25 March 2011

The Miami-Dade Recall: the power of wealth in non-partisan politics

It took a Cal Thomas column today to alert me to a potentially significant political event that took place in Florida last week. On March 15 the mayor of Miami-Dade, Carlos Alvarez, was recalled from office by 88% of the vote. The event has received relatively little attention from the national media, based on my own experience, and that's most likely because the recall was, apparently, a non-partisan event. Alvarez is reportedly registered as a Republican, but won two mayoral elections as a "No Party Preference" candidate, presumably on the Bloomberg model. Likewise, the recall effort can only have cut across ordinary party lines, considering how many voters repudiated Alvarez.

The recall campaign was the handiwork of Norman Braman, a billionaire owner of a chain of car dealerships. Thomas notes that Braman had voted for Alvarez in a previous election, but broke with him over, among other things, Alvarez's alleged use of public money to build a new stadium for the Florida Marlins baseball team. Thomas doesn't mention that Braman himself was once co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, but from what I've read, he did nothing at that time that'd expose him to charges of hypocrisy now. Before he bought into the Eagles, Braman opposed using public money to build a stadium for the Miami Dolphins back in the 1980s. Alvarez defended the expenditure by calling the stadium a resource for the community, and claimed that it would be financed mostly by tourist taxes, but voters in many sports towns have long questioned why taxpayers should subsidize presumably wealthy franchises in any way. A wave of raises for city employees certainly didn't help Alvarez's cause, either.

Critics of Braman (who should be distinguished from defenders of Alvarez, who are apparently very few in number) claim that his recall efforts were personally motivated because he favored a different mayoral candidate the last time Alvarez was elected, and because the recall was not as sweeping as it could or (some say) should have been. Some observers dismiss him as just another taxophobic crank, but the success of the recall suggests that there was more at work among voters than mere taxophobia. If there's cause for concern in Braman's victory, it shouldn't be over what he's done, but over whether only people like him can do it. Thomas writes as if all Braman needed to do was start a website, but I have to presume that there was massive advertising in favor of the recall. I can't help asking whether, if everything else was the same but Braman was Alavarez's pal, the latter would still be mayor today. In the actual case, which is being portrayed as Republican-vs-Republican, no one (presumably) could depend on a major party's fundraising apparatus to advance an agenda. Under such conditions, a billionaire's activism proved decisive. Thomas is untroubled by this. Without saying so explicitly, he argues as if billionaires like Braman are the first (or last) line of defense against "socialism in function if not in name." While Braman acted within his rights as a citizen, he clearly had a head start over other like-minded citizens in any attempt to influence the public agenda. I would be more encouraged by the news from Florida, though the virtue of recalls may still be subject to debate, if I could believe that the same thing could have happened without a billionaire's backing. If it can't, then recall, which has been touted for more than a century as an enhancement of democracy, might prove to be the opposite.

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