Florida Politics’ 2021 Local Politician of the Year: Miami Mayor Francis Suarez

'His efforts will pay dividends for this community well beyond his term as Mayor of Miami.'

Politics is something of an imprecise art. Unlike the legislation it steers, political maneuvering, while subject to legal guardrails, comes with few true rules. Sure, there are norms by which elected officials are frequently judged, but as history has proved time and again, it’s often those who defy precedent who make history.

That, among other things, is what makes Miami Mayor Francis Suarez‘s run in 2021 noteworthy and what has earned him Florida Politics’ “Local Politician of the Year.” In the midst of a world-changing pandemic where many saw doom and gloom, Suarez saw opportunities to turn his home city into an amalgam of Silicon Valley and Wall Street — a “capitol of capital,” in his words — with better weather, a business-friendly tax environment and a growing Latin American marketplace to which Miami is the prime gateway.

“Florida is leading the nation, and Miami is leading Florida,” said Suarez, who won re-election in November with nearly 79% of the vote. “2021 was a challenge for municipalities across the state and country. My administration and I are honored, but especially humbled, to be recognized for our efforts. From 3.5% unemployment, which is almost a percentage point lower than the rest of the state, to being No. 1 in tech job growth and tech job migration in the nation, to being ranked as America’s happiest and healthiest city, we are proud to have stayed true to our principles.

“We kept taxes at a 40-year low, increased funding for our police departments, reduced our homicide rate by 25% and have the lowest homeless rate since 2013. My residents placed their trust in me and have endorsed my vision for this beautiful city by re-electing me to a second term, and I will repay that trust through my commitment to providing them with the best quality of life in the United States.”

Many others deserve recognition and, depending on the criteria, perhaps more so. Some worked alongside Suarez to lead where he could not, such as Daniella Levine Cava, Miami-Dade County’s first woman Mayor. Her steadiness, dependability and optimism gracefully guided residents through troubling times, including the June condominium collapse in Surfside.

Though she did not receive Florida Politics’ nod for the category this year, she was generous with her praise of Suarez.

“Partnering with Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has been uplifting as we tackle the challenges ahead and embrace unique moments,” she said. “We share mutual respect for the important role and function local government plays in communities and the freedom we must have to keep our residents healthy, safe and prosperous.”

Beyond limitations

Levine Cava holds a strong-mayor position, which confers to her both the authority of being the city’s figurehead and the executive powers that would otherwise fall to a county manager. Suarez, conversely, holds no executive power. He doesn’t even get a vote on the Miami City Commission. His is a role of influence, of commanding public perception from the bully pulpit — in short: pure politics.

That’s not for a lack of trying. Suarez — Miami’s 37th Mayor, the son of former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez and the only Miami Mayor to have been born there — has twice attempted to restructure the city’s government to put executive powers in the hands of its top elected official. He tried once before his election in 2017 and once a year after. Voters rejected the proposal both times.

“The fact he was unable to become a strong chief executive caused him to recalibrate and work on those things he can affect, which is being a spokesman and marketer for the city, attracting businesses, creating more jobs and investments,” said Emilio González, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as Suarez’s city manager for two years before resigning in 2018. “He operates honestly and is incredibly passionate and articulate about the things that are important to him, and he’s done a magnificent job promoting the city to outsiders.”

Democratic state Rep. Michael Grieco said, “He only has so many powers as Mayor, with the role as city promoter and spokesman being toward the top of the list. I’m biased due to my long-term friendship with Mayor Suarez, so for what it’s worth, I believe that he’s done a great job of putting an international spotlight on Miami over the last year or so.”

Measurable successes

González and Grieco’s assertions about Suarez’s strength as the city’s most commanding and effective cheerleader aren’t conjecture. Just over a year since Suarez’s famous “How can I help?” tweet drew national attention from the increasingly interlocking technology and financial sectors, tech job postings and the amount of venture capital dollars invested in the Greater Miami area — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — has skyrocketed.

As detailed by The Next Miami, Miami tech job listings grew 29% through July to 14,084 — a rate faster than any other major U.S. city. The Miami metropolitan area also saw 22% growth in venture investments as major firms like Founders Fund, General Catalyst, SoftBank and Tiger Global made the region ninth in total funds invested, according to business analytics company CB Insights.

