Directing Florida county’s coronavirus response puts spotlight on House candidate

Republican must balance health and safety with Trump pressure to reopen

Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., narrowly won her seat in 2018 and faces a strong potential Republican challenger, Carlos Gimenez, who is leading the response to the coronavirus outbreak in Miami Dade County. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., narrowly won her seat in 2018 and faces a strong potential Republican challenger, Carlos Gimenez, who is leading the response to the coronavirus outbreak in Miami Dade County. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 21, 2020 at 11:13am

Late last week, as President Donald Trump fired off a series of tweets calling for the “liberation” of states with stay-at-home orders, Carlos Gimenez, a Florida mayor and congressional candidate, laid the foundation to start reopening parks.

It was a tricky calculation. Miami-Dade County, which Gimenez has led since 2011, is the epicenter of Florida’s COVID-19 crisis, and the number of cases is rising. But area hospitals were reporting plenty of open beds for infected patients. Residents were eager to return to public swimming pools and golf courses. And Trump and a growing chorus of conservative commentators were calling for a speedy revival of business as usual.

Gimenez has the polling and fundraising advantage in a three-way Republican primary to challenge freshman Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in a battleground district in November. He’s also one of the few state or local officials in the country guiding their community’s coronavirus response while also running for Congress.

Republicans see it as an opportunity to boost his profile and tout his credentials from decades in public service that includes working as a fire chief and a county commissioner. Democrats, though, are tracking missteps that they say show that his political allegiance to Trump and Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis outweighs his concern about what’s right for his community.

Although neither side has broached the subject in their campaigns, Gimenez’s position demonstrates just how much local response to the pandemic has been politicized.

“He is one of the few candidates who has a platform where he could have taken advantage and shown leadership,” said Mayra Macías, executive director of the Latino Victory Fund, a progressive political action committee that supports Mucarsel-Powell. “But we have noticed he has put politics over people.”

Representatives from Gimenez’s campaign insist political calculations have been far from his mind as he navigates the crisis.

“Since this began, the mayor has not been at all focused on the campaign, and he is perfectly comfortable with that,” campaign consultant Cam Savage said. “His background is in public safety.”

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Gimenez’s supporters say he has based his actions on consultations with county public health experts and he has been more aggressive than other local leaders in the region.

He was one of the first to voluntarily isolate himself, spending 14 days at home after he came in contact with a top aide to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who had tested positive for the virus on March 9.

Under his March 19 order, the county of 2.7 million was among the first in the state to shut down nonessential businesses, parks and recreation areas. But he resisted issuing a broader stay-at-home order, saying it would be “panic inducing.” DeSantis cited the directive as a “starting point” when the state issued an order restricting businesses a day later.

“He excels in crisis,” said Elnatan Rudolph, a GOP strategist who advised DeSantis’ 2018 gubernatorial campaign. “He is doing all the right things as mayor. It’s hard to compete with a guy like that.”

A Clinton district

Florida’s 26th District, which extends from South Miami to Key West, is one of the most competitive in the state.

Democrat Hillary Clinton won it by 16 points in 2016, but Mucarsel-Powell beat two-term GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo by just 2 points two years later. She was expected to coast to reelection until Gimenez, who is term-limited as Miami-Dade County mayor, announced his campaign in January.

Gimenez, as one of the most powerful politicians in South Florida, was immediately considered a heavy favorite in his Aug. 18 primary against restaurateur Irina Vilariño and former firefighters union head Omar Blanco.

His popularity in the district inspired the Cook Political Report to downgrade the race to Lean Democratic. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the contest Likely Democratic. Gimenez, a longtime Republican, voted for Clinton in 2016. But he timed his campaign launch to coincide with a visit from Trump to the region, and the president responded with a tweet endorsing him.

Gimenez’s supporters lost a key attack line against Mucarsel-Powell when Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped his presidential bid. GOP groups had sought to tie the congresswoman to Sanders’ February defense of positive comments he made in the 1980s about Cuban leader Fidel Castro, which fell flat in the heavily Cuban American district.

So far, it is unclear how his handling of the pandemic will factor into the campaign.

Near-constant presence

Rudolph estimated that Gimenez’s near-constant presence in local media during the pandemic is worth the equivalent of at least $1 million a week in campaign advertisements. In addition to television and radio briefings about the virus response, residents hear Gimenez’s voice in recorded telephone messages and see his name on emergency management text message blasts.

But not everyone is a fan. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican, called it a “national embarrassment” when Gimenez declined to shut beaches in the county early in March. County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who has Mucarsel-Powell’s endorsement for her bid this year to succeed Gimenez as Miami-Dade County mayor, wrote a public letter to him pleading for county-wide curfews, a position Murcasel-Powell has also adopted in a tweet.

And when Gimenez first started talking of reopening the county last week, Miami Herald opinion columnist Fabiola Santiago accused him of parroting Trump and DeSantis. The Florida governor’s approval rating has dropped as he has deflected much of the response to regional officials and released conflicting and sometimes inaccurate information about the virus. Gimenez, Santiago wrote, is “pliable, a chameleon who changes according to what’s politically convenient.”

‘Better job’ than Trump

The Herald’s editorial board later wrote that he was taking “the right, tentative steps” in his early planning to reopen the county.

“Gimenez cannot follow the dangerous precedents of Gov. DeSantis or President Trump, picking dates out of thin air to declare amenities reopened, while they make saving lives an afterthought,” the editorial continued. “He’s done a better job than either up to this point, and he shouldn’t sully his track record in a rush to normalcy.”

Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign declined to comment for this story but referred to local media reports about her calls for caution from state and county leaders. One, a tweet from Miami Herald reporter Alex Daugherty, noted that Mucarsel-Powell criticized the county without naming Gimenez at a virtual press conference when she called for the release of more data and said it was too early to think about reopening the county.

Meanwhile, Mucarsel-Powell, who has a reputation as a strong fundraiser, almost doubled Gimenez’s fundraising in the first quarter of 2020. She pulled in $742,000 from January to March compared to Gimenez’s $415,000 and ended the reporting period with $2.1 million in the bank. Gimenez had $405,000.

Gimenez’s supporters point out that he has had little time to campaign. But the real gauge of his chances might be found in the fluctuations of a different number. As of early this week, Miami-Dade County had more than 200 of the state’s almost 800 deaths from COVID-19. It was the the highest death rate in the state.