and Seijas must vacate their offices and when their salary and benefits will end.
Commissioners will then have 30 days either to appoint a new mayor, who would serve until the next countywide election – which would likely be the presidential primary in early 2012 – or to call for a special election that would have to be held in the ensuing 45 days. There could be a runoff election after that. Seijas’ seat must also be filled by either commission appointment or special election.
Both politicians kept a low profile as results came in, but billionaire auto magnate Norman Braman, who championed the recall effort along with political action committee Miami Voice, celebrated with supporters at a press conference.
“Today is the first day of a new day for Miami-Dade County. County voters have demonstrated by their ballots that they are tired of unaccountable officials, of being ignored, and of being over-taxed in this very difficult recessionary time,” he said. “I say, ‘congratulations Miami-Dade voters!’”
In the end, what officially did Alvarez and Seijas in was the budget, which included property tax hikes (which was Braman’s major beef) and 15 percent raises for county staff at the same time rank and file county employees were being dealt a 5 percent pay cut. But lingering anger of the publicly funded (and many would say boondoggle) Marlins stadium clearly fueled public anger at county leaders. Perhaps the only surprise Tuesday was that more commissioners weren’t subjected to recall. Both Alvarez and Seijas went to court to try and stop the inevitable, but both failed.
There were and are some Alvarez defenders:
In Miami Lakes, Isidro Carmenate, 52, said Seijas shouldn’t be removed from office.
“I think she was blackballed,” Carmenate said. “I have nothing against her.”
At the Coral Reef Branch Library west of Palmetto Bay, Albert Vavrina was the lone voice of support for Alvarez Tuesday morning.
“He wanted to preserve jobs for police and firefighters,” Vavrina said of Alvarez’s controversial budget. Vavrina said that the higher taxes enabled Alvarez to support nonprofits, such as Farm Share, which donates food to hungry families and individuals in South Dade.” That money wouldn’t come if he didn’t increase the taxes. Alvarez might have made some mistakes, but I don’t think it was for his personal gain.”
Now, the county commission will have to call a special election, which will take place within 30 days. They could appoint a mayor, but then they’d probably be unable to get out of the building without burrowing a tunnel underground (and Florida is too close to the water table for that.)
As a friend of TRR said in an election related phonecall tonight, Trick Ricky get ready. The precedent is set, and voters like recalls. Already this cycle, Miami-Dade voters have taken down the first commissioner in 14 years (Dorrin Rolle) and summarily rejected the hand-picked successor to Solomon Stinson, who sat on the school board (presiding over a failing district) for eons. Voters smell blood in the water, and any politician facing a recall should begin with a presumption of failure.
(So tell us how you really feel, Geniusofdespair…)
The unfortunate thing for Alvarez is that he really hasn’t been a terrible mayor (Miami-Dade has had terrible mayors…) and his budget did indeed preserve funding for the arts and for some badly needed community programs. But he’s paying the price for the entire commission crossing Norman Braman (a man who does not like taxes and taxpayer funded stadiums and arts centers paid for with money meant to cure blight.) And he seems to have fallen victim to the rough combination of general voter distaste for politicians, a sense that people in power are taking care of their friends at the expense of the little guy, and frankly, his own arrogance and political tone deafness, particularly when dealing with the media. This TIME piece sums it up nicely:
Politicians often do the right thing wrongly. Democrats are mistaken to think we can stanch our hemorrhaging budgets without cutting entitlements, but Republicans are just as delusional to suggest it can be done without raising taxes. Carlos Alvarez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, or greater Miami, understood this. And so, staring at the revenue free fall caused by South Florida’s housing collapse, he engineered a property-tax increase last year to plug a near half-billion-dollar budget hole and keep critical departments like fire and police from being, as he said, “gutted.”
Problem was, taking that step during the Great Recession, when Miami-Dade unemployment was approaching 13%, meant that you and your administration better be models of fiscal responsibility. But it turned out that Alvarez, one of the few Miami politicos with a reputation for probity, was at the same time raising high-level staffers’ salaries as high as 15% while calling for a 5% cut for county workers; he also used his government car allowance to help pay for a new luxury BMW 550i Gran Turismo. Couple that with the fact that the Miami-Dade County Commission, which passed Alvarez’s tax hike, is widely considered a feckless body — many of its members recently ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in police overtime costs with the all-too-common practice of using cops as their personal chauffeurs — and you can expect a bruising backlash.
With Alvarez’s fate now decided, the opportunity now exists for Democrats, should they choose to seize it, to come up with a strong candidate who can compete for the job in a banner year: 2012, when the special election winner will have to run again, in tandem with the presidential race. Democrats could win this — even Kendrick Meek, who performed dismally around the state in 2010, won Miami-Dade handily, with roughly the same coalition a Dem would need next November. And as much as I’m glad Luther Campbell is in the race, because I believe he’ll energize younger voters, Luke isn’t going to be the next mayor of Miami Dade (the other potential candidate, Roosevelt Bradley, was ousted from the Transit department in scandal, so on him, it’s a no.)
So can Florida Democrats get it together and find a strong candidate? Being a big city mayor is not a bad gig these days — just ask Rahm Emanuel. And Miami-Dade is a municipality with big problems, and big opportunities. The next mayor has the opportunity to position him or herself as the David to Tricky Ricky’s Tallahassee Goliath, fighting for urban Florida against the onslaught of crime-coddling deregulators, education slashers and money transferrers who suck the large, Democratic southern Florida counties dry on behalf of northern Florida.
So go get ‘em Dems. Carlos and Natacha will have their offices cleared by Friday.