Mayor Francis Suarez ‘all in’ for tech, crypto-led Miami prosperity ahead of reelection

Francis Suarez
"If you go all in, 100 miles an hour, the end product looks easy."

A short drive from where he lives in Coconut Grove, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s City Hall office and conference room are adorned wall-to-wall with sports memorabilia.

There are autographed jerseys from soccer stars Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, basketball greats Scottie Pippen and Udonis Haslem, and a Miami Marlins jersey with his name emblazoned on the back.

There are also basketballs, soccer balls and football helmets signed by entire teams.

For Suarez, a lifelong athlete, sports represent a persistent drive toward improvement. Beyond their physical demands, sports require a certain psychological toughness. That balance of mind and body has always resonated with him, those close to him say.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that his personal philosophy echoes baseball Hall of Famer (and partial Marlins owner) Derek Jeter’s famous line about striving for excellence: “There may be people that have more talent than you, but there’s no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do.”

Suarez’s version: “If you go all in, 100 miles an hour, the end product looks easy.”

Some assume because he won his bid for Mayor in 2017 with 86% of the vote that it was easy, he said. Amid talks of a potential 2024 presidential run — and in spite of recent controversy surrounding the firing of his hand-picked police chief — most believe he’ll comfortably retain his job.

True or not, he’s not treating anything as certain.

“I work every day as if it’s a very contested race,” he said. “That’s what helps it to not be contested, if that makes sense.”

The Magic City tech boom 

Suarez, Miami’s 33rd Mayor and the first native-born person to hold the office, is up for reelection Nov. 2. Under his stewardship over the last year or so, Miami has become a white-hot tech hub, a magnet for multinational corporations that have thus far brought some 9,000 jobs paying six-figure salaries.

Suarez said he was already working alongside the Downtown Development Authority to sell Miami as something of a Wall Street-Silicon Valley hybrid with more favorable tax laws, palm trees and pleasant weather before a December Twitter post drew the eyes of San Francisco Bay Area and Manhattan execs to the Magic City.

Since then, investment and wealth management firms like Blackstone, SoftBank, CI Financial and Thomas Bravo have relocated to Miami. Other giants including Citadel and Amazon substantially grew their footprints in the city.

A March 31 study by CBRE showed overall moves from San Francisco to the Miami metropolitan area jumped by more than 49% year-over-year.

Tech companies have similarly arrived en masse, from cryptocurrency exchanges and eToro to digital banking platform Novo, e-commerce business buyer OpenStore and defense company Red 6, among many others.

And Suarez has been there to greet them.

“I’d describe him as a visionary for understanding how well technology can shape the future of a city and society to positively benefit everybody,” said serial entrepreneur Jack Abraham, the founder of startup studio and investment fund Atomic. “He’s open to ideas and real dialogue, and that’s not something we’re used to coming from the Bay area, where there’s almost no conduit to government. He has his finger on the pulse for what the city needs and what technology needs to grow here, and he’s motivated.”

In March, Abraham and investor Delian Asparouhov, a principal at venture capital firm Founders Fund, signed leases for 22,000 square feet of office space in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood.

It was Asparouhov’s tweet in December playfully proposing a mass relocation of Silicon Valley companies to Miami that Suarez famously responded with, “How can I help?”

It turns out, a lot.

Talent gap

But there’s a common refrain among critics who question the optimism around Miami’s still-growing status as a tech and financial epicenter: The level of talent necessary to fill positions the newly arrived firms are offering isn’t quite there yet, meaning those companies must import many of their employees rather than source them locally.

Suarez pushed back at that assertion — while also detailing plans to address it.

“Part of the reason there’s that perception is, frankly, we’ve haven’t done a very good job of telling our story of the academic institutions we have here already,” he said.

He offered a few examples: Florida International University, where Suarez earned a bachelor’s degree in finance, rose 17 spots in the U.S. World and News Report rankings of public schools this year. Last month, FIU broke ground on a massive new engineering complex. The school also is hiring scores of new teachers and researchers to beef up its tech offerings.

