The two candidates for Miami-Dade mayor seemed sorta similar and even chummy Wednesday at a debate presented by The Miami Foundation at the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus.
But don't let looks fool ya. Former county commissioner Carlos Gimenez and former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina are polar opposites.
Chuckling and patting each other on the back, the answers to some really good questions (finally and thank you to my former colleagues Manny Garcia, Myriam Marquez, Matthew Haggman and Dan Grech for wanting to "drill deeper" on superficial answers) were compatible: Both men want to make it easier for businesses to come and thrive here. Both want to cut costs and reduce the size of county government. Both men said that county workers would mirror the diversity of the community. (But, really, what else are they going to say?). Both men agree also on limited and regulated casinos in South Florida -- although they have a sharp discord over the maquinita industry of gaming machines that Gimenez said is illegal and that Robaina "regulates" in Hialeah as he rakes in more than $110,000 in contributions from permit holders and gaming interests (more on that later).
Gimenez used his experience as an administrator and commissioner to position himself as the most prepared candidate to produce a budget for the commission within weeks of getting into office. Robaina used Gimenez's experience as a commissioner against him and said the election was about change. "We either choose to go in a new direction, or we choose to get the same old," Robaina said. Gimenez said he had only been a politician for six years but he had been a fireman and administrator before that. It was really quite unexciting (maybe Uncle Luke ought to come back as a moderator). But at the very end, Gimenez set himself apart.
"I have an unquestioned reputation for honesty, integrity and capability," he said, hinting, at last, at the huge elephant in the room difference between these two. One has an unblemished record with no real (although some perceived) transgressions who always answers the phone and never runs from a question, even if he doesn't like it (and there was one time, more on that later, that Ladra thought he was going to punch her). And the other is allegedly tied to, either as a witness or a suspect, in one or more federal and/or state investigations for one or more of several rumored crimes -- loansharking (er, okay, "usury"), mortgage fraud, tax evasion, money laundering -- and who won't answer questions about that or discrepancies between the things he says and the things he does or give details about the self-serving promises he makes that he can't keep. Like when he said on WQBA radio that he would fire 1,000 workers on day one without really having an analysis of where those workers would come from.
Ladra noticed, however, how Robaina did not say that on the radio in English, during the debate hosted by the NAACP live on the air Tuesday morning. Not the right audience for that message, we suspect. That's another difference. Gimenez keeps his message the same no matter where he is pitching it. Even if people don't like it, he says, "Look," and then tilts his head to the side like he's talking to one of his kids or grandkids. He talks about having to reduce staff point blank and cut pay and benefits (he's already promised to cut his own by half) and get unions to concede to new open-ended contracts "flexible to economic conditions" without built-in overtime and other costly rules.
"Is it going to be difficult. Absolutely, it's going to be difficult."
What is not difficult, if one looks closely, is seeing the difference between these two men.