In today’s episode of This Day in Miami History, we discuss the fallout of the 1997 City of Miami mayoral election, an election that was completely invalidated due to massive absentee ballot fraud. Xavier Suarez won a runoff that never should have happened, and Joe Carollo returned to the mayor’s office only after judicial intervention.

Wolfson Archives –

60 Minutes, Welcome To Miami –

Michael Putney on C-SPAN (includes Year in Reviews)

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[00;00;00;07 – 00;00;19;03] Matthew Bunch: The voice you’re about to hear is that of “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft. The episode of the program that aired on February 15, 1998, featured a story entitled “Welcome to Miami.” You’re going to hear him for about 45 seconds. It’s a little bit long, but trust me, it’s worth it.

[00;00;19;05 – 00;00;41;18] Steve Kroft: It safe to say that all American cities have some level of political corruption, but few display it with the verve or panache of Miami. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a city with more scandals running simultaneously than Miami has running right now. This week, a Florida judge is expected to decide whether or not to throw out the results of the last mayoral election because of fraud.

[00;00;41;20 – 00;01;00;14] Steve Kroft: The city has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and the governor is overseeing the city finances. Three city officials are in jail or on their way to jail for soliciting bribes. The U.S. attorney was forced to resign over an incident in a topless bar. And the head of the city commission is under federal indictment for bank fraud.

[00;01;00;17 – 00;01;01;26] Steve Kroft: And you don’t know the half of it.

[00;01;02;04 – 00;01;39;00] Matthew Bunch: What a time to be alive in Miami. 1997 was not the first time South Florida had come across municipal maladministration, but it seemed to be the confluence of a variety of forces all coming together centered around the 1997 City of Miami mayoral election. That race featured a general election, a runoff and a high-profile court intervention that eventually led to the entire race being thrown out and a winner being appointed.

[00;01;39;02 – 00;02;07;09] Matthew Bunch: It reflected a turning point in Miami politics, and perhaps some foreshadowing of some significant events to come in Florida and the nation. Today. This Day in Miami History. March 12, 1998: The day that Joe Carollo was sworn in as the mayor of the City of Miami without actually winning the 1997 election.

[00;02;07;16 – 00;02;26;13] King Elizabeth: ♪ “Miami Sunrise” by King Elizabeth ♪

[00;02;26;16 – 00;03;08;05] Matthew Bunch: Xavier Suarez and Joe Carollo were not always political adversaries. In fact, as previously mentioned on this podcast, in November of 1983, Corallo either intentionally or impulsively, publicly humiliated former Miami mayor Maurice Ferré during a very successful 1983 reelection campaign. Ferré arranged a joint press conference with Carollo just days before another runoff election. Instead of endorsing Maurice Ferré over Suarez, as was expected, Carollo took the opportunity to publicly criticized his campaign tactics as racially driven and inflammatory.

[00;03;08;07 – 00;03;30;00] Joe Carollo: What I see so far is a campaign that’s being run completely on demagoguery, completely on racism. And this community is going to blow up if this campaign persists and the way that it is going, I cannot vote for my former colleague in the city commission, Maurice Ferré.

[00;03;30;02 – 00;03;45;22] Matthew Bunch: The stunt backfired. Ferré won a close reelection. Suarez would have his revenge, though, eliminating Ferré before the runoff and defeating Raul Masvidal to win the seat and become the City of Miami’s first Cuban mayor in 1985.

[00;03;45;24 – 00;04;13;21] Xavier Suarez: I’m just so pleased that the democratic process works, that someone without the support of the establishment, without support of huge amounts of money, can get elected mayor just by dint of hard work, by grassroots support. The fact that I am Cuban-born does not mean that I represent in any way less the rest of this community. I will represent the community fairly and entirely and universally.

