February 23, 2019
Joe Carollo: The Eczema of Miami Politics
By Grant Miller

American publisher Elbert Hubbert once wrote: “Every tyrant who has lived has believed in freedom for himself.”

A tyrant is a cancer; a petty tyrant is more like a rash, irritating, but eventually it fades and goes away.

Joe Carollo has long been the eczema of Miami politics.

Joe once was a member of the City of Miami Commission. Later, he became mayor, was succeeded by Xavier Suarez, and returned to office as mayor after Suarez. He then would find himself in political exile, taking the office of city manager of Doral, a town named for a golf course that Donald Trump would later buy.

Along the way, Joe’s behavior earned him the moniker of “Crazy Joe”. But there is a darker side to Carollo. In a memo dated June 22, 1982, Miami Police Chief Kenneth Harms wrote that he had never encountered a public official as crazy, conspiratorial, and transparently corrupt as Carollo.

During his career, he attended a press conference where he was expected to endorse Maurice Ferre for mayor, but instead double-crossed Ferre and denounced him in front of the press. Carollo has delighted in calling his opponents communists. His base has always been the abuelos and abuelas who faithfully tuned into the Cuban radio stations that broadcast up and down the dial.

Appealing to this base, Carollo regained office in 2017, elected to the seat of his term-limited brother, Frank Carollo. That campaign set Carollo off into a new direction of petty tyranny.

Bill Fuller, a co-owner of the Little Havana nightclub Ball & Chain, allowed Carollo’s runoff opponent to hold a rally on one of his properties. Leon didn’t win, but Carollo does not either forget or forgive.

Carollo, like a creature of the night, began a series of late-night stakeouts of Ball & Chain’s valet parking lot. He’s denounced Fuller on Spanish-language radio, making up accusations that Fuller had leftist ties. At Miami Commission meetings, he rails against Ball & Chain and Fuller’s other businesses.

Following the election, Carollo began focusing the power of the City of Miami to destroy Fuller’s businesses in Little Havana. Carollo has wielded the city’s Code Enforcement Office like a cudgel. He is accused of demanding and directing that Code Enforcement Officers carry out selective inspections of the businesses.

If that is true, then Carollo, who pretends to be an advocate of law and order, violated the provision in the city’s laws that prohibit a city commissioner from giving direction to a city employee. Those rules apparently apply to everyone — except Joe Carollo.

Carollo’s war against Ball & Chain resulted first in a complaint filed against him with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust. Fuller later withdrew that complaint, but filed a lawsuit in federal court against Carollo.

The lawsuit begins by stating: “The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees every citizen the absolute and fundamental rights to freedom of speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.” It then goes on to allege that Carollo trampled on the rights of Fuller and his business partner, Martin Pinilla, “by using the power and influence of his government office to engage in a campaign of harassment, retribution, and retaliation against plaintiffs.”

The lawsuit accuses Carollo of the same critique he uses against his enemies: “Unchecked retaliation and political payback on this scale would lead the United States down the path of Cuba and Venezuela today.”

Carollo defends his actions, claiming his mission is to rid Little Havana of “corrupt businessmen” trying to gentrify and “de-Latinize” it. It is a textbook defense of a demagogue. Joe has a charismatic and bombastic appeal to a small slice of the electorate who fear a world that is passing them by. Like the strong men who have preceded him, only Carollo knows how to fix the problems.

Fuller’s lawsuit will grind slowly forward in the judicial machinery. Carollo will benefit from a defense paid for by city taxpayers. He will use the lawsuit as proof of his victimhood and the righteousness of his cause. If Fuller wins, any damages will likely come out of the city treasury and not Carollo’s pockets.

A Joe Carollo can happen in any town, anywhere. Appeals to resentment, hate, rage, retribution, and paranoia always have been part of the political mix in America. However, Carollo’s brand of politics may be fading in Miami.

The AM radio stations, like their elderly Cuban listeners, have been dying off for decades. Carollo’s base is fading away. Fidel Castro is dead and his brother Raúl has retired. The kids and grandkids of those who came in exilio don’t see politics the way their parents and grandparents did. They don’t listen to Cuban radio.

Time may clear the political rash that is Joe Carollo. He might be able to gain reelection, but will be term limited out like his brother was. In the meantime, both the city and the state attorneys should boldly enforce the provisions of the law that prohibit Carollo and other commissioners from trying to take the law into their own hands.

If he won’t act lawfully, then those who have the power should show Joe Carollo the door.