Trading jibes over past lobbying jobs and ethics investigations, Fausto Gomez and Joe Rasco threw body blocks at each other at last week’s first mayoral debate, while the third candidate, Katie Petros, sought to project herself as a calm consensus-builder.
There were only a few policy disagreements at Thursday night’s debate. The candidates agreed sea level rise and the fate of the Rickenbacker Causeway are prime threats. They all said they were fiscally conservative, and supported highly-ranked village services. In other words, anodyne statements that are the political equivalent of love for motherhood and apple pie.
But there were profound differences in tone and style. And it seemed clear, even to some supporters of other candidates, that Petros won the night with measured, middle-of-the-road positions. She used the Gomez/Rasco sparring to portray herself as a civil peacemaker.
“Nice does not mean weak and cooperation does not mean capitulation,” Petros said in her closing.
From the first question, Gomez signaled a break from years of status quo, attacking Village Manager Steve Williamson’s initial budget that raises taxes 13%, which he said was “a signal to the community of a lack of respect to try to take more money out of our pockets when that is not necessary.” But Gomez offered few budget cuts, despite his criticism.
All Miami-Dade municipalities plan raising taxes this year, however, a consequence of double-digit increase in property values. Key Biscayne, with one of the lowest tax rates, is no exception.
Rasco offered himself as a continuation of the Mike Davey era, vowing progress on sea level rise projects he said were “existential.” But at times he seemed to struggle to articulate his points and appeared defensive about a decision by the island’s firefighters union to endorse Gomez.
“I’m disappointed in that. It really is not something that has happened in Key Biscayne,” Rasco said. “It’s something that usually happens in cities like the city of Miami. It serves to divide us and I’m extremely disappointed that a candidate would go after an endorsement like that.”
The exchanges over attack mailers from supporters of Rasco and Gomez can’t be ignored. Neither of the two experienced pols came off well. While it’s true Rasco’s campaign didn’t pay for a mailer raising Gomez’ multiple ethics complaints, Rasco didn’t disagree with the theme of its messaging, saying that they were “heated issues” and that the reputation of the community was a very important issue.
Gomez’s strategy on his long history of serial ethics complaints attempts to turn the narrative around. He says they are not liabilities, they are assets — proof of his skills or savvy. It’s a risky strategy, and a departure from a more typical “mistakes were made” framing that includes asking forgiveness.
One debate exchange did little credit to both men. That’s because Rasco, in effect, was Gomez’s supervisor while both had jobs lobbying on behalf of Miami-Dade County.
“You signed my contract,” Gomez said.
“We all make mistakes,” Rasco retorted.
There are two traditional measuring sticks for debates. Did a candidate lessen negative perceptions about themselves? And did a candidate cement existing positive perceptions?
By this standard, Petros gained the most while doing the least self-harm, demonstrating knowledge of the pressing issues with a likable persona. Rasco’s performance may not have changed perceptions much, which could spell trouble since his prior service as mayor came 20 years ago and is not front of mind. And Gomez may have set himself backward, and was actually apologizing for his own conduct by the close of the session.
There were many unanswered questions, and the labor and spending issues may come back, even in wealthy Key Biscayne. Police and fire contracts are big drivers of government spending, but cutting costs for those services in Key Biscayne is hard — they consistently rank high in public opinion polling.
The last contract bargaining was acrimonious, and only was settled after Petros and former Manager Andrea Agha both left government. With inflation running at over 10% it’s a safe bet unions will be demanding more than a 4% cost-of-living boost when talks reopen.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.