The University of Florida, where he got his law degree, ranks fifth on the list. And Georgia Tech, one of the country’s premier technology schools, is a mere hour’s flight away.

“What gets lost in the discussion is a lot of those kids who went to high school here and maybe went to college somewhere else because they thought they were superior schools are now going to come back because the jobs are here,” he said.

Suarez admitted Miami still has a talent gap. “We can’t deny it,” he said, but there’s a “comprehensive strategy” to close it.

In February, Suarez hired the city’s first-ever “Venture Capitalist in Residence,” Melissa Krinzman, a co-founder and partner at Miami tech seed investment firm Krillion Ventures, on a one-year assignment to support Miami’s efforts to accelerate tech growth.

As the Miami Herald reported, he secured a $500,000 earmark for the Center for Black Innovation, an incubator for Black entrepreneurship.

There’s another initiative in development with Miami Dade College to build charter schools on city-owned land aimed at producing degrees in specific technology fields. Numerous efforts to boost women’s involvement in tech are also underway.

As for where the money’s coming from, that loops back into another focus of his: cryptocurrency.

In August, Miami launched its own cryptocurrency, MiamiCoin, through a company called CityCoins. The digital currency is “hashed” onto a blockchain, a virtual, decentralized ledger theoretically more secure than traditional banking models.

MiamiCoin works using a protocol called Stacks, which allows a percentage of revenue through mining — the process of creating new Bitcoin units by solving extremely complex computational puzzles — to be diverted as revenue for the city.

So far, it’s been incredibly successful. Just one month later, Miami Commissioners voted to accept more than $5 million in earnings from MiamiCoin, which has seen about $2,500 transferred into the city’s cryptocurrency wallet every 10 minutes, according to CityCoins founder Patrick Stanley.

That one revenue source alone, Suarez said, could prove revolutionary.

“The potential at that rate is $60 million (a year) in generated funds,” Suarez said. “That’s over 6% of our entire budget of $1 billion. Taken to its logical conclusion, it’s possible that if MiamiCoin really takes off, it could pay for a significant part, if not all, of our entire budget.

“We’d be like an oil-producing country, (and) the citizens of Miami could get municipal services without having to pay taxes.”

‘Not a crazy conversation’

Suarez’s ambition and recent successes have scored him broad acclaim. Fortune Magazine this year ranked him 20th on its “World’s Greatest Leaders list.”

“As the pandemic chased folks out of cities like San Francisco and New York, Suarez welcomed the greener-pasture seekers with open arms, touting lower taxes, more affordable real estate and a more business-friendly climate, both literally and metaphorically,” the magazine wrote.

Soon after, talk arose of a presidential run in 2024, a prospect the 44-year-old Republican has stopped just short of embracing. But his description of who would make an ideal alternative to GOP front-runners Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis sounds a lot like himself.

“The next President (should be) a next-generation candidate (and) a pro-crypto, pro-Bitcoin candidate,” he said, adding that his political future both in and out of Miami “will be based on whether or not Miami continues to rise and whether that Miami story is as compelling tomorrow as it is today.”

That touches on one major hurdle Suarez, the son of former Miami Mayor and Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, must surmount or eliminate. While his public stock has surged among tech and business crowds with headline-grabbers ranging from his cryptocurrency interests, marketing savvy and a discussed collaboration with Elon Musk on tunneling transit below and around the city, among other projects, he still lags behind other GOP pols in name recognition.

“Name recognition is very important. Joe Biden got elected because everyone knew him from the Senate (and) as (President Barack) Obama’s Vice President,” said Bernie Parness, a Commissioner in Deerfield Beach, a city in Broward County just over a half-hour drive north of Miami. “I don’t know (Suarez), and I don’t know that the county knows him.”

Being renowned is an asset in what many would agree boils down to a national popularity contest, but it’s not everything, said Democratic Florida Rep. Michael Grieco, whose district covers part of Miami.

Grieco, who has known Suarez a decade, pointed to Obama and his Democratic predecessor in the Oval Office, Bill Clinton — both of whom entered their respective Primary Elections as underdogs — as examples of how swiftly politics moves and the speed with which the electorate can learn about, and learn to believe in, a candidate.

