Electorate Energized in the Sunshine State

Voters in the battleground state of Florida prove their engagement.

Politicians in both parties should cast their eyes towards Miami if they believe they can continue to ignore the will of the electorate.  Republican Mayor Carlos Alvarez who was first elected in 2004 and re-elected in 2008, was given the boot in a recall election that was stunning in terms of percentages.  With one hundred percent of the vote counted, 88% of Miami-Dade voters decided enough was enough.  What did Alvarez in? Tax hikes, raises for members of his inner circle, and an ill-fated decision to have taxpayers underwrite a portion of the building costs for a new Florida Marlins baseball stadium. “The voters have spoken and a time of healing and reconciliation must now begin,’’ said Alvarez in a statement released Tuesday night. “No matter which side of the recall issue, one thing is certain: We all care very deeply about this community… I wish the next mayor of Miami-Dade County much success.”

Alvarez was not the only politician ousted.  County Commissioner Natacha Seijas was also recalled Tuesday in an equally resounding defeat. For 18 years she represented a district that includes Miami Lakes and Hialeah, and was widely regarded as the most powerful politician on the Commission. Known for her abrasiveness, Ms. Seijas had survived a previous recall campaign in 2006 and was re-elected with a comfortable margin in 2008.  Both Alvarez and Seijas went to court to prevent a recall vote from occurring.  The courts rejected two lawsuits by the mayor.  The suit filed by the commissioner, who had fought to separate her recall election from the one including Mayor Alvarez, was dropped before it was ruled on by the judge.  An aide for the commissioner said she would make no comments or issue any statement regarding her ouster.  Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi was less reticent. "Finally, after 18 years, the people of District 13 have restored democracy," he said.

Alvarez's recall effort was spearheaded by a local car dealer, billionaire Norman Braman.  "County voters have demonstrated by their ballots that they are tired of unaccountable officials, of being ignored and of being overtaxed in this very difficult recessionary time," he said at a news conference. In 2008, Braman filed a suit to prevent a $3 billion dollar re-development plan which included putting taxpayers on the hook for a baseball stadium that, although partially funded by taxpayers would be privately owned by the team.  Braman's attorneys claimed that funding for the 37,000-seat, $525 million stadium with a retractable roof and parking garage should have been put before the voters in a referendum.  The Marlins had threatened to relocate to another city if they didn't get a permanent home in Miami.  Mr. Braman lost the lawsuit, and Mayor Alvarez contended that his subsequent funding of the recall election was a personal vendetta. Braman denied the charge.  "This is a referendum for change," said Mr. Braman who, like the Mayor, is a registered Republican.

If it was a personal vendetta it was one heartily supported by the voters even before the election took place.  Within a three month period,  Braman, who spent $1 million of his own money organizing the recall, submitted approximately 114,000 signatures to  the Clerk of Courts, of which 95,499 were certified as valid. That figure represented more than twice the number needed to engender a recall.  And while the stadium funding generated a lot of anger it is likely that the other two issues which did in the Mayor were equally upsetting.  Florida is one of the states that has been hit hardest by the housing boom and bust that led to the current recession.  Property values have fallen over 40 percent, and yet Alvarez raised property taxes, claiming it was the only viable option, other than cutting social services, that could be implemented to close a $444 million budget gap. It should be noted that the taxpayer share for the baseball stadium is "$409 million in loans loaded with balloon payments and long grace periods. By 2049, when the debt is due, the county will have paid billions," according to Yahoosports.com

As a result, two-fifths of the county's homeowners were hit with an average hike of 13 percent, at a time when the jobless rate stands at 12 percent which is substantially higher than the national average.  "I'm fed up with my taxes being raised--we're all suffering," said Miguel Sanchez, a 33-year-old computer programmer from Doral, Florida.  Mr. Sanchez estimated his property taxes would increase $800 this year to $4,800.

Adding to voter antagonism was that which accompanied the rise in taxes: pay increases and the unfreezing of certain benefits for unionized public sector employees, along with substantial raises for members of Mr. Alvarez's inner circle. The Mayor's chief of staff, Denis Morales  received an 11% pay raise to over $200,000 dollars per year, and director of policy Vicki Mallette got a 15% pay raise, to over $120,000 dollars per year.  Alvarez defended the raises, claiming those granted to union workers constituted part of a three-year collective bargaining agreement which had also included previous pay cuts, while those for his staff were the result of a heavier workload  created by the increased powers voters gave him in 2007.

As late as Wednesday afternoon the Mayor remained defiant, telling a Spanish radio station that, if he had an opportunity to go back and do it again, he would have approved the same budget.  "I knew the decision was not going to be popular," Alvarez told WURN-Actualidad 1020 AM. "If I had done what Mr. Braman wanted me to do...I would be facing a recall by the other people whose funding for arts and social services was cut," he added.

There was also a relatively minor controversy, but one which undoubtedly reinforced the notion of Alvarez's opponents contention that the mayor was politically tone-deaf. Last May, Alvarez purchased a BMW 550i Grand Turismo sedan subsidized by an $800-a-month car allowance, despite already having two Chevy Suburbans to use for official business. Despite a salary and benefits package which paid him over $325,000, he refused to kill the car allowance, claiming such a gesture was nothing more than "symbolic.”

Voters didn't buy any of it.  "It's a farce what he has done," said Luis Diaz, a 56-year-old airport worker and former Alvarez supporter. "He needed to raise taxes to keep the county running, but he also had to give raises to his friends. "Let him leave office tomorrow (Wednesday)."

That's precisely what Mr. Alvarez will do, despite spending over $1 million on a blitz of speeches, radio and television appearances and paid advertisements in a futile attempt to save his job.  On Friday that job will end when the election is certified by the county’s three-member canvassing board.  After that, the county commission has 30 days to make a choice between appointing a new mayor or scheduling another special election.

Tuesday's recall election is the second largest in the nation, topped only by California's recall of Governor Gray Davis.  And despite being held in the month of March in an off year, voter turnout was reportedly as large as the election in November.  Recall organizer Norman Braman summed up the prevailing mood.  “County voters have demonstrated by their ballot that they are tired of unaccountable officials, of being ignored, and of being over-taxed in this very difficult recessionary time,’’ the auto dealer said Tuesday night. “We’ve empowered the people of this county to take back the government and ask the government to be responsive to the people.”

In a week of cataclysmic events it is understandable that the recall of a city Mayor and a County Commissioner might generate far less light and heat than normal.  But one suspects the kind of discontent which generated almost nine-out-of-ten voters to oust politicians they had previously supported--more than once--is not limited to the Sunshine State.  According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, Americans' confidence in government has dropped to a thirty-five year low. Such a survey is misleading.  Do Americans lack confidence in the system itself, or the people who inhabit it?  If the vote in Miami is any indication, the system is working quite well.  Politicians running for election or re-election in 2012 would be well-advised to pay attention to something far more important that seems to be in serious decline:  voter apathy.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.