Familiar foes go head-to-head for Coral Gables mayoral seat

The balance between keeping Coral Gables a “world-class city with a hometown feel” and attracting new, cutting-edge building is the major focus of candidates for mayor and the City Commission in this year’s election, to be decided on Tuesday.

The fight over development in the city is especially well-defined and bitter in the mayoral race. As Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick and former mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli compete for the two-year seat, old conflicts are shaping the battle over the city’s future.

Concern over development is what drew Slesnick, 69, to run for a commission seat two years ago. She resigned from that seat to run for mayor and now faces a political veteran who served as mayor for nearly a decade — Raúl Valdés-Fauli.

Valdés-Fauli, 73, jumped into a race and a public discourse that nearly mirrors his unsuccessful bid for re-election in 2001 as he faces vocal residents who are opposed to large, mixed-use development, particularly the Paseo de la Riviera project along U.S. 1, and have organized in support of Slesnick and two other City Commission candidates.

Raúl Valdes-Fauli says he’s for smart development that complies with the city’s zoning code, particularly in downtown, where he says it’s needed for economic reasons.

Valdes-Fauli says he’s for smart development that complies with the city’s zoning code and particularly in downtown, where he says it’s needed for economic reasons.

Slesnick has opposed certain large or controversial developments, including the Paseo and Gables Station projects, but says she isn’t opposed to all development. Too many large projects have been approved in recent years, she says, and were possible because of amendments and changes to the city’s zoning codes.

There’s also the familiar nature of the competition between these well-known names. Slesnick’s husband Don defeated Valdés-Fauli in 2001. Don Slesnick was then defeated in 2011 by Jim Cason, who is supporting Valdés-Fauli.

In the closing weeks of the election, political attack ads have ramped up, and tensions between the candidates have become more pronounced.

Jeannett Slesnick has opposed some large or controversial developments, including the Paseo and Gables Station projects, but says she isn’t opposed to all development.

Valdés-Fauli is looking for a second act. He wants to build on what Cason and his fellow commissioners have set in place over the last six years, and to undo what he sees as damage done during Don Slesnick’s tenure.

“I would like for people to consider our future and the city their children will live in,” Valdés-Fauli said.

After his defeat in 2001, Valdés-Fauli essentially disappeared from Gables politics. It wasn’t until he joined the city’s charter review committee in 2015 that he started to reemerge. He supported Cason’s 2015 reelection bid.

He points to the development of projects like the Village of Merrick Park and the War Memorial Youth Center as some highlights of his tenure.

In 1997 and 1999, he and his fellow commissioners were all re-elected without any real issue. But the political atmosphere changed as his fourth term began, and a group of residents began to organize in opposition to a $16 million plan to build an annex to City Hall and close Biltmore Way to pedestrian traffic to create a signature plaza.

By the April 2001 election, an activist group called the Coral Gables Citizens Political Committee drummed up enough opposition to the commission’s plan that it defined that campaign season. Valdés-Fauli lost to Don Slesnick by about 1,400 votes. But by then, the 60,000-square-foot annex was under construction, and the city ended up paying the contractor to tear it down.

Valdés-Fauli has defended the plan for the annex, saying that the city’s departments are now too spread out across several buildings. He also notes that the city spent millions on the work and then about $1.15 million to settle with the contractor and cancel the project.

“I’m very proud of having sponsored the annex project,” Valdés-Fauli said. “I served my constituents and I served the people.”

Their political history has created tension between the two candidates, who are neighbors and used to socialize at each other’s houses but no longer are friends.

That history has created tension between the two candidates. At a recent Miami Herald editorial board meeting, Slesnick said that she and her husband considered Valdés-Fauli a friend and they had dinner and celebrated holidays at each other’s homes. The 2001 election changed things, she said. The two candidates live on the same street about six houses away from each other but they no longer are friends.

“He stopped listening to the people the last year or two [of his term] and became what everybody called arrogant,” Slesnick told Herald editors, then turned to Valdés-Fauli and said, “You did things your way.”

Slesnick’s mayoral campaign comes after just two years on the dais but decades of public involvement. Her real estate business is well known in the city and before her time on the commission she voiced concerns about city decisions as president of Gables Good Government. She also chaired the city’s cultural affairs advisory board and made an unsuccessful run for the commission back in 1983.

At the Herald editorial board meeting and in other public forums, Valdés-Fauli has attacked some of Don Slesnick’s actions and stances, as if his old foe was his current opponent, prompting Jeannett Slesnick to retort that she is her own person with her own ideas. But she has also conceded that she values her husband as a consultant on city issues and history.

Several fliers, from the Jensen Beach-based political action committee Leadership for Florida’s Future, have criticized Slesnick for seeking advice from her husband and tied it to financial issues during his tenure. The city pension fund had a shortfall of more than $200 million by the end of Don Slesnick’s term.

Another ad, from a group called Coral Gables First, drew attention to a series of Miami Herald stories about the city from 2009, when Don Slesnick was mayor, including stories about the city’s budget issues and the controversy surrounding former city manager David Brown, who retired amid allegations of sexual harassment and reports that he covered up credit-card fraud.

“If somebody wants a candidate stuck in the past, that is bitter, and wants to put out mailers from secret [committees] in Jensen Beach then I’m not their candidate,” Jeannett Slesnick said.

“I’m a forward thinker, I want to go forward and keep the city in the sound financial state it’s in now. I don’t want to go back to yesterday’s news,” Slesnick said.

She has consistently said that government transparency and resident participation and engagement are areas she wants to improve. She cites her newsletters and surveys at town hall meetings as examples of that engagement.

Voters will also choose winners of two commission seats in the April 11 election.

As far as the City Commission that these candidates will lead, outgoing mayor Jim Cason, Vice Mayor Frank Quesada and Commissioner Vince Lago have all thrown their support behind Valdés-Fauli.

Commissioner Patricia Keon, who previously considered a mayoral run, has said she’d be willing to work with either candidate.

No matter the result on election day, the city has several projects in the works, and planning for next year’s budget will start in the next few months. Commissioners will also make final decisions on the city’s plastic bag ban and the speed limit reduction in residential neighborhoods.

Voters are also deciding on two other commission seats. For the Group 3 seat, Keon faces former commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers. In the Group 5 race, the candidates are Marlin Ebbert, a retired teacher; Randy Hoff, a retired police officer; Michael Mena, an attorney; and Serafin Sousa, a civil engineer.

Voting on April 11 runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. A runoff, if needed, would take place April 25.