[00;04;13;24 – 00;04;53;13] Matthew Bunch: Suarez would go on to serve for eight years as the city’s mayor. An April 1, 1993 issue of the Miami Herald featured within in an editorial. The piece was in response to Suarez’s announcement that he would not be running for reelection in 1993, effectively retiring from public service. At least for the moment, that editorial said, quote, “In his eight years in public office, Mayor Suarez has offered other young politicians a model of classy, idealistic and inclusive public service. In his tale of two mayors, that fairly sums up the best of times. But even in the worst of times, it can be said that he was honest, even in his mistakes.”

[00;04;53;15 – 00;05;06;11] Matthew Bunch: Not a bad record to leave office on. Suarez was replaced by Stephen P. Clark, a man who served as the city’s mayor in the early 1970s before becoming a two-decade-long mayor of Dade County.

[00;05;06;14 – 00;05;23;15] Matthew Bunch: But Clark would not finish his term. Stomach cancer would kill the mayor in 1996, And so a special election was necessary to fill the remainder of the term until the next regular mayoral election. That race was won by Joe Carollo.

[00;05;23;18 – 00;05;42;20] Joe Carollo: So many of you have opened not only your homes to me, but your hearts and made me part of your families. There are not enough words to say. All I can say to you today is “thank you.” Thank you very much for having me.

[00;05;42;23 – 00;06;18;18] Matthew Bunch: Four days after Carollo’s inauguration, it was the centennial of the City of Miami, July 28, 1996. It was a day of pomp and circumstance, tens of thousands of people flooding downtown Miami. It seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Carollo’s arrival in the seat of power in the city. But the honeymoon was not to last long. On September 11, 1996, a federal sting operation known as “Operation Green Palm” led to the arrest of city manager Cesar Odio, finance director Manohar Surana and commissioner Miller Dawkins.

[00;06;18;24 – 00;06;48;18] Matthew Bunch: Just one week after that, interim city manager Merrett Stierheim disclosed that the city faced an unexpected budget deficit of at least $25 million due to shady accounting practices. The amount would eventually balloon to $68 million, in a city with a total budget of only $275 million at the time. It was an enormous problem. Carollo reported the issue to the state and a fiscal oversight panel was appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles.

[00;06;48;21 – 00;07;12;03] Matthew Bunch: The new mayor seemed to be overseeing a municipality teetering on the edge. The city’s bond status was slashed to junk. Jay Leno and Dave Letterman made jokes about the City of Miami and a movement to unincorporate the city and fold it into larger Dade County was underfoot. Not exactly the foundation of a gangbusters reelection campaign.

[00;07;12;05 – 00;07;37;18] Matthew Bunch: The following year, some praised Carollo for his crisis management, his quick action, and his ability to get the state involved in mitigating the crisis. However, others thought he was making too much of it, making the city look bad, and ultimately finding an excuse to lay off workers and cut city benefits. One such critic was former Mayor Xavier Suarez.

[00;07;37;20 – 00;07;51;23] Xavier Suarez: My proposal made two weeks ago in a press conference to pay off the entire general obligation of the city, which is $180 million. That would result in a net saving for life of 18 percent to all the taxpayers of Miami.

[00;07;51;27 – 00;08;26;14] Matthew Bunch: Unsurprisingly, a great focus of the campaign was on fiscal policy for the city, and specifically fiscal responsibility. But perhaps not surprising to some, the election also delved into personal attacks. Suarez had repaired his reputation largely during the eight years of his mayoral race. But remember, this was the man who got down and dirty with Maurice Ferré in 1983. And Joe Carollo, again over the course of the previous two years, had done a lot to rehab his reputation. But it was all still lingering.

[00;08;26;16 – 00;08;38;13] Joe Carollo: You know, when this campaign began. And I started being reminded every time that I was hear Mr. Suarez’s attacks, I was reminded of the story Pinocchio. And look at his nose.

[00;08;38;16 – 00;09;04;18] Matthew Bunch: General election day was November 4, 1997. But in order to win the mayoral race in Miami, you had to win a majority of the vote. So a runoff was possible. Carollo was slightly favored. And as the in-person votes were cast and counted, he appeared to be in a position to win outright. But the absentee ballots broke heavily for Xavier Suarez.

