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A Rocky Start for Miami's New Mayor

Serious missteps, feud with Herald prompt questions about Suarez's ability to run the city

When Xavier Suarez took office as mayor of Miami last November, he inherited a city wracked by financial problems and corruption.

So what does he do? He proclaims that the city's fiscal crisis is a myth, and forms a political alliance with a city commissioner who is under federal indictment for fraud and money-laundering.

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And that's just for starters.

He snubs the fiscal oversight board the governor appointed last year to prevent the city from going bankrupt.

He ignores the advice of his lawyers and attempts to replace the police chief with his own candidate.

He calls for mass resignations of city employees to open up jobs for his political cronies.

After his actions predictably result in negative newspaper articles, Mr. Suarez called the Miami Herald, threatening to cancel all the city's advertising in the paper unless coverage becomes "a lot nicer to me, my people, my citizens, and my city."

The Herald responds by breaking a story that a campaign worker in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods bought support for Suarez on election day by paying $10 a vote. Investigators were already looking into allegations that dead people cast absentee ballots for Suarez during the run-off election.

No evidence

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There is no evidence that Suarez knew about or played a role in efforts to fix the mayoral election. But the mayor raised eyebrows again two weeks ago when he told city residents in a radio interview that they didn't have to cooperate with state investigators seeking to root out alleged widespread voter fraud. He was quoted as saying: "You don't have to answer anything if you don't want to."

Legal experts say such advice is unusual coming from the mayor of a major US city.

The blitz of questionable actions over the past three months has political observers scratching their heads. Some are beginning to wonder whether the mayor will survive his term.

"I think there is a very real chance that he could be removed from office," says Christopher Warren, a political science professor at Florida International University. "Various sectors and various political players are informally reaching the conclusion that his actions to date have not just been controversial but have been inappropriate and have been harmful."

Not all observers are alarmed about the tone and style of Suarez's leadership.

Agustin Acosta, general manager of the Spanish-language talk radio station WQBA, says most of Suarez's problems are issues of perception and bad publicity. He says Suarez is doing a pretty good job so far.

"I think the perception of someone living outside the city of Miami is that the city is almost in the depths of a bottomless pit. But it is not that way," Mr. Acosta says. "Everything is not rosy and there are a lot of areas where responsible management needs to be implemented, but I feel positive," he says.

Acosta says close to a billion dollars in new construction permits are being issued in Miami, violent crime is down, and new companies are moving to the city.

The mayor seemed to wave a white flag recently in a column he authored in the Miami Herald. In it he admits to making "minor" mistakes and he vows to be "more reflective and consultative" in the future.

But the column and other statements by the mayor suggests Suarez holds a deep sense of destiny, that he has been called to service at exactly this moment in history to save the city of Miami from destruction.

Ironically, many political observers say despite his good intentions, Suarez may be pushing the city closer than ever to the brink.

Second term

What has people most baffled is that Suarez served as mayor before, from 1985 to 1993. During his prior tenure as mayor, the Harvard-educated lawyer never exhibited anything close to his current behavior.

"In a way, you expect that a mayor who served before would be a low risk because you would know what you are getting, but there has been a major change in his approach to the office," says Jonathan West, chairman of the political science department at the University of Miami.

Part of the problem, observers say, is that the city has just adopted a new form of government featuring a strong mayor post. In the past the mayor was mayor in name only, a city commission member with a title but no executive powers.

But with the shift, the lines of authority have not yet been clearly outlined, and many powers that Suarez apparently assumed were his as mayor instead reside with the city manager or the commission as a whole.

For example, the manager, not the mayor, has the authority to replace the police chief and make other major personnel moves.

After the state attorney's office investigated the mayor's attempt to make personnel changes, the mayor and prosecutors entered into a legal settlement that forbids Suarez from hiring or firing city workers in accordance with the city charter. A state judge is monitoring the mayor's compliance and could send Suarez to jail if any violations of the charter are detected.

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