In the first debate of the 2020 Miami-Dade County mayoral race on Monday, five candidates expressed commitments to address sea-level rise and expand worker rights but also sparred over their backgrounds and ways to improve mass transit in the county.
The forum hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Firefighters Memorial Building in Doral took place before more than 100 local union workers and activists. It featured wide-ranging discussions on county partnerships with unions, public education and using taxes to expand county services, among other issues.
The candidates included current Miami-Dade Commissioners Daniella Levine Cava, Esteban Bovo Jr., Jean Monestime and Xavier Suarez, as well as former county Mayor Alex Penelas. Three other candidates did not participate.
They’re all vying to succeed current Mayor Carlos Gimenez in an August primary election next year. Gimenez is stepping down from the nonpartisan position due to term limits.
“What you will have to decide is who is most credentialed, most qualified to run a $9 billion business,” Penelas said during the debate, referring to the county’s budget.
Much of the forum was tailored to labor issues with many workers in attendance dressed in shirts representing their respective unions.
Candidates, including Levine Cava and Suarez, said Miami-Dade must improve its relationships with different unions. Union leaders and workers have criticized the county for letting partnerships with labor groups sour.
Levine Cava noted that support from labor groups helped her initially win a seat on the county commission in 2014. She said she would partner with unions to improve wages and benefits.
“I’ve championed equal pay for women, we’ve increased the living wage, we’ve brought labor peace to numerous contracts,” Levine Cava said. “As mayor, this is what I will continue.”
Suarez, who previously served as the first Cuban-born mayor of Miami, also called himself a “friend of labor” who is willing to “fight it out with the bureaucrats.”
On climate change, each of the candidates agreed that human behavior is a cause of global warming. They said the county must improve its sewage infrastructure and address leaking septic tanks as a result of sea-level rise.
Monestime said climate change is South Florida’s greatest threat. He argued that Miami-Dade’s resiliency team deserves more funding and should also focus on reducing climate emissions.
“We can’t leave it to our next generation to solve it for us,” said Monestime, who, if elected, would be the county’s first black and Haitian-American mayor. “We must make it the business of every county department to address this issue.”
While there was an overall agreement about environmental threats facing South Florida, exchanges grew more testy on transportation. And a growing rivalry between Bovo, a Republican, and Penelas, a Democrat, quickly became apparent. Both candidates have Hialeah political roots and are competing for the city’s voters.
Bovo has made addressing traffic congestion and expanding mass transit a key plank in his platform.
On Monday, he continued to criticize what he called broken promises as part of a transportation tax passed in a 2002 referendum, which then-mayor Penelas supported. Bovo said the half penny tax was never enough to fund major mass transit projects, calling the idea a “bold-face lie.”
In another apparent slight toward Penelas, Bovo said the county cannot afford to revert to past practices.
“What we cannot do and should not do is go back to the past century’s way of doing things and go backwards. We need to move forward,” he said.
Penelas quickly fired back. He said the tax was not meant to pay for all mass transit improvements but instead encourage more funding from the federal government. He also accused current government officials of misusing the funds from the transportation tax.
“The fact that subsequent commissions and administrations have used that money to fill budget holes and deficits in our community I think is unforgivable,” he said. “I find it very interesting that some of the very same individuals who have been consistently voting to mispend that money for the past eight, nine, 10 years now have this very convenient political narrative that a campaign that they had nothing to do with was overpromised.”
Penelas also called the county’s recent decision to fund a proposed $76 million Virgin Trains station in Aventura a giveaway that will benefit few mass transit riders. Bovo supported the station as a step toward providing more transit options.
Mark Richard, a labor attorney who represents several county unions, moderated the debate. He said the candidates mostly provided general responses with few specifics, in part because they had only about two minutes to answer each question.
“But I think they all gave it a good shot today,” he said. “It’s going to be a long campaign where the residents...will have a chance to ask harder, deeper and more extensive questions.”
A previous version of this article misspelled Jean Monestime's last name on second reference.