[00;09;04;18 – 00;09;48;06] Matthew Bunch: More than 60 percent of them went towards the former mayor. And because of that, current mayor Carollo was denied an outright win by approximately 160 votes. His 49.6 percent of the vote was significant, but not a clear majority. Xavier Suarez received 46.8 percent of the vote, so it would come down to a runoff on November 13, 1997. But instead of Carollo sealing the deal and getting across the finish line, it was Suarez who swarmed Carollo, both in absentee ballots and in same-day precincts, claiming 53 percent of the vote to Carollo’s 47.

[00;09;48;08 – 00;09;51;25] Matthew Bunch: Xavier Suarez would return to the mayor’s office.

[00;09;51;28 – 00;10;12;21] Xavier Suarez: Today we are once again shackled by despair, divisiveness and a media which delights in pointing out our flaws. They claim that we are an impoverished city, a badly run city, a city on the edge. To them, I say, yes, we are indeed a city on the edge. On the edge of greatness.

[00;10;12;23 – 00;10;37;18] Matthew Bunch: But this Suarez mayorship would not have nearly the same luster as his first time at Dinner Key Marina. Even before the runoff, there were questions about the legitimacy of the results of the general election, specifically focused on absentee ballots. On the day of the runoff election, members of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement arrested a man named Alberto Russi.

[00;10;37;21 – 00;11;03;11] Matthew Bunch: Russi, then 92 years old, came to be known as a vote broker. He alleged that his signature was forged on someone else’s absentee ballot as a witness. However, it was a recurring pattern that Mr. Russi’s name appeared and appeared and appeared on absentee ballots. There are a variety of ballots that were turned in with Russi as a witness, but one names stood out.

[00;11;03;13 – 00;11;09;10] Michael Putney: Manuel Yip, who voted out of an address down there in the Shenandoah neighborhood of Miami.

[00;11;09;15 – 00;11;36;23] Matthew Bunch: That’s the voice of legendary WPLG reporter Michael Putney. And he’s speaking of a man named Manuel Yip. Manuel Yep voted for Xavier Suarez in the 1997 mayoral election. He did so from an address in the Shenandoah community in the City of Miami. The problem was that Manuel Yip didn’t live in the City of Miami. In fact, in 1997, he didn’t live at all.

[00;11;36;26 – 00;12;08;00] Matthew Bunch: He had been dead since 1993, had voted in multiple City of Miami elections, but was buried at the Dr. Bruce A. Hyma Memorial Cemetery in unincorporated Miami-Dade County. The incredible turnout rate of the dead voter became a clear punch line for comedians and humorists around the country. This is legendary Miami columnists Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry on Michael Putney’s Year in Review show on WPLG at the end of 1997.

[00;12;08;03 – 00;12;14;17] Carl Hiaasen: I advocate more dead voters voting in Miami after the results of the last election. I think we go to the cemetery. That’s who has to vote.

[00;12;14;18 – 00;12;29;17] Dave Barry: I think we should just go one step further and not allow anybody who’s alive and a U.S. citizen to vote in the City of Miami. You know, because it’s kind of it’s really interfering, I think, with the purity of the process here to see who’s really most qualified to lead this city.

[00;12;29;19 – 00;13;02;09] Matthew Bunch: Some of the stories coming out were a laughing matter, but the results of the election were not. Now, the absentee ballots would not make an impact on the results of the runoff election. But again, the general election had come down to a margin of less than 160 votes. If there was systemic impropriety in absentee voting in the City of Miami during the general election, those ballots potentially being thrown out could change the results of the race irrespective of the results of the runoff.

