Volsky on “New Dawn for Coral Gables”

GEORGE VOLSKY

NEW DAWN FOR CORAL GABLES

Our residents have spoken. In a dramatic upset, Coral Gables voters, going to the polls in bigger numbers than in 2009, Tuesday elected retired diplomat James Cason as the city’s new Mayor and sent  Mayor Don Slesnick home and into oblivion.

The election represented a decisive preference to change the head of the city’s elected officialdom, dominated and, as most observers said, manipulated by Slesnick for almost a decade, eight years of it in tandem with the disgraced city manager David Brown. Flattered by a small coterie of fawning acolytes,  Slesnick was sure he would be reelected. But he was rejected by 63 percent of the 7,917 residents who had voted.  In all, 26.64 percent of the registered went to the polls; in the previous, 2009 city election 19.93 percent voted.

How did James Cason manage to win what most observers had predicted would be an insurmountable road to victory? Principally by visiting about 8,000 Coral Gables homes, either personally or by having able volunteers to represent him.

While some experts have described Cason’s presentations at several pre-election debates as not being 100 percent polished, he did very well in smaller gatherings, coming through as a sincere, dedicated, knowledgeable public servant.  And he was even better in one-on-one meetings, which is the proper way successful career diplomats operate.

That contrasts with Slesnick’s unctuous presence, his practically perpetual smile which most people perceive as insincere, calculating and condescending.

While Cason won most of the city’s Hispanic votes,  in some precincts in North  Gables he received more than 50 percent, the so-called Latin establishment of Coral Gables and   Miami-Dade –  that’s people whose pictures appear in society columns, business owners, lawyers, and political hanger-on’s  – sided with Slesnick and contributed substantially to his campaign, often   husbands and wifes giving the mayor $500 each.

By persuasion, reportedly even by arm twisting  and through business contacts Slesnick was able to collect almost $200,000 for his campaign. Cason spent about $90,000, much of it from small donations. Significantly,  a week before the election, when Slesnick reelection propaganda machine, awash with cash, appeared unstoppable, Casons’ campaign run out of money.

(Slesnick’s campaign  was overbearing and, as noted earlier, mostly misleading. It descended to its lowest point when he sent out  a postcard with the photograph of his granddaughter Olivia holding his reelection poster and declaring: “Please vote for my grandfather. He likes to talk and he is nice to people. I love him.” All self-respecting politicians try to isolate their children, especially the very young ones, from active politicking.  I have never seen a grandchild used for political propaganda. Olivia, a lovely girl, appears 5 or 6 years old.)

But Cason supporters, especially in North Gables, continued firm, unimpressed by Slesnick’s barrage of TV, radio and newspaper advertisements, some with the names and pictures of the so-called “prominent Hispanic community  leaders,” urging their compatriots to reelect the mayor.

Observing  the enthusiastic gathering at Cason’s small Tuesday night victory party, one was struck by the socio-economic aspect of his supporters. It was obvious that virtually all of them, both Hispanic and “Anglos, ” were people of modest means, men and women who seldom visit City Hall, who never address the commission, who don’t ask for special favors, lobby for friends or clients,  seek appointments to city boards, or who are “friends of friends” and make the city’s wheels move faster for the benefit of the privileged few.

The Cason supporters appeared to be unpretentious hardworking or retired residents who like living here but intensely dislike paying high taxes, licenses and other city charges. These are individuals Slesnick and other elected officials have been taking for granted for years, while pretending to be speaking for them.

Following the example of what happened with Miami-Dade’s Mayor Alvarez one month earlier, these were the same voters who told Slesnick that 10 years in office is more than enough. And the most noteworthy and extraordinary fact was that whereas the Miami-Dade recall was subsided by a billionaire’s  $1 million, the Gables anti-Slesnick movement was spontaneous, uncoordinated and unfocused until Cason,  realizing its winning potential, had decided to run for office.

For a retired career diplomat to go into politics, especially in a small town like ours, is also unusual. Former ambassadors, and Cason is one, usually retire into a well paid corporate sinecure, or equally light work in academia or a political think tank.  Cason, I believe, realizes that being Coral Gables mayor is extremely time consuming; it is not only the necessity to read countless documents that the city weekly produces, but also to discuss a variety of issues that confront the city daily.

Slesnick departs his office leaving many serious problems he had created, or unsuccessfully tried to cover up, the principal being the pension crisis and the Biltmore mess.  It is expected that Cason will work harmoniously with City Manager Patrick Salerno, unlike Slesnick who pretending to be Salerno’s supporter, was undercutting the manager through various means, none overt.

Cason’s relations with the other commissioners are expected to be friendly as well, certainly with the reelected  Bill Kerdyk and the newly elected Frank Quesada. The situation of Ralph Cabrera might be rather awkward. Initially he is said to have “flirted” with Cason but in the end decided that Slesnick would be the winner and campaigned with and for him.  In any event, Cabrera will be termed-out in two years, as will be María Anderson, now reportedly undergoing conversion from the Roman Catholic credo to Protestantism and studying to be a preacher. As a result, it is noted that her interest in Coral Gables affairs, let alone her political clout, has diminished considerably.

Anderson supported to the bitter end one failed candidate for commissioner, Brad Rosenblatt, whose chances for a decent showing in a 6-candidate race, were fatally derailed by the disclosure of less than attractive past.

Other losers in the Tuesday election will be a group of  organizations controlled by Slesnick his family and friends,  which have been operating in the shadow of City Hall, as well as several appointed officials who have managed to keep they jobs despite their ineptness because of the former mayor’s strong backing, or that of Slesnick’s family.

Another loser was the Miami Herald which supported attorney Tom Korge for mayor, and for commissioner  a totally unknown insurance salesman, named Rene Alvarez.  Initially a  mayoral front runner, Korge literally sat for several months on his $100,000 electoral war chest; he came third after Slesnick. Alvarez, who reportedly was “persuaded” by Slesnick and Rosenblatt to enter the race and thus weaken two Hispanic candidates in Group 4, received only 601 votes.

What will the commission be like after Mayor Cason is sworn in Friday? To quote his words Tuesday night: “Together with them (the commissioners) and our new City Manager, I will work on cost cutting, leaner government and pension reform…As I embark on my service as your new mayor, I do so with humility and a recognition that I have a lot to learn. You can count on me to devote many hours doing so. I am honored by your trust, and you will find me a good listener open to new ideas and respectful of diverse opinions.”

While writing with pleasure the political obituary of the  failed mayor, it gives me much greater satisfaction to end with a hope for a better elected leadership and better times in store  for Coral Gables. 

About Stephen E. McGaughey
International consultant in economic development programs and projects

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