October 27, 2021
As scandal roils Miami City Hall, Mayor Suarez stays away from the limelight
 
By Charles Rabin
 

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, ambitious and eager to bask in the national spotlight, would rather not talk about City Hall right now.

His brash, hand-picked police chief is alleging deep-seated corruption by some of the city’s powerful commissioners and claiming to have gone to the feds. Commissioners, in turn, have been slamming Miami’s new top cop in public, using a series of at times bizarre televised hearings to accuse Chief Art Acevedo of egomaniacal behavior and outline just how little vetting was done while luring the new chief away from his job in Houston.

And yet Suarez, riding a wave of positive tech news and entertaining talk of presidential potential, is having nothing to do with the drama at home, dodging interviews, issuing statements and betting that he and the city are better off if he lies low until the city’s top administrator douses the flames. 

“Often times, leadership means speaking up and driving a public message. Other times it requires quiet work and discretion,” Suarez said in a statement, declining to speak directly about the controversy surrounding his hand-picked police chief. “In the meantime, I have chosen to give the city manager the time and space to sort everything out and act in the best interest of our residents. At the appropriate time depending on the circumstances, I may more publicly address all that has transpired in recent weeks.”

But by staying mostly silent, Suarez — who is running for reelection against scant opposition on Nov. 2 — risks looking absent as Miami’s often volatile City Hall erupts again and the cop he only months ago called the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs” is on the verge of being canned.

“People tell me, ‘Hey mayor, Francis Suarez has disappeared, he’s invisible, that kid has no guts,’ ” said Tomás Regalado, Suarez’s predecessor. “Every community in the City of Miami is interested, and they’re talking.”

ABOVE THE FRAY

On the first day of the Acevedo discussions at City Hall, when video clips of Acevedo in a tight-fitting Elvis costume and booming accusations made for viral news, Suarez stayed upstairs in his second-floor office above the city’s commission chambers, at one point giving a talk on cryptocurrency, according to his official schedule.

Days later, during a second Acevedo hearing, Suarez wasn’t even in Miami, instead participating in a summit out of town. He tweeted he would rather focus on the $1 million that a Miami-branded cryptocurrency made the city in one day instead of being negative and causing “conflict and division.”

And this week, when Local Univision 23 journalist Erika Carrillo attempted to approach Suarez after a public event at City Hall, she was physically blocked for a brief moment from approaching the mayor. City spokeswoman Soledad Cedro then told Carrillo that Suarez was staying away from the “media issue” to “avoid creating more conflict.”

Complicating the matter politically, last month’s hearings were called after Acevedo — a Cuban-born cop who has spent most of his life in the western U.S. — stepped on the third rail of Miami politics by quipping to other cops that the “Cuban mafia” was in charge of the department. Acevedo has since said he wasn’t aware that the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro used that phrase to describe Miami’s Cuban exile community as criminals, and apologized. 

Acevedo only inflamed commissioners further in a scathing eight-page memo, where he accused Miami commissioners of interfering in an internal investigation and eliminating a position of his second-in-command as retaliation against him. In the memo, Acevedo claimed he’s reached out to the U.S. Department of Justice with his allegations and compared some of the commissioners’ actions to the repressive Cuban government.

Again, Suarez chose not to publicly back his police chief or comment on the chief’s allegations. 

“I think it’s the obligation of the mayor to comment, to speak publicly and say if the commission is correct, if the commission should stop and refrain,” said Regalado. “I think that in this moment, every department head [in Miami] is thinking that if something ever happens with them, the mayor would never come out to defend them or would never come out to defend his administration.”

Asked about the Acevedo controversy by a Herald reporter last week as the drama unfolded at City Hall, Suarez said it’s unfortunate when administrators clash with elected officials, and he’s trying to mediate behind the scenes. 

“I can share that in the weeks leading up to today’s special meeting, I have been in dialogue with city leaders in an effort to address this situation as expeditiously as possible, and I will continue actively engaging all parties in search of a satisfactory resolution to this matter,” the mayor said at the time.

THE BACKFIRE

Suarez’s desire to leave it to the city manager to address the ongoing controversy with Acevedo is in stark contrast to his celebration of the chief’s hiring early this year — and a reminder that, in Miami, the mayor has few real responsibilities.

Six months ago, under a tent outside the front entrance to City Hall, Suarez boldly introduced Acevedo as the city’s new police chief. Noriega, who officially appointed the new chief, said the city had just landed “a change agent.” 

The announcement upended a lengthy search for a new police chief in Miami that was in its final stages and included a handful of in-house candidates who had worked their way through the ranks.

Even from the start, some commissioners whose preferred candidate was pushed aside with the hiring of Acevedo, questioned the rapid-fire decision. They said they would accept the manager’s choice, but only time would tell how it turned out. 

Acevedo’s hiring was also transparently risky, inviting an outsider police chief with a reputation for popping off into a City Hall full of big egos. And now that Acevedo’s brief tenure has hit a rocky patch, Suarez is faced with a problem.

“He has a perception issue. He can’t make the choice, but he branded himself as having brought Acevedo in so on the way, likely, out, he’s kind of stuck,” said one Suarez ally who is involved in public affairs in South Florida. “He also doesn’t want to be seen as the guy who gets rid of Acevedo.”

Yet, the timing of the Acevedo drama, about a month before Miami residents are set to vote on Suarez’s reelection, is unlikely to do much to affect his chances of winning. Suarez has built a war chest of nearly $6 million. He has no established opponent.

Those who are keeping a close eye on Suarez’s political moves say Acevedo is not likely to bring down Suarez’s profile.

“He knows he’s going to take some hits on this,” said the Suarez ally. “If he gets hit on Spanish television and then he gets hit by a story by the Miami Herald, when the next big national publication comes along and wants to do a story about Miami’s booming tech scene, are they going to read your story?”