[00;13;02;09 – 00;13;30;19] Matthew Bunch: The runoff would not have been necessary originally. And so, Mayor Carollo, even before the runoff, had begun to make moves in court to indicate his dissatisfaction with the general election results and his desire to prove that improper absentee ballots had tipped the election against his favor. Mayor Carollo had retained one of the foremost legal minds in South Florida, Kendall Coffey, to lead the argument.

[00;13;30;22 – 00;13;51;04] Matthew Bunch: Coffey was the U.S. District Attorney responsible for leading the investigation that became “Operation Green Palm,” which was pivotal in identifying corruption in the City of Miami. But why was Coffey available to Carollo as a private attorney instead of remaining in that U.S. District Attorney’s seat? Well, let’s let 60 Minutes explain.

[00;13;51;10 – 00;14;14;19] Steve Kroft: But in Miami, not even the prosecutors are free of scandal. In the midst of the investigation, the man in charge of it, U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey reportedly was ejected from this topless bar after buying a $900 bottle of champagne with his American Express card, then biting a stripper in a private dance session. Coffey denied the allegations, then resigned shortly thereafter.

[00;14;14;22 – 00;14;50;05] Matthew Bunch: Coffey might have been damaged goods, but in the eyes of the law, he did have the goods. There was legitimate and systemic absentee ballot fraud in the general election. While the legal preparations were ongoing, there is the whole matter of running the city. Suarez was sworn in in November and in the course of the end of 1997, Suarez took a number of controversial steps, both in terms of leading the city as a governmental figure and leading the city as the face of the city, that turned a lot of people off.

[00;14;50;07 – 00;15;18;02] Matthew Bunch: Almost immediately, Suarez convened a meeting of the city’s top administrators and asked for them all to resign. That included the city manager and the police chief. The city manager, Ed Marquez, refused and Suarez fired him. The only problem was he didn’t actually have the legal authority to do that. So one month later, a judge forced Suarez to hire Marquez back.

[00;15;18;04 – 00;15;39;22] Matthew Bunch: The same went for the police chief. Although Suarez was clear that he couldn’t fire him, he just made things really awkward, putting political pressure on him leading up to an important city funeral, indicating that he should consider becoming the interim city manager and then realizing that Suarez was only doing that so that he could then try to fire him.

[00;15;39;25 – 00;15;44;17] Matthew Bunch: It was bad governance, but that wasn’t the end of it.

[00;15;44;19 – 00;15;54;16] Steve Kroft: He went to this woman’s home to confront her about a nasty letter she’d written. The mayor showed up on her doorstep unannounced at 10:30 at night and nearly got shot.

[00;15;54;19 – 00;16;03;06] Matthew Bunch: There was plenty for local media to cover, but that didn’t mean they escaped the wrath of what came to be known as Hurricane Xavier.

[00;16;03;09 – 00;16;09;12] Steve Kroft: Fed up with stories like that in the Miami Herald, Mayor Suarez called the paper and left this threatening message.

[00;16;09;15 – 00;16;29;18] Xavier Suarez: This is the mayor of Miami. I know that we are subsidizing you and your newspaper with ads. If that’s the case, I strongly suggest it be a lot nicer to me, my people, my citizens, and my city, because otherwise we’re going to figure out every possible way of advertising in any possible newspaper except yours.

[00;16;29;21 – 00;16;54;05] Matthew Bunch: Hurricane Xavier was one nickname, but the nickname in this period that struck hardest was from the aforementioned Carl Hiaasen, and that was simply: Mayor Loco. That nickname earned Hiaasen and the Herald a lawsuit from Suarez, but it was easily dismissed. In the legal world, the case proceeded to trial in February of 1998. The case centered around three core questions:

[00;16;54;09 – 00;17;21;28] Matthew Bunch:

  1. Who took what actions knowingly to attempt to present inaccurate ballots?:
  2. Who were the people that unknowingly had their vote changed or misrepresented? and:
  3. Was the margin big enough to justify a recalling of the general election, or, more seriously, simply taking Xavier Suarez out of office and replacing him with Joe Carollo?