“Francis running for President is not a crazy conversation. I mean, the Republicans I know and Republicans throughout the country are starved for the adults in the room to grab the microphone back,” Grieco said. “He would have my vote.”

Suarez has already distanced himself from his party’s more populist members. Though he shares some policy views with the former President, he didn’t vote for Trump last year. Trump’s eager bellicosity and divisiveness were repellent, he said.

In 2018, he voted for Democratic former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, DeSantis’ opponent, even though he had backed DeSantis in the Primary.

It wasn’t so much that Suarez disagreed with DeSantis’ platform or message, though Suarez conceded the Governor said things that were “problematic.” It boiled down to this: Gillum showed up. DeSantis didn’t.

“(Gillum) spent a lot of time in Miami, specifically in communities that I think needed help, while (DeSantis) didn’t make as much of an effort to build a friendship with me despite the fact that I had supported him in the Primary and fundraised for him,” he said. “I just didn’t feel that connection.”

In December, when Suarez and other local officials publicly butted heads with DeSantis on COVID-19 safety measures, DeSantis stopped returning his calls.

That rift remains unresolved, Suarez said, adding that as far as he’s concerned, the ball is in DeSantis’ court.

“He has my cellphone number. I’ve tried using the number he gave me, which worked before,” he said. “It is what it is. If the Governor’s office calls today or tomorrow and says, ‘The Governor wants to talk to you,’ I’m 100% available. If the Governor says he wants to do a press conference, assuming it’s something we agree on (or) even if we don’t agree — if he understands that I can give my perspective — I’m perfectly willing to do that. And that’s it.”

‘There’s no politics’

Suarez has several other big-ticket projects at work, including a $400 million municipal bond initiative colloquially called the Miami Forever Bond to combat sea level rise, building resilient infrastructure, improving public safety and supporting affordable housing.

There are also plans to redevelop a city-owned golf course into a soccer stadium and commercial complex, but concerns over how the structure would interfere with flights in and out of the nearby Miami International Airport have slowed the process.

Unlike his county counterpart, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, Suarez wields little executive power, though not for lack of trying. Less than a year after being elected Mayor, he pushed for a ballot question asking voters to make him both the city figurehead and its top administrative official, which includes overseeing some 4,000 public employees.

The effort failed with just 36% of his constituents voting in favor. He emerged with a focus on promoting the city to investors, businesses and event organizers, including a recent bid for Miami to again host the Summit of the Americas.

Suarez has sometimes exhibited a tendency to disengage from situations he deems untenable or disadvantageous. Had he failed to win a seat on the City Commission in 2009, he said, he would have given up on further political aspirations. As Mayor now, he skips City Commission meetings at which he has no vote.

Once a Vice Chair on Miami-Dade’s powerful transportation planning board, where he helped lead an effort to create a comprehensive plan for advancing transit studies in order to attract federal funds to build new systems, he has become a no-show to meetings since losing a bid to become the board’s chair.

He admits he became “disenchanted” after the loss and felt doubly so when the board chose rapid bus for one route rather than an extension to the county Metrorail system that would have cost more than three times as much but served a much higher ridership.

He still sends ideas for the board to vote up or down, he said, but he’s otherwise uninvolved.

For better or worse, Suarez has a hard time faking interest. That’s a symptom of his most marked characteristic: He’s genuine to a fault, said Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, a lifelong friend.

“There’s a lack of faith and trust in elected officials, and he’s a very sincere person; what you see is what you get,” Lago said. “There’s no politics. There’s no voting one way or another based on demographic or polling. He studies an issue, understands it, makes a decision and sticks to what he believes is in the best interest of his constituency and community.”

But that emotional transparency can be a vulnerability, said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, the president of political consultancy firm Tridente Strategies, who has managed Suarez’s campaigns since 2015.

“He’s a really good person and that, in politics, sometimes has worked out very well for him,” he said. “Sometimes it can be a political weakness.”

An ‘unfortunate episode’

Through September, Suarez has raised a record $6 million to defend his job as a public official, one of three paid positions he holds.

