Successful Miami-Dade Recall Effort Fueled by Money, Public Discontent

The second-largest recall in U.S. history began last September, when one of the richest men in South Florida reached out to two state legislators to tell them he wanted to oust the county’s top political leader – its mayor.

Norman Braman, the billionaire car dealer who once owned the Philadelphia Eagles, knew the effort to recall Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez would be difficult and costly, and he was willing to pour his own money – as much as it took – to make it happen.

Braman, a Republican, reached out to State Sen. Rene Garcia, then running for office, and State Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, two Hispanic Republicans from Hialeah and Miami, and said he was fed up with a myriad of issues in county government.

Of particular concern was a property tax increase approved by county government that came at a time when people were losing their jobs and homes. To make matters worse, Braman said, the tax hike was approved to offset contractual obligations with the unions – and much of it, about $132 million, was going toward salary increases.

“I just decided it was time to do something about it,” Braman said. “I wanted to empower the people of this community to take back their government.”

Those conversations started a grassroots effort that capitalized on the growing anger and resentment among Miami-Dade voters over a crushing job and housing market – the county is struggling with an unemployment rate of 12 percent and a foreclosure rate of 14 percent, both far above the national average – and a county government that was doing nothing about it.

Press conferences were called, and local politicians hit the airwaves to rally for the recall. Thousands of dollars went to T.V. ads and hundreds of volunteers collected signatures.

“There was such uproar among people that they would come out and look for the petition,” Garcia recalled. “It helped to have the financing. But people were upset about the fact that this had happened.”

The recall campaign ended up costing Braman close to $1 million, but the money he threw at the effort did what a prior unsuccessful recall effort against Alvarez did not – it knocked out the county’s powerful and once popular leader. Alvarez is a Republican, though campaigns for the county mayor and county commissioners are not carried out under party banners.

Tuesday’s recall was the country’s second largest in terms of population, behind California Governor Gray Davis, who was ousted in 2003.

“People care about their community, and they want their voices heard – that’s the message of yesterday,” Braman said Wednesday. “Yesterday was a referendum for change.”

Alvarez, who bitterly fought the recall drive, said at a news conference Wednesday it was a “sad day” for him.

“Everyone has an opinion,” he said. “It’s much harder to actually make decisions and live with them.”

Alvarez’s ouster has created a political free-for-all – with dozens of potential candidates angling for political support to fill the seat. But political observers say voters seem to be looking for a change – and will likely reject anyone who is part of the old political establishment.

“Given yesterday’s rejection of the way county government runs, it heralds a new dawn and a new type of candidate,” said Miami pollster Fernand Amandi of Bendixen & Amandi. “People are looking for something new. And the question people now have to grapple with is ‘Who is the type of person and what type of skill-set am I looking for?’ What I don’t think is it will be someone who represents the politics of the past.”

Garcia, the state senator, said all politicians should take notice after Tuesday’s results. Their actions, he said, will come with consequences.

“I think by doing this, every elected official is in check now in Miami-Dade County,” Garcia said. “We all have to remember who we represent, not disregard the voters. People work hard, they work two jobs put food on the table, and government comes to squander their money? That’s just not right.”

Braman, meanwhile, said his effort to reform county government is not over.

“We have a program,” he said. “Mayor Alvarez, in itself, doesn’t create reform.”

He said his campaign now will focus on other issues, among them: trying to reform the county charter, create term limits on the mayor and county commissioners, change the number of county commissioners (there are currently 13), reduce the role of lobbyists in county government and make sure county commissioners aren’t involved in businesses that deal with the county.

He said he also wants to make it easier for the “average person,” who doesn’t have $1 million to spare, to recall politicians.

“We have to follow through to make sure reform happens here,” he said. “If not, then frankly for me it was a waste of money, and a lot of people’s time and my time. So we have to follow through with our agenda.”

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