[00;17;22;01 – 00;17;31;29] Matthew Bunch: The answer to question one was split. If you were at the top of the ticket like Xavier Suarez, you were able to answer under oath that you never did anything improper.

[00;17;32;05 – 00;17;44;24] Xavier Suarez: As a general admonition, I say I’d rather lose the election than do anything improper or illegal. There wasn’t a single illegal action performed by anyone under me or known to me during this entire campaign in relation to absentee ballots or otherwise.

[00;17;44;27 – 00;17;48;29] Matthew Bunch: Lower down the pecking order, other people couldn’t quite do that.

[00;17;49;02 – 00;17;50;24] Andres Manso: I want to take the Fifth Amendment.

[00;17;50;27 – 00;17;58;29] Matthew Bunch: And then there were third category of witness: Individuals who just simply said, “I don’t know.” See if you recognize this voice.

[00;17;59;01 – 00;18;04;29] Benedict P. Kuehne: Can you tell me who signed as a witness on this ballot for Jorge Angel Herrero?

[00;18;05;02 – 00;18;05;22] Francis X. Suarez: No.

[00;18;05;25 – 00;18;13;14] Michael Putney: On cross-examination, Attorney Ben Kuehne showed the young Suarez six absentee ballots, all witnessed by an “F. Suarez.”

[00;18;13;17 – 00;18;16;07] Benedict P. Kuehne: Do you know an F. Suarez who was working on the campaign?

[00;18;16;08 – 00;18;17;27] Steve Kroft: No.

[00;18;18;00 – 00;18;20;01] Francis X. Suarez: I know myself who was working on the campaign.

[00;18;20;04 – 00;18;50;27] Matthew Bunch: The young Suarez referenced in the Michael Putney piece is Francis Xavier Suarez, the son of Xavier Suarez and the 43rd and current mayor of the City of Miami. The answer to the second question was much clearer. There were people whose votes were misrepresented either because they didn’t think they voted, but their ballot got turned in, or more tragically, they intended to vote for one candidate, but another candidate appeared on their ballot because someone had gotten in between them.

[00;18;51;00 – 00;18;59;19] Virginia Fayson: She took the ballot that I had and she told me she would be back the next day and she never did come back. So I never got a chance to vote.

[00;18;59;25 – 00;19;31;14] Matthew Bunch: And the answer to the third question, was there a large enough number of absentee votes that were considered improperly to sway the results of the original general election? The answer to that was very clearly yes. Dr. Kevin Hill, an associate professor in political science at FIU, was called on during the trial to run an analysis to consider whether it was possible for the number of absentee ballots turned in from District 3 in Miami to be possible under normal circumstances.

[00;19;31;16 – 00;20;11;16] Matthew Bunch: His conclusion was that the number of ballots submitted from that district was a one in 5000 scenario, and it was not plausible for that number of ballots to be submitted in any sort of reasonable municipal election with the turnout rate that the City of Miami had in 1997. It was quite literally off the charts. After hearing all the evidence, on March 3, 1998, Judge Thomas “Tam” Wilson Jr. Ruled that a new election should be held. That the City of Miami’s result from 1997 was simply not sustainable and that we would go to the ballot boxes again.

[00;20;11;18 – 00;20;30;03] Matthew Bunch: But Joe Carollo wasn’t satisfied with the decision at trial. He wanted the judge to reinstate him as mayor, that it was clear that he had received a majority of the legitimately filed ballots during the course of the general election and that the only proper recourse was to declare him the winner.

[00;20;30;05 – 00;20;59;17] Matthew Bunch: And that’s exactly what the Third District Court of Appeals did, exactly one week later, on March 11, 1998. They ruled that the fraud was so great and the burden on the same-day voters in Miami would also be so great to go vote again, that they could decide to throw out the absentee ballots, call the result as it stood on election night, and made Joe Carollo once again the mayor of the City of Miami.

