For nearly two hours Monday night, eight of the 11 candidates for Miami-Dade mayor squared off on issues, and occasionally went after each other.
The debate, hosted by the NAACP, took place before a capacity crowd at New Birth Cathedral of Faith International in Miami.
Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina, current county commissioner Carlos Gimenez and former rapper Luther Campbell, along with former Miami-Dade Transit Chief Roosevelt Bradley, retired police officer Eddie Lewis, Wilbur “Short Stop” Bell, green transportation activist Gabrielle Redfern and economist Farid Khavari took questions on issues ranging from how they would turn the county’s troubled economy, and its public hospital, Jackson, around, to issues of personal integrity and preparedness to lead as the county’s next mayor.
Former state representative Marcelo Llorente, former commissioner Jose “Pepe” Cancio and attorney Jeffrey Lampert did not attend.
The debate was moderated by CBS 4′s Jim Defede and TRR’s Joy-Ann Reid. The League of Women Voters co-sponsored the event with the Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce, with former Obama campaign operative and Karen Andre and Chamber president Bill Diggs representing the respective organizations as co-hosts and presenters at the event.
In a series of “show of hands” questions, all eight candidates said they supported a strong mayor system and term limits for county commissioners. None raised their hands in the affirmative regarding whether they thought the Marlins stadium deal was good for the county, though Robaina had previously supported the deal. He later reversed his position.
On whether the number of county commissioners elected from “single member districts” should be reduced from the current thirteen, an idea that would add “at large” members to the commission, only Lewis raised his hand.
The candidates largely agreed that tensions between police and the Black community would be reduced by community policing, and all said that as mayor they would retain the current police director. Redfern was the lone candidate who said the county’s police director should be elected rather than appointed.
The most explosive moment in the debate came when Campbell, an audience favorite, accused the other African-American candidates, Lewis, Bell and Bradley, of being “paid off” by Robaina, presumably to dilute the Black vote. Black voters make up 22 percent of Miami-Dade’s population, though the race is largely expected to turn on the majority Cuban American vote. Campbell, who is running third in a recent Miami Herald poll, said the other three should get out of the race and consolidate the Black vote behind him.
Bell and Bradley objected strenuously to the charge, with Bell calling himself a “multi-millionaire who cannot be bought,” and Bradley standing to emphasize the point that he was “trusted” as Transit director “and can be trusted again.” It was a line Bradley repeated throughout the debate. At one point, Bell and Campbell engaged in a heated argument on the dais, as Bell expressed “disappointment” with Campbell for leveling the charge.
In another exchange, Gimenez was asked by Defede about charges he has made about Robaina’s integrity.
“That’s a good question, and I’m not gonna duck it,” Gimenez said, saying there are questions raised by the Miami Herald that should be relevant to voters, regarding the loan business Robaina ran in Hialeah, and about his dealings with an alleged Ponzi schemer. Robaina countered that the race was not about him, but about the issues of concern to voters.
“My family and I were the victims of a crime,” he said of the allegations regarding loans he made to convicted Ponzi schemer Luis Felipe Perez.
The candidates were asked how they would ease ethnic tensions in Miami-Dade, and what they would do to be perceived as the mayor of all county residents. Gimenez pointed to his time as head of Miami’s fire chief and his stint as Miami’s county manager, saying he has a history of hiring a staff of “the most qualified” people who “look like the county.” Robaina also pledged to have a diverse staff, and pointed to his appointment of an African-American assistant chief of the Hialeah police department.
Campbell called himself “the only candidate on this stage who has cross-over appeal,” saying his candidacy has attracted support across ethnic lines, while Bradley reiterated his accomplishments as head of the Transit agency, saying he had increased Black participation in contracting.
Contracting is a key issue for African-American voters, who have seen the level of Black business participation in county projects fall to around 1 percent since a 1996 federal court decision striking down Miami-Dade’s affirmative action program.
Another key issue during the debate was transportation. Redfern said it was “shameful” that a county as large as Miami-Dade has no viable public transit. And Bradley accused the previous mayor, Carlos Alvarez, of ousting him over Bradley’s insistence on pushing the transit corridor north and south, benefiting majority Black communities in the urban core, rather than east and west.
On the issue of what to do with Jackson hospital, the candidates largely agreed, with most saying the hospital should remain a public-private trust, rather than being privatized entirely.
After the debate, NAACP Miami-Dade branch president Victor Curry criticized Univision and FIU for hosting an exclusive debate, saying “imagine if the NAACP and Florida Memorial University held a debate and only invited the Black candidates. We would be rightly criticized.” Robaina has said he will not attend future Spanish language debates at which all candidates are not invited.