The Mayoral Mess of 1997: Smokin’ Joe Vs. Mayor Loco
By now the entire world is familiar with the Florida voting fiasco of 2000. It managed to sufficiently embarrass South Florida just when we were getting past that armed-to-the-teeth and drug-infested reputation. But few remember that just three years before George Bush managed to become president even though the majority of the country didn’t vote for him, another South Florida election once again proved that Miami, no matter how much we try to convince the nation otherwise, is incapable of doing anything the way the rest of the country does it. And while many are offended when national politicians refer to us as a “third-world-country,” well, Banana Republic is as Banana Republic does.
THE LESSER OF TWO EVILS
It was the fall of 1997 and Miami had just declared that while its financial crisis that almost forced it to unincorporate was subsiding, there was still a $68 million dollar shortfall in the budget. And the city’s bond rating was somewhere between “Only if you Don’t Like Your Money,” and “You’ve Gotta be F*&##$ing Kidding Me.” Two men stood in line to try and save the city of Miami from its financial ruin: Incumbent Mayor “Smokin’” Joe Carollo, who had overseen then Magic City during its most unfortunate financial period, and former mayor Xavier Suarez who, among other things, had been mayor of the city when it repeatedly led the nation in crime, guns and poverty. But, being the Harvard educated attorney that he was, Suarez knew that Miami voters are apt to overlook vast incompetence so long as you denounce Fidel Castro. Which he tended to do from time to time.
The general election saw Carollo almost win outright, receiving more votes than Suarez but coming 155 short of capturing over the 50% needed to avoid a runoff. Almost immediately, the Carollo campaign smelled a rat, and began to examine absentee ballots. Three days after the election, Suarez staffer Miguel Amador was arrested for attempting to buy three absentee ballots from an undercover Florida Department of Law Enforcement officer. This alone should have led to slightly higher scrutiny of the runoff, but apparently this was not to be the case. Despite findings that several absentee ballots had been sent from one address and the arrest of a 92 year old man for falsely witnessing the ballot of a dead guy, the runoff proceeded on November 13. Suarez won in a landslide. Much to the surprise of absolutely no one.
Though Suarez was reinstated as Mayor Loco, the investigation into fraud of the November 4 election continued. Investigators, along with Miami Herald reporters, found a disproportionately large number of absentee ballots coming in for Suarez from City Commission District 3, represented by a gentleman named Humberto Hernandez. Gentleman, of course, is a term to be used lightly. Removed as a city commissioner by Governor Lawton Chiles after being implicated in a money-laundering scam, Hernandez was somehow re-elected in this same November 4 election and grudgingly returned to his post by the governor. Apparently he managed to denounce Castro enough that the elderly and poor voters in his district looked over the slight issue of the $8 million bank fraud he allegedly committed. He was allowed to serve until his federal trial began September 8.
SUAREZ HUGE AMONG INCARCERATED, HOMELESS AND DEAD
The more people investigated, the more they found a lot of people somehow tied to Hernandez voting in the City of Miami election. The strange part, however, was that the vast majority of these people did not live in the city of Miami. Some lived in Miami Beach, others in Coral Gables, and still others six feet below the surface of the city. Yes, somehow a good number of people who voted for Xavier Suarez were lacking that ever-so-important quality of the American voter: a pulse. And while Miami has long had the reputation as “God’s Waiting Room,” The Great Beyond is, technically, not inside the city limits. So as popular as Suarez was with that crucial Dead voting block, they were, unfortunately, ineligible for this particular election. Most of them had to wait until 2000 to have their voices heard.
Another interesting ineligible demographic that threw their support behind Suarez were convicted felons. Yes, despite sacrificing their voting rights when they opted to rob that liquor store or carjack those German tourists, many local felons felt it their civic duty to return a fellow-shady character to office by electing Suarez. This, too, was slightly frowned upon by FDLE.
