Two of Miami-Dade County’s most accomplished women in local government are going head to head in the race for County Commission in District 7.
One-time state representative and former Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner is facing Raquel Regalado, a radio host and former School Board member, in the race to represent residents from Key Biscayne to Kendall.
Also competing for the seat, which Commissioner Xavier Suarez vacated to run for mayor, are Pets’ Trust co-founder Michael Rosenberg and Miami Gardens police captain Rafael “Ralph” Suarez. The district also includes parts of Miami, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Pinecrest and South Miami.
Regalado, 46, has clung to her strong showing in the 2016 mayoral race, which she lost to Mayor Carlos Gimenez, to bolster her prospects for a second go at county politics.
Regalado and Lerner are the only candidates with experience in government. But Regalado argues that Lerner, who was mayor of the small village of Pinecrest from 2008 to 2016, has never enjoyed the same level of voter appeal as she has.
“Cindy may have been elected mayor twice but I was elected school board member twice representing more voters and in 2016 received over 376,000 votes and made history taking an incumbent mayor to a run off,” Regalado wrote via text message Saturday to a reporter, along with a screenshot of the vote totals in the 2016 mayoral race.
Lerner, a 67-year-old attorney, said she had not previously criticized Regalado publicly. She countered by noting that Gimenez carried nearly every single precinct in District 7 during the mayoral race.
“That’s ridiculous,” Lerner said of Regalado’s remarks. “I have looked at the result of her 2016 election and she only won three precincts in the entire District 7. And she only won them by a percentage point or less.”
Lerner said her experience managing municipal budgets and a stand-alone police department separates her from her opponents. She said her one-year term as a state representative in 2000, which ended when the Legislature eliminated her district in drawing new boundaries, taught her how to view even the most local levels of government with a “much broader lens than most local officials.”
Her priorities are easing traffic gridlock by expanding Metrorail from South Miami-Dade to the Broward County line on a one-ticket ride with affordable housing built along the transit lines, and conducting a countywide sea-level rise analysis to address climate resiliency issues.
Former Pinecrest mayor
During her time as Pinecrest mayor, Lerner oversaw the creation of a trolley line and renovations to the village’s stormwater system. She also claims ownership of the revitalization of the Banyan Bowl park, the original site of Parrot Jungle.
“I know how local government operates, I know what it takes to put together local government budgets and oversee a police department, planning and zoning,” Lerner said. “I’m the only one who’s done that at a local government level.”
Her opponents have criticized her sometimes abrasive interactions with residents during her tenure, which were compiled in a video clip. Lerner, who has been endorsed by two current Pinecrest council members and its mayor, said the clip was unfairly edited and did not provide context for the interactions.
“Out of eight years there were maybe three meetings where things got heated,” Lerner said. “You don’t know what was said immediately before or after, you don’t know whether people in the audience were yelling at us or not, and in some instances they were.”
Regalado’s school board work
Regalado said her work on the School Board, where she was considered one of the body’s most visible and vocal members, touched all aspects of county government, from juvenile justice to public health and transportation. She was elected in 2010 and resigned in 2016 to run for mayor. Both while in office and as a private resident, she drew on her experience as a practicing attorney to sue the city of Miami over a government-subsidized skyscraper project, spearheaded the School Board’s lawsuit against British Petroleum for damages resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and claimed a political victory in the defeat of a 2014 courthouse ballot initiative.
She is the daughter of former Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and served as his unpaid chief of staff while he was a commissioner, and later as his campaign manager when he ran for mayor in 2009.
But what most starkly sets her apart from Lerner and the other candidates — apart from her strong name recognition and media savvy — is that she is a “working woman” raising two teenage children with autism. Her priorities include establishing a job-placement program for adults with disabilities and tapping federal funds to build affordable housing along public transit lines.
If elected, she said, her votes would shape public policy that would directly impact mothers like her. In emphasizing the importance of representation on the commission, she points to a recent decision to keep her kids home from school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They don’t understand how the pandemic has impacted working women, because they’re not working women,” she said.
Lerner leads all candidates in campaign donations, raising $266,271 as of the most recent filing period. Regalado has raised $163,375. Suarez raised $22,725 and Rosenberg is up to $6,986.
Lerner, who has been endorsed by U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and two dozen state and local elected officials, also leads the field in campaign spending. As of July 17, her campaign has spent $163,580.
Rosenberg an advocate for animals
Rosenberg, 67, said if voters want another politician in office, they should cast their ballots for Lerner or Regalado. He would approach the position as a problem-solver, not a bureaucrat, he said. The self-described “extremo community activist” grabbed headlines in 2012 after locking himself in a cage at an animal shelter to call attention to the plight of animals at kill shelters in Miami-Dade.
In 2013, Rosenberg and his Pets’ Trust group convinced about 500,000 county residents to vote “yes” on a non-binding property tax increase earmarked for animal care, but the initiative was never funded after Gimenez nixed the plan, Rosenberg said.
If he was elected commissioner, Rosenberg said he would do the job in a “hands on” way and handle it with an unorthodox style. He would go as far as to dress up as an older resident and sit in a wheelchair to see if bus drivers treat him differently than others, he said, responding to a rumor he heard recently that drivers pass those in wheelchairs at bus stops.
“The guy who lived in the cage, that’s what he would do,” Rosenberg said. “Can you imagine someone like that as a commissioner?”
Campaigning during a pandemic means no more door knocking, candidates say. But they are still hearing from voters, albeit virtually.
“COVID is definitely re-prioritizing things that were not a priority in the past,” Lerner said. “Now people are much more concerned about health issues and how the county is or isn’t adequately addressing the growth and exponential increase in infection rate. That is the most pervasive concern people have right now.”
Apart from COVID-19, candidates say they consider transportation, climate resiliency and public safety among their priorities.
Suarez has low campaign profile
Lerner, Regalado and Rosenberg agree that transportation is among the top priorities for residents of District 7, but they have different plans to expand transit options in the county. Suarez, who did not respond to an interview request from the Miami Herald, has been largely absent from the virtual campaign trail and opted out on several candidate forums.
In a February press release announcing his run, Suarez proposed restricting gun sales and alleviating traffic.
“The challenges faced by the residents of District 7 require hands-on action,” Suarez, 60, said. “I’ve identified solutions that can be put into place immediately and with no cost to our taxpayers.”
Regalado and Lerner both propose expanding Metrorail north to the Broward County line. Lerner has keyed in on her proposal to create a one-ticket ride from Homestead to North Dade while Regalado has proposed expanding Metrorail to North Dade first.
“You have to go where the bodies are,” Regalado said. “Once you have the ridership, you can go and do the other pieces.”
Rosenberg has proposed a four-point plan to ease traffic gridlock, which includes making public transit free for one year and removing tolls for carpool drivers.
“I believe that the vision should be that our grandchildren who will be here one day will look back and say they created a great system for us,” Rosenberg said.