[00;20;59;22 – 00;21;22;17] Joe Carollo: I, I feel very good. It’s a great day for Miami. It’s a great day for Miami-Dade County. And it’s a great day for democracy. We proved what everyone in Miami knew, that these elections were won with massive absentee ballot fraud. The judge has ruled that, you know, we we are not going to let Miami be the laughingstock of the nation.

[00;21;22;19 – 00;21;35;16] Joe Carollo: We’re not going to let Miami keep going in this unstable type of government that we’ve had for the last three months. We’re going to bring back the stability that Miami had and the stability the Miamians deserve.

[00;21;35;19 – 00;21;56;26] Matthew Bunch: Spoiler alert: Joe Carollo did not bring back stability to the City of Miami’s government. In fact, he earned a nickname as well, A nickname that had been assigned to him earlier in his political career, but came bubbling back. It wasn’t Mayor Loco this time. It was simply: Crazy Joe. But at least on this day, Joe Carollo had won.

[00;21;56;28 – 00;22;27;03] Matthew Bunch: He was right. The mayoral election was stolen from him. The absentee ballots were illegally filled and were filled with malice, with intent to defraud the voter. And on March 12, Joe Carollo returned to that mayor’s office on Dinner Key Marina that he had been forced to vacate in November. The 111-day term of Xavier Suarez as the City of Miami’s mayor in 1997 and 1998 had come to a rather unbelievable end.

[00;22;27;05 – 00;22;50;19] Matthew Bunch: As always, I want to take a moment and thank the resources that were hugely important in completing this episode. First off, the Wolfson Archives, use them pretty much every episode. Please go and visit them online. Just Google Wolfson Archives and files, and you’ll be able to find some amazing vintage video from Miami’s history. Secondly, 60 Minutes, the wonderful profile by Steve Kroft.

[00;22;50;25 – 00;23;20;06] Matthew Bunch: I do encourage you to check that out and include a link to it in the show notes, as well as a link to the wonderful Year in Review program from Michael Putney and WPLG. In the late 1990s that featured both Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry. Really, if you like Miami history of this time period, carve out some time, pour a nice drink and enjoy 60 hilarious minutes of recalling some of the most unbelievable times in Miami’s history.

[00;23;20;08 – 00;23;42;15] Matthew Bunch: As always, I want to thank you, the listener. We are currently in the process of our biggest quarter ever, and that will only grow as we head into the end of March. That’s not possible without you. I want to welcome new listeners who joined the show. In the last couple months I’ve seen the number of followers that have joined on different podcast platforms, so I know you are out there and I hope you enjoy the show.

[00;23;42;15 – 00;24;27;19] Matthew Bunch: If you have an idea for a story, please email me at or hit me up on social media. I got two great ideas from a listener in the last month. One of them for sure, I’m going to be working on in the next few months that I think we’re targeting for maybe a November episode in 2023, but they are — It’s always great to get suggestions from folks because, one, it’s sometimes hard to find certain things in certain months when you’re when you’re digging up things. It it’s never that hard. It’s Miami, after all. But the second reason is it shows that you care, and that means a lot to me. So again, any ideas, feel free to share them on social or email me and I’ll absolutely love to read it.

[00;24;27;21 – 00;24;48;02] Matthew Bunch: Please make sure you do follow us @thisdaymiamipod at every major social media platform and, obviously, if you haven’t already done so, please do follow us on your preferred podcast platform or subscribe depending on what platform you use. And if you’re feeling in a really good mood, please do leave us a nice review. It does help the show get discovered by other listeners.

[00;24;48;04 – 00;25;02;22] Matthew Bunch: It has had an impact on the growth of the audience over the last few months. I do really, really, really, really appreciate it, anytime I get a five-star review. So without further ado, as always, thank you for listening. And until next time I’ve been Matthew Bunch.

[00;25;02;24 – 00;25;18;20] King Elizabeth: ♪ “Miami Sunrise” by King Elizabeth ♪

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