But, in perhaps the most blatant display of disregard for the American voting process, one that, again, is only arguably applicable in Miami-Dade County, Suarez staffers cruised the streets buying votes from the homeless. That’s right, apparently Raymond Molina, a former mayoral candidate-turned-Suarez-staffer, had cruised the streets of Overtown in a van, offering $10 to anyone who would go down to the local church and pull the figurative lever for Xavier Suarez. That’s a good two rocks for your average Overtown street dweller, so Molina had little trouble securing the crackhead vote for his candidate. And in case these pillars of the Urban community forgot who they were supposed to vote for in order to receive that crisp ten-spot, Molina made sure to have “Suarez” sprawled across the side of the van. Subtle. Real subtle.
Now perhaps Molina was looking to corrupt the election for Suarez since he could not win it himself, but it seems that this vote-buying idea was actually quite effective. He even employed a gentleman named Jeffrey “Pop” Hoskins to aid him in this venture, rounding more people from Overtown to throw one down for Suarez. Hoskins was, in turn, indicted on February 20.
MAYOR LOCO RIDES AGAIN
As the investigations proceeded, Xavier Suarez took to the Spanish-language airwaves, telling Miamians that they did not need to cooperate with state investigators asking if they fraudulently voted in the election. They had the right to keep quiet. Some did, others didn’t, and it quickly became apparent that there were a lot of people voting in Little Havana who had no business voting in Little Havana.
Suarez, for his part, tried to act as mayoral as possible, knowing full well he had no business being mayor, and began to tackle the $68 million deficit by saying that, according to his calculations, there was no deficit. Then, when repeated denouncing of Castro and fuzzy math did not confuse the not-poor-and-elderly voters of Miami, he went to the state legislature in Tallahassee to try and get more funding for his beleaguered city. His strategy? Repeatedly referring to one State Senator as “Senator Cabbage” and asking Governor Chiles about his daughter’s abortion as a way to make small talk. Strangely, his requests were denied. His actions, combined with the growing allegations of having the dead and brain-dead vote for him, reinforcing his unshakable reputation as “Mayor Loco.”
APPARENTLY THE COURTS DO NOT CONSIDER WHO THE DEAD WANTED
Despite his efforts to distract the public and the media from the fact that, more likely than not, he was not supposed to be mayor, investigations into Suarez continued. After extensive work by FDLE and numerous reports from the Miami Herald, each one uncovering a more unbelievable disregard for law and order than the last (well, at least unbelievable to anyone not living in South Florida) a federal trial began February 9, 1998 to settle the mayoral election once and for all. After a month-long trial, during which time multiple witnesses invoked their 5th amendment rights, Judge Thomas Wilson Jr. declared the election invalid and ordered a new election in 60 days. Carollo was elated, Suarez was incensed. And although he was relieved that the judge did not implicate him as a knowing participant, he still appealed the decision.
In retrospect, this may not have been the best decision (because paying the homeless to vote is certainly a sign of good judgment.) A week later a Florida appellate court decided that all the absentee ballots from the November 4 election were invalid and declared Carollo the winner. “Smokin’” Joe made a triumphant return to City Hall, and a small semblance of law and order was restored.
WE ALL COME OUT LOSERS
Several Suarez staffers and supporters were later indicted on a variety of vote-fraud charges. Hernandez, in is frantic efforts to cover-up the fact that he had moved several addresses into his district to vote for Suarez, did about as good a job of that as he had of covering up his money laundering as was indicted for that as well. In yet another only-in-Miami twist, Hernandez pled guilty to the money laundering and bank fraud charges, but later demanded a mistrial be declared when it came out that his wife, Ester, had been sleeping with his attorney. Whether or not this was a ruse developed by Hernandez to create some bogus “conflict of interest’ was an issue for the courts to decide, and they decided it was. Hernandez was sentenced to four years in prison. This, after being sentenced to 364 days in jail for his involvement in the mayoral mess.
Three years later, another major election was held in this country. One where no one seemed to have a clear majority, and the results rested, again, in Miami. In a city where convicted criminals are routinely elected to office, where dead people and crackheads decide the civic future, a path for America was blazed when the fate of the world rested on Dade County’s electoral system. And we performed in the exact way anyone living here would have expected. The rest, my friends, is history. You’re welcome.
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