MIAMI — This city's first Cuban-American mayor faces a runoff today in another of the bitter and often zany elections that have become a Miami tradition.
Xavier Suarez is challenged by Maurice Ferre, the scion of a wealthy Puerto Rican family and a political Houdini who was the city's six-term mayor until two years ago.
Suarez, a 38-year-old lawyer, has been a non-controversial, even lackluster presence. He boasts of fixing potholes and hauling off garbage. He won 43% of the vote in last Tuesday's election.
Ferre, 52, is a dapper businessman. He contends that his opponent's devotion to the drudgery of municipal leadership comes at a sacrifice of vision for Miami's future.
"Filling potholes is important, but we have a city manager to worry about that," says Ferre, who received 32% of the vote. He calls Suarez a cold fish who does not like to kiss or be kissed by "little old ladies."
In Miami's form of government, the mayor is an important figurehead but still only a single vote on the five-member City Commission. A city manager tends to day-to-day operations.
Fired City Manager
Actually, Ferre might still be mayor had he not quarreled with one of those managers. In late 1984, he and two commissioners voted to fire Howard Gary, the black city manager.
The ensuing to-do certainly cost Ferre any chance for a seventh consecutive two-year term.
Until then, he had been a gifted political escape artist who won elections by playing one ethnic group against another. For years, Miami's vote was split roughly into thirds among Latinos, blacks and non-Latino whites.
But recently, growing Latino numbers and "white flight" have reshaped that equation. Latinos--primarily Cuban-Americans--make up about two-thirds of the population and nearly half of the registered voters.
Last week, Ferre, a liberal, did surprisingly well among the far more conservative Cubans. He is credited with much of the building boom that has given Miami a dramatic downtown skyline.
With the Latino and Anglo votes closely split, victory will likely go to a candidate who can win solid support from blacks, now 28% of the total.
In the primary, most of that vote went to Arthur Teele Jr., a black lawyer and a newcomer to city politics.
Teele has not endorsed either candidate, though many of the volunteers in his campaign, as well as a group of black ministers, last weekend decided to back Ferre.
'A Forgiving People'
"We are a forgiving people," the Rev. Alonzo Anderson said in announcing that the sin of firing Howard Gary is now expiated.
Traditionally, blacks have been reluctant to support Cuban candidates. But that may be changing.
Not all are ready to forgive Ferre. Besides, Suarez has also courted the black vote.
Several prominent blacks, including City Commissioner Miller Dawkins, have endorsed the Harvard-educated Cuban.
"People don't remember me for firing the city manager," Suarez said sarcastically as he handed out flyers in black neighborhoods.