He also works as a real estate and corporate finance lawyer with law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. In May, he took a second, part-time job as a senior operating partner at private firm DaGrosa Capital Partners. That same month, principal and namesake Joseph DaGrosa donated $150,000 to Suarez’s political committee.

The most recognizable of the five people who filed to run against Suarez in November is Frank Pichel, a former city cop-turned-private eye who last month was arrested in Monroe County and accused of impersonating a police officer while surveilling a house Suarez was rumored to have been visiting.

In a now-infamous letter sent in late September to Suarez and City Manager Art Noriega, Miami Police Chief Art Acevedo — whom Suarez and Noriega lured from Houston to Miami, circumventing the city’s official search-and-vetting process — intimated Pichel was working for former Miami Mayor and current Commissioner Joe Carollo.

Acevedo by then had already attracted ample negative attention for saying the Miami Police Department was run by the “Cuban mafia,” a term coined by Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to disparage Miami exiles who opposed his regime, and for several firings and demotions within the department, which Acevedo said were part of a larger effort to clean up its ranks.

Three days after Acevedo sent the screed, which accused Commissioners Manolo Reyes, Alex Diaz de la Portilla and Carollo of trying to interfere with police department affairs, including an alleged effort to sidetrack an internal investigation into “questionable” uses of force, Carollo led an eight-hour public evisceration — the first of two such meetings — of Acevedo’s character.

Carollo read dozens of news reports from cities where Acevedo worked before, painting the career law enforcement officer as a hypocritical, misogynistic, sex-obsessed tyrant whose vengeful but careless management style cultivated a toxic atmosphere where rape was ignored and became epidemic alongside other crime and corruption.

Among Acevedo’s troublesome past deeds: keeping sexually explicit Polaroid photos of a fellow officer in his state-issued police vehicle and showing them to others on the force and a class-action lawsuit that named Acevedo as the police chief of a police department where DNA evidence in rape cases went untested “for years at a time.”

Carollo also detailed instances of Acevedo’s misconduct since he came to Miami, including an alleged failure to report a vehicular accident he had been involved in and wage theft.

Noriega admitted he hadn’t thoroughly vetted Acevedo, whose annual salary plus benefits is about $438,000.

On Oct. 11, just six months after Acevedo’s swearing in — where Suarez described him as the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs” — Noriega announced he had suspended Acevedo. Three days later, Miami Commissioners voted unanimously to fire him.

Suarez stressed that the “unfortunate episode” was “not about fault” but instead the result of a police chief whose “personality and leadership style are incompatible with the structure” of the city government.

“This dynamic was unforeseeable, and while Chief Acevedo ended up not being a good fit for our city, I certainly wish him and his family the best of luck in the future,” Suarez said of the debacle, an ugly mark on his tenure as Mayor.

Moving forward

Suarez is no stranger to setbacks, but he learns from his mistakes. In 2013, he launched a campaign for Miami Mayor but aborted the run before voters went to the polls upon learning his wife, Gloria, was pregnant with the first of their two children.

He had made a few blunders on the campaign trail but proved a great fundraiser, an attribute he has since strengthened multifold. The next time he ran, his victory was all but certain.

Suarez repeated ninth grade at his father’s behest, a decision he has cited as a watershed moment in his life, marking the first step in a direction that ultimately led to where he is now. Six years before he tried to restructure the city government to make his office a strong mayor position, he tried the same thing but fell far shorter of his goal.

Each time Suarez has been knocked down, he has improved, according to his father, Xavier Suarez, who said his son’s smarts, discipline and compassionate but competitive spirit have served him well throughout his life, on both the athletic and political playing fields.

Oftentimes, the elder Suarez said, his opponents don’t realize just how adept he is.

“We used to rent (an apartment) on the beach, and they had a pingpong table. Francis was about 11,” he said. “I went down and saw him playing with the other kids, and he was playing with his left hand. I said, ‘Something happen to you? You’re right-handed, aren’t you?’ As if I didn’t know after throwing footballs and playing baseball with him. And he said — he kind of whispered to me — ‘These guys can’t play with me when I play with my right hand, so I’m playing with my left.’”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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