There will be two new faces on the Coral Gables Commission starting Friday after voters in the City Beautiful sent a 10-year mayor incumbent packing and welcomed a fresh face that may have broken the record for a candidate's absentee votes in the city's storied history.
Best thing to happen Tuesday is that the Cuban vote became apparently important again in Coral Gables. It certainly had an impact in the election of a first-time Belen boy with no real name recognition and a man known only as a onetime chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.
But that's only one of the reasons why Jim Cason beat Mayor Don Slesnick by a scant 335 votes. Another was onetime friend and candidate Tom Korge, the city's longtime planning and zoning board chairman, for whom brother Christopher Korge called in fundraising favors from across the country. Korge may have picked up a few supporters in recent weeks after the Miami Herald endorsed him and heavy promotion of a YouTube video of Slesnick in a commission meeting switching his vote on a waste pick-up deal. (Ladra is no card-carrying member of the "Slesnick Happy Government" fan club, but he also flipped on his vote to hire City Manager Pat Salerno because he just wants everyone to get along and for the city to run smoothly. He really thinks it's right. He isn't beholden to anyone but Don. Not that that is okay.).
Slesnick, who didn't seem to take the blow too hard gathered with supporters at the Marriott on LeJeune Road, put the blame squarely on his old friend. They both live and breathe Coral Gables, run in the same circles and sound the same when they say the same things. Ladra likes to call them TomDon or The DonTom. But she doubts there will ever be a mending of the riff.
"Tom Korge just handed this city over," Slesnick said, no apologies, as he greeted a procession of friends, many of whom hugged him informally. That included former Miami Commissioner Johnny Winton, who is known more for his drunken arrest after an altercation at Miami International Airport than anything he did on the dais. Winton told Ladra there was no race in his future. "I'm not running for anything," he said smiling.
Slesnick said he had no intention to run, either. He told Ladra he really was going to retire on a positive note. He and Jeannett Slesnick put a deposit on a cruise that would have them at sea right now. In fact, Korge's treasurer is Charlie Johnson, the mayor's longtime treasurer, who probably would have stayed with Slesnick's campaign had anyone thought back then there was a Slesnick campaign. When Cason jumped into the race out of nowhere, Slesnick said he again approached Korge about helping him get support. Korge politely turned it down. As the weeks turned to months, and Vice Mayor Bill Kerdyk (who 78 percent of the vote Tuesday is no landslide for the man who should be king) stalled on making a decision, which meant he was not going to run against Korge (what do these guys have on everyone? Ladra wants to know.), Slesnick said he jumped in because he just didn't know what Korge was thinking and he didn't know anything about Cason, except that the diplomat had politely declined to serve on any city board or committee after he moved into his $870,000 house two years ago. Slesnick said he did not see a clearly superior candidate and that Korge likely diverted as many as 600 votes from him. He said Korge should have seen the writing on the wall (or at least in the polls) and could have stepped aside when the numbers showed him below Cason still.
"I'm not going to tell another candidate he should withdraw," Slesnick said (but we believe someone did get the message to Korge). "It would have been better for Coral Gables and good for his future. Coming in third is not good for his future. Cason staked claim to a solid set of voters out in North Gables, older Cuban American voters who wanted to honor him for his service. There was no way to get any of those votes away from him."
So, he said, Korge took votes from the mayor's base and also sent votes to Cason. "They were never going to catch up with him. And Tom took away my ability to catch up," Slesnick said, adding that the Herald endorsement gave him "new life" and new funding.
If we can trust the poll numbers leaked to Ladra, which definitely come from interested parties but are consistent no matter who's talking, Korge climbed quite a bit in recent weeks. Those alleged polls show Slesnick dropped about six points to 34.6 percent and Korge went up probably 10 or so points. But so did Cason. And Ladra credits at least some of that to Frank Quesada and his quest to become the record breaker in Coral Gables for collecting absentee ballots. Somebody call the Guiness people.
Quesada was very nice and polite to Ladra outside City Hall Tuesday night even though I had written that he was the Cuban Kerdyk and a pretty boy, pretty much. I hope he stays so nice and polite. He had the highest number of absentee votes, 1,448, and also made no apologies for such an aggressive AB campaign. "We worked on absentees. My thinking is you should make it easier for someone to vote," Quesada said, adding that he would work, as he said during the campaign, to move the Gables general elections from April to November in order to get a better turnout (it was about 26.6 percent Tuesday). But whether they were coordinating campaigns or it was just serendipity, Ladra bets that a bunch of those ABs overlap with the 1,124 absentee votes for Cason, who was seen as the "other Cuban candidate," and we suppose he is more Cuban at least than The DonTom. Slesnick's decent 1,043 AB votes must have surprised both Cason and Korge, who got 645 AB votes in his favor on his first campaign.
Ladra was not surprised to find that Gonzalo Sanabria, one of the six (though it should really say three) candidates to replace Chip Withers, trailed in both absentee votes and nods at the polls. His 466 absentee votes made up 37 percent of his total and more than half the number that came out to vote for him live. Brad Rosenblatt, limping from an attack campaign that outed a 2000 embezzlement arrest, beat Sanabria in both AB votes and at the polls for a solid 500+ vote lead and a respectable second place showing after such insurmountable bad press. But no matter how many AB votes Quesada's team may or may not have swiped (and I use that term loosely) from either Sanabria or Rosenblatt campaigns (because anyone can find out who requested absentee ballots at the elections department), the two were trounced at the polls with the Cuban Kerdyk getting almost a 50 percent mandate in a the three way race (because the non-candidates together got a combined 11.6 percent of the vote. Number 3 Sanabria got more than 16 percent.
So Ladra got her first ever predictions right, because I was wrong when I said Slesnick would eek it out again, but I was right when I said Quesada's bilingual charm would benefit from the dirty campaign against Rosenblatt that everyone linked to Sanabria. (The Kerdyk win doesn't count. And, again, more on that later.)
Well, maybe I should get extra points since I also said that Sanabria would come in third. Which reminds me... Oh, Maaaaattheeeewww?