Special prize for Cuban-Americans. Miami's new Cuban-born mayor wants to make city `one neighborhood'
Miami — A generation of exiled Cubans, transplanted to Florida by revolution, came of age as Americans this week by electing Miami's first Cuban-born mayor, and completing a Cuban-American majority on the City Commission. The newly elected mayor, Xavier Suarez, a Harvard-educated lawyer campaigned as a neighborhood populist. He defeated a fellow exile, banker Raul Masvidal, by 31,662 to 24,224 in a nonpartisan runoff Tuesday. One week earlier they had edged out six-term Mayor Maurice Ferre by 887 votes, after a spirited campaign focusing on Miami's high crime rate, overbuilding, and latent ethnic animosity.
``Miami will be one neighborhood while I am mayor,'' Mayor Suarez promised as he took office Wednesday, seeking to put the devisive part of the campaign behind him. He promised to reach out to the poor and needy in all parts of the city, finding ways to provide decent housing, new jobs, and ``a decent standard of living.''
``The Cubans have the votes now, and they're acting typically American,'' said Eduard Cohen, a longtime Miami political activist. ``We'll have Cuban politics for sometime now.''
City planners say 58 percent of Miami's 400,000 residents are Hispanic -- born outside the United States or as children of immigrants. They make up about 40 percent of the registered voters. But in the runoff on Tuesday, with 50.2 percent of voters participating citywide, the turnout in Little Havana precincts was 55 to 64 percent.
``For the first time, we had an election where being Cuban was not held against you,'' said former state Democratic Party chairman Alfredo Duran.
The Cubans who fled after Fidel Castro's revolution left their hearts in Havana; for years their political activities in the US focused on going back home to oust Fidel. There was some noisy anticommunism sentiment around City Hall, and Miamians joked about the City Commission's foreign policy. But in the 1970s, as children grew up fluent in English and the exiles' careers began to thrive, there was less and less talk of Fidel.
Cuban-Americans have had a voice in southern Florida for several years -- winning seven legislative seats in Dade County last year, and the top city jobs in neighboring Hialeah. But City Hall in Miami is seen as a prize of special value to a displaced people.
Mayor Ferre, the personable son of a Puerto-Rican industrial and political family, was a whirlwind force of his own. He proved durable, not so much because he grew up speaking Spanish as because he deftly balanced concerns of blacks, old Southern whites, and transplanted Northerners who grew increasingly restive as waves of Cubans settled in.
As mayor, Mr. Ferre made downtown development his top priority, and through building boom after building boom the skyline along Biscayne Bay reached for the clouds. But Ferre's ethnic coalition began to crumble in 1983, after a struggle with the black city manager, Howard Gary, over a popular white police chief, Kenneth Harms.
Mr. Gary fired Chief Harms and 20 months later, during Ferre's sixth term, the mayor joined Commissioners Joe Carollo and Demetrio Perez in firing Gary.
That galvanized the black community. While Ferre survived a recall petition drive and retained some important black endorsements, the black voters of Overtown and Cocunut Grove looked for other candidates.
Among them was the Marvin Dunn, a black sociologist at Florida International University with broad appeal among Miami's white voters. Mr. Dunn campaigned with a tiny fund compared with those of Mayor Ferre and Mr. Masvidal, but his serious campaign, in the midst of bruising ethnic appeals, made his endorsement of Mr. Suarez after the first round important.
During the first round, Suarez singlemindedly courted the Latin Community, reflecting past years in which candidates baldly urged ``Vote Cuban.'' As the runoff began on Nov. 6, both he and Masvidal appealed for unity between all cultural and racial groups -- an appeal they repeated throughout the week.
Dunn believes that a unity was indeed achieved. ``I feel better about the city, and its future.'' -- 30 --