Volsky on “How Coral Gables’ Mayoralty Was Won”

GEORGE VOLSKY

HOW CORAL GABLES’ MAYORALTY WAS WON

Political consultants seldom discuss campaigns they have managed, not even the ones they had won. And when they do they keep important operational details intentionally  opaque.  There are reasons for that reticence. Some schools might teach how to manage campaigns,  but  successful election practitioners are generally self-taught professionals  who, like magicians, accumulate special political skills, which they adapt and refine for the repeated and hopefully profitable use.

Jorge de Cardenas, the campaign manager of Coral Gables Mayor  James Cason did talk, to a point, about his win.  Cason   prevailed on April 12 in the three-man race to the surprise of virtually all seasoned local political observers, and to the consternation of the city’s long-entrenched legal-development-commercial establishment  (including our printed media).

“Basically,” said de Cardenas, “we like to work with candidates who develop easy rapport with the electorate, who can raise a fair amount of money, who have faith in victory, and not the least who have opponents that make mistakes. Jim Cason was such a candidate. But, truthfully, practically up to the last two or three days before April 12 we weren’t sure we would pull it  off.”

Recalling the beginning of his  Coral Gables work (he had managed many campaigns in Miami-Dade County), de Cardenas said that Cason,  a retired Foreign Service officer and former U.S. Ambassador whom he knew by name but hadn’t met personally,  first contacted him in early June 2010. “He told me he had decided to run for mayor of Coral Gables  and wanted to know which were his chances of winning.  I immediately started to review the relevant numbers of the city’s recent  elections, of the eligible voters’ ethnicity and their voting pattern, and of the prevailing political climate.”

De Cardenas said that after two days of intensive research he gave Cason his assessment. “I told him, first, that the city’s entire  political establishment  would oppose a newcomer like himself. Second, that only a relatively small number of the predominantly Cuban residents of Coral Gables  knew of him and his decisive anti-Castro, pro-disident stance as head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana a decade ago, and that proportionally fewer Cuban Americans have voted here than in Miami or Hialeah  to significantly impact on the election’s results.  Third, that he needed about $100,000 for a credible race; and fourth, that only with a vigorous grass root campaign he might have a chance.”

Three days later, Cason, apparently impressed by de Cardenas’ unvarnished analysis, hired him to manage his campaign.  The work did not begin until well into July because Cason was sent by the State Department to inspect the operations of the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad, the largest in the world.

With Cason away in Iraq, de Cardenas did his first poll.  At the time, only attorney Tom Korge was in the mayor’s race,  although most observers expected Dorothy Thomson, former mayor and commissioner, to be the third candidate. Mayor Don Slesnick was assuring everyone willing to listen, including Cason at his home, that after 10 years in office he would not seek reelection.

The poll, which included a question to gauge Slesnick’s popularity, was a veritable eye opener, according to de Cardenas. Only  35 percent of respondents were ready to reelect the mayor,  and the rest said “yes” to the question “anything but Slesnick.” Low two digits favored Cason and Korge, and the biggest number was of the undecided.

“When Jim returned from Iraq we knew we had to increase the  number of the eligible  Cuban-American voters, 16-18 percent  in the last three elections, a much smaller percentage  than of the Coral Gables Anglos. He started doing it by visiting homes and apartments, mostly in North Gables, where the majority of Cuban Americans live,” de Cardenas said. “He and his volunteers must have met thousands of Hispanic and Anglo voters, who were obviously impressed by him and his innovative plans for the city.”

“Knowing  that to win we had to get about 22 percent of the divided Anglo vote, we were upset learning that Thomson had decided not  to run. But that was immediately compensated by Slesnick getting into the race. Ironically, soon after his unexpected decision to seek reelection  we started making inroads into the Anglo community and, as per our soundings, the undecided Hispanics began coming to our corner in large numbers. In what perhaps was the key turning point in the campaign, at the beginning of 2011 Cason, until then practically ignored by his opponents and the print media, became a target of relentless attacks, especially from  Slesnick,  who was supported not only by the Anglo establishment, but also by the so-called leaders of Miami-Dade’s Hispanic community. But that small group didn’t make us lose any sleep, because Jim was gaining allegiance of thousands modest, hardworking Hispanics, ‘tired, poor, huddled masses’ as Emma Lazarus would say.”

According to De Cardenas,   calling Cason a “carpetbagger,” (a Northerner who served the country abroad for almost 40 years, upon retiring he came  Coral Gables about three years ago), was offensive to many Hispanics.  “One Cuban American told me he was still regarded by some Anglos as an interloper  although he has  lived in Coral Gables for 47 years, longer than Slesnick and Korge.” De Cardenas added that  the three “unprofessionally organized mayoral debates” didn’t impact on the electorate.  On the other hand, he commented, the Herald’s endorsement of Korge cost Slesnick votes.

“Even personal attacked on me didn’t affect the campaign, on the contrary, several of my long  forgotten friends came through with sizeable contributions, ” de Cardenas said.  (Cason collected $97,000 for his race, half of Slesnick’s  $193,000; Korge spent $150,000.)

While gaining in voter samplings, and with his campaign chest empty, one week before the election Cason was  still a couple of percentage points behind Slesnick.  “We will never know exactly what had turned the tide,” de Cardenas said. “I strongly  believe it were those modest, long-neglected Cuban American residents of North Gables who put their trust in Jim, voted in biggest numbers ever and gave him his  victory.”

Election results seem to confirm that view. Cason won with 39 percent of the vote.  Slesnick received 35 percent, the exact number as in de Cardenas his poll  nine months earlier.

De Cardenas said that several Cuban American “community leaders” have asked him to urgently convey to Cason  that they have been browbeaten to support Slesnick financially, to place  Slesnick signs outside their homes,  and to include their names in Slesnick’s ads, but that they really voted  for Jim. Asked if he believed those statements de Cardenas said: “Yeah, like I believe that pigs can fly.”

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

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