The Miami Herald reported in October that home purchases by investors in Miami and Fort Lauderdale were 90% higher in the second quarter of 2021 than in the year prior.

In February, Suarez hired the city’s first-ever venture capitalist in residence: Miami native and Krillion Ventures managing partner Melissa Krinzman, a former nonprofit worker and founding member of Miami Angels who specializes in early-stage company investments. That same month, he launched Venture Miami, a tech, finance and business think tank with his senior innovation and technology adviser, Saif Ishoof, at the helm. One of the group’s new verticals is the Venture Miami Opportunity Program, a partnership with Florida International University to support female entrepreneurs of color in accessing capital, growing their annual revenue and upscaling their businesses.

Combine those efforts, the influx of tech and financial businesses and the pro-crypto environment Suarez has stewarded — including by making the city home to the first municipal cryptocurrency, MiamiCoin, which by November had already yielded more than $7 million for the city — and it becomes easier to understand why many consider Suarez a trailblazer.

“He is an out-of-the-box thinker who cares deeply about all facets of this great community (and) has truly championed Miami, particularly as it relates to attracting tech sector businesses. That has been a shining example of his leadership,” said Alfred Sanchez, President and CEO of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. “We are extremely blessed in the city of Miami to have had incredibly strong and intentional leadership throughout this challenging time in world history. It has helped our community bounce back faster and stronger than any other in the state and, arguably, the country.”

Former Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera called Florida Politics’ recognition of Suarez “well-deserved.” Suarez’s impacts on the city, he said, are likely to be long-lasting.

“Francis took lemons and turned them into a whole lot of lemonade for the Greater Miami community,” he said. “His efforts will pay dividends for this community well beyond his term as Mayor of Miami.”

Cutler Bay Mayor Tim Meerbott expressed similar sentiments, describing Suarez as “an innovative and positive leader” whose experience and creativity will improve South Florida.

“The future seems bright through his eyes,” he said.

Miami Republican Rep. Vance Aloupis agreed.

“I’ve known Mayor Suarez a long time, and what he’s done for our community in creating a vision for what the future of South Florida’s economy can look like is truly inspirational,” he said. “I’m proud to be his friend, and I continue to support him in his efforts to really put Miami on the map nationally and internationally as a tech hub.”

Room to improve

While Suarez had many successes to celebrate, he also had his share of setbacks. He has drawn criticism for holding three private-sector roles — one at law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, another at private equity firm DaGrosa Capital Partners and an unpaid position with real estate brokerage ISG World — while collecting a $97,000 salary from the city.

There is also the issue of rising housing costs. While a statewide problem, it’s especially bad in Miami, where nearly 63% of renters spend at least half their income on housing — the highest percentage among the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, according to a new report by rental listing company Apartment List, which found that rent costs in the city shot up nearly 29% year-over-year.

In August, Miami’s chief resilience officer and head of public works, Alan Dodd, quit after just over a year on the job. His brief resignation letter did not elaborate on why he was leaving. The first person to hold the job, Jane Gilbert, accepted the position while Suarez was still on the Miami City Commission but left for a yearlong stint in the private sector before joining Levine Cava’s administration as the county’s first chief heat officer.

Flash flood events and yearly occurrences, such as the king tide combined with heavy rain, caused water levels to rise nearly nine inches above predictions in November. Meanwhile, Miami has spent only a quarter of a $400 million bond voters approved in 2017 to pay for drainage system improvements, anti-flood valves and affordable, resilient housing.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, including but not limited to the expansion of affordable housing, workforce housing and environmental issues,” Grieco said. “I believe he and the Miami Commission are up to the task in 2022.”

Then there was the scandal around the hiring, public flaying and firing of Suarez’s hand-picked Police Chief, Art Acevedo, whose reputation Miami Commissioners Joe Carollo, Manolo Reyes and Alex Diaz de la Portilla eviscerated over the course of two arduous meetings.

As has been the case with Commission meetings in recent memory, Suarez attended neither.

