In his final days in office, Republican mayor Tomás Regalado is campaigning for a new tax to facilitate $400 million in government spending, nearly half of which will pay to protect the city from sea-level rise.
BY DAVID SMILEY
Tomás Regalado is standing nearly knee deep in a murky stream of saltwater when a FedEx truck comes lumbering up Northeast 10th Avenue like a Boston Whaler, sending its wake over his rubber firefighter boots and down his blue slacks.
All around him, a seasonal high tide and steady rain have turned the southeast corner of Shorecrest, a coastal, blue-collar Miami neighborhood, into an extension of the Little River. Before the morning is out, he’ll post pictures of flooding in the city’s financial district on Twitter, announce that the bay is topping seawalls in downtown and compare a water-logged Thursday morning to the flooding caused by Hurricane Irma.
During a summer of extreme weather events, this feels like the new normal for Miami. And, oddly, for the Republican mayor of Miami.
“The city eventually has to deal with this,” Regalado says as a woman and boy across the street hop to a jeep, holding garbage bags around their feet to keep their shoes dry. “And the only way the city can do that is with the bonds.”
Over more than two decades in office, Regalado has built a career around populist stances intuitively crafted to resonate with a small, dedicated voting base that, despite Miami’s overall progressive lean, looks a lot like him: Hispanic, elderly and Republican. As mayor, cutting the tax rate has been among Regalado’s biggest talking points. Climate change not so much.
And yet, in his final days in office, here he is in the middle of a flooded street campaigning for a new tax to facilitate $400 million in government spending, nearly half of which will pay to protect the city from sea-level rise — an issue he admits doesn’t exactly rally his base or resonate with his party.
Spoiler alert. It's climate change
— Tomás Regalado (@Tomas_Regalado) October 5, 2017
“There are areas of heavy flooding. What I don’t know is if the people will have the incentive to vote for the bonds thinking that will protect them,” he told the Miami Herald. “To me, it’s an uphill battle.”
But Regalado’s own experience makes him believe there’s a chance.
The mayor, a 70-year-old former newsman who came to Miami in 1962 as part of the Pedro Pan exodus from Fidel Castro’s Cuba, won the mayor’s seat in 2009 with a simple campaign based on the idea that Miami — left in the depths of a recession and financial crisis despite a historic building boom — was a working-class city and not a metropolis. His platform was built as a rejection of the big-picture administration of predecessor Manny Diaz, at the time the Democratic head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
Climate change wasn’t even part of his vernacular when voters elected Regalado to a second and final term four-year term in 2013. But that began to change around the time his youngest son moved back home intent on sharing global lessons of climate change after traveling the world as an underwater photographer.
“I moved back to my house and started waking up at 4 or 5 in the morning when my dad would wake up and that was the only time, about an hour, I would be able to talk to him. I would make him Cuban coffee, I would print out climate change things and little by little I would explain it,” said Jose Regalado, 32. “It was every day, kind of like the tides. Little by little.”
Then, in 2015, the mayor says, a trip to Montreal and conversations with world leaders outside the United States helped clarify the extent of Miami’s existential crisis. By 2016, Regalado was making his own waves, asking Republican presidential candidates during a nationally televised debate to tell Miami what they’d do to address rising seas. Last month, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on South Florida, he called on President Donald Trump to talk about climate change, encouraging a connection between rising surface water temperatures and hurricanes that his Democratic counterparts seemed unwilling to broach.
“They lacked the political courage,” he says.
But Regalado doesn’t have years to ebb away at voters’ skepticism the way his son worked with him. And while his late-blooming climate change activism might have won him national media coverage this summer, it’s done little to carry the water at home, where inattentiveness to sea-level rise earlier during his administration has left the city in an awkward position on the campaign trail.
Five years ago, Miami commissioned an engineering firm to study the city’s storm-water system and come up with a master plan to guide improvements to Miami’s flood-prevention system. That document is now a temporary backbone to the city’s estimated $1 billion in storm-water, sea-wall and flood-pump needs.
It’s temporary because the plan had a critical flaw: it didn’t take sea-rise projections into account. Shorecrest wasn’t identified as a community in critical need of improvements despite the fact that the neighborhood now experiences weeks of extreme tidal flooding every year. Plans to create water systems that rely heavily on gravity to flush water out of the streets had no projections for where water tables would lie 20 and 30 years down the road.
So even as Regalado is campaigning for the bond, the city is vetting firms to decide who will craft a new plan that will help dictate the specific projects the city will pursue and how much money it will need. Though line items were created by Regalado’s administration to show where they intend to spend the money, the basins to be improved and money to be spent are just place-holders until the city can come up with a proper plan.
“People are hesitant to say yes to more money regardless of where it comes from, especially when there’s no accountability,” says Denise Galvez Turros, a candidate running for city commission in the district that Regalado used to represent before he became mayor.
The mood in Hispanic neighborhoods like Little Havana and Flagami will likely prove crucial to Regalado’s campaign. While registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two-to-one in the city, a majority of those voters live in the city’s coastal communities, where sea-rise resonates but there’s no competitive mayor’s race or commission race to also draw them to the polls.
Republicans, meanwhile, turn out to Miami’s local elections in far better numbers than Democrats. The city’s western neighborhoods, where there are active commission races this year, skew Hispanic, Republican and older than 50 — and wary of tax increases. Nowhere is that bent more clear than in Regalado’s old commission district.
That’s a quandary for the mayor because the bonds would be leveraged through a new property tax. The debt would have to be structured in a way that ensures the portion of Miami’s property tax rate related to debt won’t rise higher than it stands today — a promise embedded in the ballot language — but the city’s tax rate related to debt would indisputably drop were the city to not pursue the general obligation bond. Miami’s unions were against putting the bond on the ballot.
“This is clearly a tax, but it’s even worse because it’s a tax without a plan. They don’t know what they’re going to do with the money, or how spending the money will impact flooding in the future,” said Eric Zichella, a local lobbyist who sits as a member of the city’s finance committee, which recommended against the bond issue. “I think the mayor should be careful that he campaigns for this very unpopular tax and it ends up hurting his son,” he added in reference to Tommy Regalado, who is running for city commission in District 3.
But Jane Gilbert, the city official tasked with coordinating its response to rising seas and climbing temperatures, says the key to promoting the bond is acknowledging the city’s challenges and trusting that Miami is working on the details to come up with a good plan. She stresses that a public board would have oversight of bond spending. And at $192 million, the money voters are being asked to approve would essentially be seed money to give the city resources to begin urgent projects and in the meantime seek matching grants.
“We have immediate needs to address our flood-risk problems,” Gilbert said one afternoon in early August next to a pump station under construction in Brickell, which had been flooded dramatically the previous day during a sudden and unexpected deluge that fell during a high tide and left people paddling kayaks in the street. “Our ground [water] level is higher and as we get storm events the whole river and canal systems are higher, as is the bay.”
To help sell the bond, Regalado is relying on the help of a non-profit sea-rise group called the Seawall Coalition, which is promising to spend $200,000 on an informational campaign and spent this past week in Miami gathering material. But Regalado, who has been successfully selling issues to Miami’s voters for decades, is doing his own campaigning.
“I’ve been to Holland and the Dutch have been dealing with sea-rise for hundreds of years. The only difference is they do things,” he said. “We haven’t done anything, yet.”