The peaceful stillness at the polling station at the BankUnited Center as voters trickled in to elect a mayor and commissioners Tuesday was anything but representative of the months of fierce competition for office and nasty long-standing rivalries.
The election pitted Mayor Jim Cason against former city commissioner Ralph Cabrera. Cason handily defeated Cabrera, winning a third two-year term. Incumbent Commissioner Frank Quesada was re-elected over Enrique Lopez in Group IV with 73 percent of the vote. And in Group V, a six-way race for a seat in the commission, Jeannett Slesnick won with 32 percent of the vote.
Absentee ballots were a strong force in the election results, with about 3,800 of them cast, according to the Miami-Dade Department of Elections. As of February, there were 30,655 total registered voters in Coral Gables, according to the Department of Elections.
The mayoral competition intensified late in the race when Cabrera lodged a complaint with the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission against Cason, saying Cason had been bribing voters by promising to fix sidewalks and roadways.
The high crime rate in recent years and a string of burglaries in Coral Gables was a leading point of tension among candidates and citizens alike. Cabrera harshly criticized Cason, charging the mayor lacked concern for public safety.
“I myself live in Coral Gables and have young children, and the safety of my family is paramount,” said Annette Strauch, sister-in-law of Group V city commissioner candidate Ariel Fernandez.
The problem, according to Coral Gables firefighter Carlos Martinez, is cutbacks in the public safety departments. Coral Gables has taken fire rescue trucks out of service and reduced personnel, Martinez said.
“We don’t have the right amount of people to do the job safely,” he said. “It is dangerous enough as it is.”
Martinez stood outside the Precinct 612 at the St. Augustine Catholic, holding up signs for Cabrera, Quesada and Slesnick, wife of former Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, who pegged public safety as her No. 1 concern in a debate on March 31.
Cabrera, Quesada and Slesnick campaigned in support of increasing emergency services and general safety. They promised more crime prevention efforts and a healthy fire service and emergency response, all of which gained them the support of public workers.
Harold Louis, who identified himself as a lieutenant in the City of Coral Gables fire department, held a sign outside Precincts 639 and 640 at the BankUnited Center, and said he hoped that a change in leadership would boost morale at his fire station.
“You couldn’t get the best employees to work here,” Louis said. “They don’t just do it for money.”
Louis, who has worked for the city for 23 years, attributes much of the crumbling infrastructure – at times, literally, like one Gables fire station that he said is falling apart – to what he called the “attack” on public workers.
“People are paying an exorbitant amount for services but you’re not getting … what you’re paying for,” he said.
Louis, a single father, said the election signaled for him a chance for a better future for public service workers, where firefighters will not risk their lives and be denied adequate resources.