Have Mercy on Us: Coral Gables Mayor and Commission Races

[April 8 update appears in brown type.]

[Updated April 7. New info appears in blue type.]

The Basics

Election Day: April 13 (Vote at Your Precinct)

Early Voting: April 10 and 11 (CG Public Library, 3443 Segovia)

Make sure you are registered to vote in Coral Gables by March 15 to participate.

Register here to vote by mail. 

Background: 

Coral Gables holds mayoral and commission elections every two years.  Mayors serve two year terms, and commissioners serve 4-year staggered terms. This year, two current commissioners (Patricia Keon and Vincent Lago) are vacating their seats to run for mayor and their seats (Group II and III) are open. Two years ago, we elected Michael Mena and Jorge Fors, who would face reelection in 2023. 

The Coral Gables contests are officially non-partisan, so registered Democrats can run against Democrats, Republicans against Republicans, etc. But I am a partisan—a progressive Democrat—so I write this as someone planning on voting and attempting sift through an essentially non-progressive field in a non-progressive city for glimmers of promise.

But be warned: regardless of party, most of the candidates are unthoughtful climate change deniers with significant stakes in local political dynasties, the real estate business, or both.  

The only big “controversy” is on a matter about which most of the candidates basically agree—that there should be redevelopment of some kind on Miracle Mile.  They disagree on how to describe zoning minutiae and whether certain candidates are encouraging six-story buildings to be built on the Mile while claiming otherwise. 

They also sometimes disagree on whether already-completed (Paseo de la Riviera complex) or well-along projects (The Plaza Coral Gables, Gables Station) should have been approved in the past. But because there’s so little going on in town right now, the real shit—climate change adaptation, affordable housing—isn’t getting a lot of play. 

Anyway. In terms of advertising and other measures of visibility, the race seems dominated by Culturally Republican Shape Shifters (CRSSs), those politicians who are basically aligned with the Miami Republican establishment, and who seem inclined vote R in federal and state elections, but who present themselves as enlightened pragmatic consensus builders when it comes to local politics. 

I have very little time for these arguments given that the current federal R agenda so far is blocking LGBTQ rights, restricting voting rights, burning the earth, and giving everyone COVID.  Given this context and its inescapable local implications, an individual under-50 Republican’s basic grasp of multicultural urban social skills does not move me too much. 

But even if you do believe that local politics are just that, and that a nice enough individual Republican can do a good job for our city, we still don’t want our local government to be a training ground for superficially palatable Republicans. And, given the relative youth of the Republicans running in this race, that is a distinct possibility. 

That said, we have to vote for someone, and, I’ve had the opportunity to observe many of the candidates closely though the city and county parties’ endorsement processes, so here are my recommendations. 

Recommendations: 

Mayor: 2 year term

Pick: Patricia Keon (D)

72-year old Democrat, former nurse, current commissioner. Keon has a strong grasp of city issues, shows independence by advocating some large development projects on the basis of climate change resiliency planning. She has, however, garnered a reputation for being irrationally pro-development, which angers some and may hurt her electability.  She fairly belligerent by politician standards, and not especially amenable to constituent feedback, but she should do a decent job in the two-year gig of mayor.

(Endorsed by the Miami Herald, SAVE, Equality Florida, Miami-Dade Democratic Party, Coral Gables Democratic Club).

CRSS alert: Avoid Vince Lago (R)

43-year old current commissioner and Vice Mayor. Smart and personable guy who says the right things about zoning and development, but is also an R in the construction business who refused to answer when members of the Coral Gables Democratic Club asked him whether he had voted for Trump. He rather offensively claims to have a strong personal record on the environment and LGBTQ rights while supporting a party that opposes both. 

(Recent controversy around Lago unfortunately supports this characterization. In the past week, a letter has surfaced in which parents of students at the Carrollton School wrote to the board of trustees to complain that the school’s post-George Floyd anti-racism curriculum represented an affront to “the Catholic culture at Carrollton.” Lago was one of the letter’s signatories. Lago reacted to criticism characteristically. He responded to accusations of racism with the straight male politician’s typical high dudgeon, first claiming that his wife and children were being attacked by critics and then, like any other red-blooded, red-hatted Republican, accusing Keon of socialism. In response, SAVE revoked their prior co-endorsement of Keon and Lago as equally LGBT-friendly, and the Herald slightly downgraded their own. But progressives shouldn’t be surprised that someone like Lago, who was proud of symbolically taking a knee at a demonstration in the immediate wake of George Floyd’s murder, balked when the opportunity presented itself to do actual anti-racist work. All he had to do remain above the fray here was to not sign the letter and he couldn’t even manage that.)

