Why you should care
Francis Suarez might have a statewide political future, if he can use a ceremonial office as a springboard.
Because there is nowhere else to talk in peace, Francis Xavier Suarez and his tailored gray suit, slicked-back black hair and stylish watch are crammed into the back room of a nursing home with dingy walls and the strong smell of fish. “When you’re the mayor, you’ve got to go everywhere,” the Cuban-American Republican says, and this day his job is to explain emergency procedures ahead of hurricane season. The unglamorous setting is fitting for Suarez, despite his soap-opera good looks and political-scion upbringing as the son of a controversial mayor. After all, it was the devout Catholic father of two who proclaimed after his first State of the City address in February that Miami needed to weave a narrative that “we’re not just a glitzy fun-and-sun, low-tax city.”
Trying to shed the city’s unserious image, Suarez, 40, has advocated a tech-centric approach — flirting with Amazon and Spotify in headquarters bids, working with Tesla to provide public super-charging stations and partnering with WeWork on new downtown offices. Also on the docket: affordable housing, addressing climate change and traffic (among his solutions for the latter … electric scooters). The end goal? To create “a city that is more compassionate and caring,” as Suarez said in his victory speech, moments after winning 86 percent of the mayoral vote last November. “A Miami that is no longer a tale of two cities.”
Looking around him now, Suarez doubles down: “Every major city I’ve studied is grappling with this phenomenon … a growing, glitzy, glamorous side, and then an area not too different from where we’re sitting now.” The dream is bigger. “It’s more than a city — it’s an idea. And the idea is one of multiculturalism, of inclusion, of limitless potential.”
The lofty idea can be hard to square with reality. Take the scene two days before his nursing home visit, on Miami’s South Beach, where bright red-and-silver Mustangs rev past twerking tourists at Lummus Park. At the Clevelander, bikini-clad bunnies in skimpy bedazzled tops and hair extensions strut while bartenders proclaim: “If you are a gambler or an alcoholic, we are calling all of you up to the stage.” The special occasion? Easter Sunday.
What makes Suarez even more fascinating is his political birthright. His father, Xavier Suarez, was mayor during Francis’ teenage years. He learned that effective mayors stay close to the community. “My dad was a Harvard intellectual … yet he never lost touch.” But the elder Suarez was also known for being thin-skinned. He threatened to withhold city ads from The Miami Herald in response to negative coverage and knocked on the door of a retired city employee late at night after she wrote a letter criticizing him (in true Florida fashion, he was greeted by a .38-caliber pistol). And he once flew to New York on a whim to visit former Mayor Ed Koch and real estate magnate Donald Trump to try to convince Wall Street analysts that the city’s budget crisis was a myth.
His father, after “bursting into tears” twice in front of reporters, later commented: “My son told me I have to show my emotions. That’s impact.” The younger Suarez says he yearned for normalcy while being escorted to school by city protection officers, and rumors abound of his teenage high jinks. Still, you get the sense that prom dates’ parents must have loved the high school point guard who still plays pickup basketball and attends daily mass. After earning a finance degree at hometown Florida International University and a law degree from the University of Florida, the attorney founded a real estate firm before practicing law, currently with the firm Greenspoon Marder. When Suarez first ran for city commission in 2009, he says his father wanted him to use his middle name in campaign literature — to draw more directly from the elder Suarez’s bank of political goodwill — but he chose not to, squeaking through a runoff victory by just 260 votes.
So the son has returned, perhaps to right some of the sins of his father, who today is a Miami-Dade county commissioner but never achieved the political heights he could have. And Suarez’s challenge in crafting a livable city and an exotic playground of excess is even more pronounced considering his position is mostly ceremonial: He has few powers other than naming a city manager and a commission chairman. Like his father before him, Suarez has pushed for a stronger mayorship, even when serving as a city commissioner from 2009 until 2017. “Having the most powerful person in government [city manager] be an unelected person creates a lack of political sensitivity,” Suarez argues. Keon Hardemon, one of the five commissioners he will have to convince to voluntarily hand him power, is dismissive: “Anyone who is led to an office wants to have more authority.”
Political ambition is a little dangerous.
So the mayor who wants to push the city past its superficiality is confined to a post that’s superficial at its core. But perhaps the power of publicity can change that. “He uses the bully pulpit. And he uses the fact that he is incredibly intelligent and charismatic to drive the narrative,” says Mike Hernandez, a Democrat and Florida political strategist with Mercury Public Affairs. Although a Republican, Suarez has avoided defining himself politically, holding mostly nonpartisan posts. His campaign chops and fundraising ability — he raised $3.2 million in his mayoral run alone — have politicos discussing him as a possible Florida governor or U.S. senator down the line.
While Suarez hasn’t had to roll out specific policies on immigration or climate change, his support for addressing both could be a problem with the party base if he seeks to join the ranks of other aspirational national Republicans, such as fellow Cuban-Miamian Marco Rubio. So far he’s avoided staking his stances too clearly, Hernandez says, but eventually he will have to define himself while maintaining his local flair. “He’ll have to build a base here. It takes time,” says South Florida political commentator Rey Anthony Lastre, a member of Miami-Dade County’s Millennial Task Force.
“Political ambition is a little dangerous,” Suarez responds, insisting he isn’t looking ahead. But the student of history admires the big thinking of President John F. Kennedy and the oratory styles of Rubio and President Bill Clinton. He tries to harness that gravitas during a beautification ceremony at a busy intersection off Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the site of a new mural and sign dedicated to the civil rights icon. “Our goal is going to be to give people back that pride, that beauty they deserve,” Suarez says, his brow furrowed as an 18-wheeler whips by.
From his Miami City Hall office, Suarez reflects. “There is so much skepticism about modern-day politics and about elected officials,” he says, and he likes to think he is different — that he is pure in his motives. As he looks out from the upper level of the art deco–style Pan American seaplane terminal, it’s impossible not to draw parallels between his grappling with the city’s image and his own.
* Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly said Mayor Suarez was wearing a chrome watch.