A mere six months after Acevedo’s swearing-in — when Suarez described him as the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs” — Acevedo was suspended. The Commission gave Acevedo his walking papers soon after.

The fiasco and other times Suarez has disengaged upon hitting roadblocks, such as how he stopped attending the meetings of a powerful Miami-Dade transportation planning board after losing a bid for its chairmanship, have prompted some critics to question his resolve.

Reasons to celebrate

But for many, Suarez’s achievements in the last year and in years prior far eclipse his perceived shortcomings. Some point to the myriad businesses that either sizably grew their footprints or relocated to the Greater Miami area over that period — companies like Microsoft, Blockchain.com, Atomic, CI Financial, Blackstone Group, Spotify, Moore Capital Management and many more.

“Mayor Suarez has earned this recognition fair and square,” Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez of Doral said. “His relentless pursuit of attracting and retaining the cryptocurrency and big tech companies to our region has affected not only the city of Miami, but the whole region and subsequently the state of Florida. That is no small feat, and I for one think that deserves major kudos.”

Elnatan Rudolph, managing partner at government relations, communications and digital solutions firm Converge Public Strategies, said Suarez has “no doubt” earned the accolade for transforming Miami into the “capitol of tech.”

“While others were held back by COVID, Mayor Suarez capitalized on what has always been known about Miami: It is in the most business-friendly state, has beautiful weather and has the talent,” he said. “He helped market that to the West Coast, Northeast and the world. The numbers in Miami are staggering, and with his second term, it is just the beginning.”

Suarez’s leadership has “transcended the region,” said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, President of public affairs firm Tridente Strategies.

“From addressing the COVID crisis and providing national leadership on environmental issues to laying the groundwork for Miami to become a major tech center and implementing conservative policies, Mayor Suarez’s first term has been transformational,” he said.

Others cite Suarez’s advocacy for programs and policies that, while not as flashy and headline-grabbing as his work as a magnet for tech and crypto interests, have nonetheless enriched the lives of locals.

“Under Mayor Suarez’s leadership, the city of Miami expanded its popular trolley service to every corner of the city, providing convenient, fare-free transit to thousands of residents, workers and visitors,” said Javier Betancourt, executive director of the Miami-Dade Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust. “Mayor Suarez has also pushed for expanded bike paths throughout Miami, steering, for instance, a substantial amount of city funds toward the Underline, a signature multiuse trail and linear park being constructed under the Metrorail.”

Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago, one of Suarez’s closest friends, called the Mayor’s leadership “inspiring” on numerous fronts.

“His leadership has helped strengthen the relationship between our cities,” he said. “We have worked on various initiatives such as ensuring connectivity between our trolleys, supporting the Underline and other transportation-related projects, and various sustainability efforts that aim to protect our natural resources, like our Biscayne Bay and water sources throughout the state. In addition, Mayor Suarez is a visionary when it comes to drawing high-tech companies to South Florida. He has truly incentivized major companies to invest in Miami and the broader community.”

On Monday, Suarez took over as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a nonpartisan organization made up of some 1,400 mayors representing American cities with populations of 30,000 or more.

The prestige and visibility that position brings, as well as the added responsibilities that come with it, will be a boon for the “Magic City,” Doral Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez said.

“As the only other Miami-Dade advisory board member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I think Francis certainly deserves the (Florida Politics) designation, as he has pushed the city of Miami and South Florida in a direction where we can compete nationally to attract a modern economy for our community,” he said. “As he takes the reins as the next president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, it also helps South Florida as we seek to expand our economy into technology, fintech and other sectors.”

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.


  • Tim

    January 4, 2022 at 9:32 am

    This is joke, Suarez has allowed Crazy Joe Carollo to run the City of Miami, its embarrassing. The City of Miami is a dumpster fire, over 20 top executives have left and businesses in the know want nothing to do with the City of Miami to the benefit of Levine Cava. Check out Miami Times and why Suarez made list of worst politicians in Florida https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/dirty-dozen-2021-miamis-worst-people-13604857

  • Anamaria G McKee

    January 5, 2022 at 7:13 am

    Congratulations to Mayor Suarez. Thanks for all he has done for the City of Miami. We are proud of him and of Miami.

Comments are closed.


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