Mayor Cason’s Promises–How Is He Doing?

I would say that Mayor has a way to go in meeting his promises on transparency, controlling pension benefits, controlling millage rates, city efficiencies, having open management, and making suggestions (hopefully not in secret).

We will see if this government is more than cutting ribbons and letters to new residents.

MY 10 PROMISES TO YOU

  1. I will be a full time Mayor.
  2. I will work in the best interests of the citizens of Coral Gables and be respectful of their concerns.
  3. I will support transparency of City Hall’s government.
  4. I will control pension liabilities moving forward in order to reduce Unfunded Actuarial Accrued Liabilities. (UAAL)
  5. I will avoid conflicts of interests and favoritism.
  6. I will fight to keep millage rates low.
  7. I will seek greater efficiencies in City management and not tolerate waste, fraud, mismanagement and improper employee conduct.
  8. I will question all aspects of current operations and suggest alternatives.
  9. I will make sure that management keeps the commission well informed on: new or change in ordinances, issues and contracts that will be presented before the commission and offer ample time for discussion before voting is implemented.
  10. I will be an active Ambassador for our City and foster an open and collegial environment for current residents, business owners and visitors.
(Quoted from Mayor Cason’s campaign literature and website.)

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.”

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.