Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez has been touring the first primary states in recent weeks, mulling a Republican presidential race built on the premise that his hip city has boomed on troubled times: « Miami’s miracle, » he calls it. Technicians rushed to the city from San Francisco. New York bankers. Taxes – and the murder rate – are low.
It’s a rosy story, not a fake one.
At the same time, a very different story about Miami recently unfolded in a dramatic civil trial against a city commissioner who was accused by a pair of businessmen of violating their First Amendment rights by goading inspectors into their bars and restaurants as political punishment. Testimony from a parade of former civil servants portrayed City Hall as a toxic, dysfunctional workplace.
On Thursday, a jury found in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the commissioner, Joe Carollo, liable for more than $63 million in damages.
Miami has long been a city of jumbled narratives, the airbrushed image it projects to outsiders often obscuring the complicated realities that lurk beneath. But these days, the contrast between the Miami brand and City Hall goings-on seems particularly stark.
Beneath the glittering post-pandemic hood of the city lurks the inner workings of a local government mired in turmoil. The trial and its revelations come at a pivotal time, as Miami is teeming with new residents whose arrival has put pressure on services, housing and roads, and as Mayor Suarez, who took office in 2017, considers trying to take advantage of the city’s popularity to run for top office.
The mayor hasn’t been implicated in the process, but a national campaign would bring fresh scrutiny of the issues to the city hall under his watch, a reminder that Miami has never been easier to sum up than his marketing pitch.
« Miami is not the glamorous place that everyone assumes, » said Manolo Reyes, a city commissioner who was not the one on trial. « We have problems and we need to solve them and face them head on. »
There are worrying signs beyond the trial. A federal judge tidy the city last month to draw new commission districts after it found that the commissioners — there are five that make up the city’s legislature — racially altered boundaries last year. Last week, a former spokesman for Mr. Suarez found guilty receiving sexually explicit photographs from a 16-year-old boy after meeting him for the first time at City Hall in 2019.
In April, two black officers filed a whistleblower complaint against the Miami Police Department, saying it has faced discrimination and retaliation after reporting corruption cases. In January, a retired police sergeant used his radio signature to blow up the boss for « destroying » the department.
Mr. Suarez — who will face Gov. Ron DeSantis, with whom he has sometimes openly disagreed, if he enters the Republican primary — has a few points to brag about: Wages and salaries have risen more sharply than in most other major areas. metropolitan areas. The unemployment rate is lower than the national average. The housing market remains buoyant, albeit somewhat less so than during the pandemic frenzy, in contrast to recent downturns in other major cities.
« I focus on the results, and the results are very clear, » Suarez, a 45-year-old Cuban-American and president of the US Conference of Mayors, said in a recent interview. « This indicates that the Miami model is a working model that scales across urban America. »
But Miami is also one of the cheapest cities in the nation when it comes to housing. It consistently has one of the highest rates of income inequality.
At City Hall, spending has stalled on a $400 million bond that voters approved in 2017 to address widespread flooding, a lack of affordable housing and other infrastructure problems. The police department is on its third chief in three years. The city attorney and his relatives are address questions whether the businesses they owned or helped financially benefit from a county-run scheme is now being investigated.
After repeatedly clashing with city commissioners, who among other things ousted his police chief in 2021, Mr. Suarez has pivoted and worked to raise his profile. He found a niche by posting online videos of his recovery from Covid and later promoting the city, famously responding to a venture capitalist who suggested moving Silicon Valley to Miami in 2020 by posting on Twitter, « How can I help? »
He also heavily promoted cryptocurrency, calling Miami the “Cryptocurrency Capital of the World,” before it collapsed last year.
Mr. Suarez has come under scrutiny after a series of revelations by the Miami Herald involving his failure to disclose financial interests, including that of a developer paid him at least $170,000 over the past two years to help with a $70 million project.
« I don’t know why my local newspaper obsessed over how many jobs I do, » she said She said on the CBS Sunday news « Face the Nation ». « I think they should focus on the mayoral job, which I think I do a great job at. »
Mr. Suarez, who is in his second and last term, yes he declined to disclose his consulting clients. He receives a fee of about $130,000 for his part-time work as mayor, although his power – and, critics argue, any credit he can claim – is limited: he has no vote in committee but can veto legislation and hire and fire the city manager. (A separate mayor and commission runs Miami-Dade County, a much larger government whose mayor has broad executive powers.)
Former Mayor Tomás Regalado, Suarez’s predecessor and fellow Republican, who is considering running for mayor again, called Miami « ethically challenged. »
« The city is going through a very difficult situation in terms of governance, because you have a city commission where every commissioner believes they are the mayor and the manager, » he said. « And you have an absent mayor. »
The trial pitted Mr. Carollo, a city commissioner and former mayor, against two businessmen, Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, who alleged that Mr. Carollo « armed » the code enforcement department against them because they supported Mr. Carollo’s opponent in 2017.
Mr. Carollo, a 68-year-old Republican who has been an explosive figure in Miami politics for decades, countered that his actions were intended to preserve the quality of life of residents and ensure that the plaintiffs’ properties, some of which had fallen into disrepair, were secure and functioning with the proper permits. One night, it was noted during the trial, one of their bars was found to be operating an illegal boxing ring.
Mr. Fuller and Mr. Pinilla have extensive real estate holdings in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood; Mr. Fuller is part owner of Ball & Chain, a popular bar and nightclub. The plaintiffs’ attorney said their businesses have been cited for code violations 84 times. One business was forced to relocate and another to close.
The jury found Mr. Carollo liable for $15.9 million in compensatory damages and $47.6 million in punitive damages.
The trial, which began in April, was full of outlandish allegations and startling anecdotes, including that Mr Carollo patrolled the plaintiffs’ properties late at night and wanted a helper to secretly measure the distance between one of their businesses and a church, looking for reasons to revoke a liquor license.
Mr. Carollo, who testified for several days, called the plaintiffs’ witnesses — including a former city manager, three former police chiefs and several former associates of Mr. Carollo — liars with personal « grievances. »
« I would pit my record against anyone in town, » he said.
In a recent interview, Mr. Suarez was dismissive of the process. “It’s normal for the press to focus on negative things,” he said.
The city has spent at least $1.9 million in legal fees to defend Mr. Carollo, who may appeal Thursday’s verdict. But a more serious case looms for City Hall: The corporate entity that owns the Ball & Chain nightclub has filed a separate lawsuit against the city, not the commissioner, for $28 million in business losses.
That process is ongoing.