***As of 4/8, the Herald has revoked their endorsement of Lago and endorsed Keon instead. **

Group 2 Commission: 4-year term

An enormous field. I’m focusing on the top three because a runoff is likely. 

Pick: José Valdés-Fauli (D)

Given my general allergy to political legacies, I didn’t necessarily expect to be endorsing Valdés-Fauli, 69, a retired banker and the younger, gayer brother of our increasingly cranky current mayor, Raúl Valdés-Fauli, 77. But having read his positions and seen him speak in a number of contexts, I think that he is a true-blue Democrat who has a very firm grip on what is happening in city government and as they say, “knows where the bodies are buried.” He has a moral compass, and shows a better ability to cut though the corruption and bullshit to accomplish what is best for the city than any else running in any category. I actually put up a yard sign. 

(Endorsed by SAVE, Equality Florida, Miami-Dade Democratic Party, Coral Gables Democratic Club).

Also good: Rhonda Anderson (D)

Attorney Anderson, 60, is a bit lackluster as a candidate—she is too chronically mired in minutiae to, say, explain a matter of policy with any clarity to someone not already serving on a subcommittee with her— but she would be a solid commissioner. She has an especially strong grasp of environmental issues, and comes close to matching José Valdés-Fauli in her understanding of the false narratives currently framing the Miracle Mile development debates.  If only they were not in competition. 

(Endorsed by the Miami Herald, who appears to misunderstand Valdés-Fauli’s position on Miracle Mile development.)

CRSS alert:  Avoid Tania Cruz-Gimenez (D)

Cruz-Gimenez, 45, is a very smart, and personable attorney and political consultant married to the son of former mayor and current FL-26 congressman Carlos Gimenez. She is registered D—you could could even call her a cultural D, because she’s grew up in New Jersey.  She is especially aggravating to local Democrats because, while she may personally vote D, she appears to be deeply enmeshed with the local Republican establishment, not only her own extended family, but also the Diaz de la Portilla family, both of whom she has helped cause major electoral headaches for local Dems. 

In conversations with the Coral Gables Democratic Club she seemed notably unfamiliar with current Democratic positions and uninterested in learning. She is a canny opportunist who appears to share Lago’s delusion that local politics operates apart from ideology. Nothing she won’t both-sides.

Group 3 Commission:  4-year term.

A small, weak field.  This is a tough race to get excited out. Three Rs, one ex-R/ex-D/current NPA.

Pick: Javier Baños (NPA)

Baños, 39, an attorney and CPA, is a definite CRSS, who has professional and family connections to Joe Carollo, has endorsed Vince Lago (who does not appear to have endorsed him) and is running on an anti-/smart development platform. He has served on the Coral Gables pension board and is advocating hard for moving newly hired Coral Gables employees off of the city’s pension rolls and on to commercial 401(K) plans. This strikes me as a particularly cruel position to take given that someone hired by the city now could likely be retiring when the city itself is under water and inhabitable. So a paid-up pension plan seems like about the least frivolous investment the city could make. 

HOWEVER, given the weak field, and given the soft spot I personally have for Baños because he supported David Richardson’s primary campaign against Donna Shalala way back in 2018 when he was a Dem and I was young and hopeful, I am still inclined to vote for him. 

(Endorsed by the Miami Herald, SAVE, and Equality Florida)

Avoid: Kirk Menendez (R)

Menendez, 58, is an attorney who has had a number of jobs with the city of Miami but appears to be currently non-practicing/selling real estate.  His main alignments appear to be with the scary Cuban American National Foundation and the anodyne Coral Gables Youth Center, where he coaches soccer.  I don’t think I could vote for him, but he does seem fairly incompetent, which may be a reasonable strategic option given the alternatives in this field. 

Absolutely Avoid:  Alex Bucelo (R)

Attorney Bucelo, 27, is the person in this race who is most transparently aiming to launch a Republican political career. His father, Armando, served in the W. Bush administration and was also the chairman of the board of MDC. He is well-funded and well-connected, and has, for reasons clearly unrelated to his actual qualifications, secured the endorsement of a parade of ex-mayors of Coral Gables.  Let’s try not to launch this guy. 

Late Entry:  Philip “PJ” Mitchell (R)

He qualified at the deadline and I haven’t met him. I’ll add more if I learn more. 

Additional Resources:

https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/community/miami-dade/coral-gables/article249438730.html

https://www.politicalcortadito.com/

https://www.coralgables.com/elections

https://www.coralgablesdems.org/coral_gables_election

https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/carrollton-school-parents-complain-about-anti-racism-curriculum-in-miami-12064998

https://www.save.lgbt/elections

https://www.wlrn.org/commentary/2021-04-09/trivializing-tyranny-fraudulent-political-attacks-like-lagos-mock-latin-american-pain

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