Miami Mayor Bucks Party Line On Voting

Miami's Republican Mayor Tomas Regalado moves against his party and his governor. He tells host Michel Martin that Florida's controversial voter eligibility program, that is intended to purge non-citizens from its rosters, isn't necessary.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Later in the program, if you follow the current debates about education reform at all, then you've probably noticed how often we talk about teachers. But how often do we talk to them? Well, it's summer now, and since many teachers actually have the time to talk to us, we're going to take advantage of the opportunity to ask them for thoughts about important issues in education from time to time.

Today, we will be hearing from a diverse panel of educators from around the country for their thoughts on why so many kids drop out of high school, at a time when education is more important than ever if you want to get a decent job. That conversation is later in the program.

But first, a newsmaker interview with a man who's got education on his mind, as well as taxes and law enforcement and trash pickup and parks and all the other things that mayors have on their minds, especially in these difficult economic times.

This week, the United States Conference of Mayors is meeting in Orlando to consider, among other things, how cities can thrive during challenging economic times. We wanted to talk to a mayor about some of the challenges facing cities right now, so we've called upon Tomas Regalado. He is the mayor of Miami. He's a Republican, elected in 2009 with a pledge to control spending and tax increases, and he's with us now. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us and taking the time.

MAYOR TOMAS REGALADO: Hello, Michel.

MARTIN: And one of the reasons we were interested to speak with you is that you did take office at a time when the economy was clearly on the downturn. Now, you had been a long-time city commissioner before you became mayor, so you were probably well acquainted with the city's, you know, budgetary needs, and so forth. But I did want to ask: Were there any surprises?

REGALADO: Oh, yes. Absolutely. Actually, I took office, I guess, around the time that the bubble burst. And when - you know, here in Miami, I think we were the epicenter of the building boom, and the inventory that I found was incredible: 20,000 empty condo units in the city of Miami, and a crisis that not only swept the city, but the nation.

And we found, on the first budget process, that we had a deficit of $100 million, just like that, because property values plummeted and, as you know, cities get their main revenue from property taxes. So this is what we found, and the first thing I did was reduce my salary, reduce my pension, reduce my benefits, so I have the moral ground to go after the unions. And we did.

MARTIN: I did want to ask you about that. I did note that you actually lowered your salary, and also lowered the salaries of other city workers, too. I wanted to ask about that, because, you know, city employment has been an avenue into the middle class for a lot of people in a lot of places.

And I wanted to ask how you balance, you know, the fiscal realities against the fact that, you know, city employment has been a way that - or municipal employment or government employment, right, has been a way that many people have actually advanced into the middle class. Especially at a time when there's a lot of fear that particularly people on that kind of the lower rung of the middle class are actually slipping backwards. How do you balance that?

REGALADO: Well, it started with me. I did this, so I can go out to the unions, as we did, and say: You know what? We have to spread the pain. Everybody has to take a 5 percent cut. You have to contribute more to the health system that we have, a little more to the pension. But we did not lay off people, because, you know, we could have easily fixed the budget by laying off 300 or 400 city employees.

But then we're adding to the unemployment line here in Miami. So what we did is we lowered the salaries of, first of all, executives. We did it by the numbers. You know, anybody who makes more than $100,000, a 10 percent cut. And we did not take any money from those who made less than $40,000, which, you know, usually are the solid waste people and so forth.

So, you know, I think it's important to say we save the middle class that those employees created.

MARTIN: Another challenge you faced as mayor has been with the police in your city, which is interesting, given that the police union, the first-responders, supported your candidacy at first after a string of shootings of unarmed black men by police officers - let's say nine police involved shootings in your city.

You actually took the extraordinary step of asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate your own police department. It's a rather extraordinary step. I wanted to ask: What's been the result of all of that?

REGALADO: We do have a new chief. Crime has gone down because of the techniques that we're implementing. The police visibility is greater, and this is what the residents and the visitors want. And we haven't had any string of shootings in more than a year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the mayor of Miami, Tomas Regalado. I wanted to ask you - yesterday, actually, we had a conversation with the governor of Florida, Rick Scott, about an issue that's of concern to many people. This is his plan to try to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls. I just want to play a clip from my interview with Governor Scott. Let's listen to what he had to say about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: You know, my job is simply to enforce the laws of Florida, and that's what I'm doing. I don't want your sacred right as a voter to be diluted by an individual that doesn't have the right to vote.

MARTIN: Now, you probably know this - I'm sure you do - that the U.S. Justice Department is now suing the state over this, that they say that the way that the state is going about this violates the law and is likely to violate people's civil rights. And further, a Miami Herald investigation of the proposed list found that an overwhelming number of those voters who were likely to be dropped were of Latino heritage and Democrats.

I just wanted to ask: What's your reaction to all this?

REGALADO: Well, I think that in Florida - and especially here in South Florida - we walk a very thin line in terms of communities. I mean, we are a real melting pot. And I think it's not fair just to use one brush and paint everybody, because the perception that we're getting throughout the country is that a bunch of Latino people just go out and vote right after getting off the plane or the raft when they come here. And that's not the case.

Problem are, the laws. I mean, you can go and get your voter ID with your driver's license, and no questions asked. Well, the law has to be changed. But, you know, I doubt that we have a massive fraud going on here in Florida...

MARTIN: Have you expressed that to the governor, who shares your political party?

REGALADO: I have not spoken to the governor. And, you know, and I understand the governor is trying to cater to the conservatives, but that's not the way to do it. I mean, I don't see thousands of people not citizens voting here in South Florida. I mean, throughout the years, we have seen in the United States - remember Chicago many years ago - people that were dead voting and all that.

But other than that, those are unique cases. I don't think that there is, like, this massive fraud. What we should do is encourage people to register and vote if you are citizens, because the problem is that all these controversies about voters and investigators and Justice Department and police after the voters is scaring people to vote.

The people are going to say, well, it's too much trouble. So I might as well don't even bother to vote. And that's wrong because...

MARTIN: Why do you think you and Mr. Scott have such different perspectives on this issue?

REGALADO: Well, I don't know. I guess he comes from the private sector. He was elected directly from the street to the highest position in the state of Florida, and he has taken his role very seriously. But I'm telling you, I've been first as a journalist, and then 17 years as a city commissioner and then three years now as mayor, and I've talked to so many people and I've seen so many people and I've campaign in so many places, that people are good.

You know, nobody's out to defraud the system in the United States by being a - what do you gain? You don't gain nothing by voting, not being a citizen, so I think that we should be more proactive in informing the people of their rights and their duties. I do think that this controversy will make more people to stay out of the polls.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you did just mention that, before entering politics, you had a career - a longtime career - as a journalist. I did want to ask whether your career as a journalist is helpful to you in your life now or perhaps not, you know, because you know all our tricks.

REGALADO: Well, actually, it does. It helps because, number one, I think that the media is the best way for an elected official - I don't want to say a politician, but for an elected official - to be able to reach out to the community, speaking through journalists to the people and answering whatever questions they ask is the way to bring back the trust that the people have lost in governments and politics.

And one thing I learned because I never liked when an elected official did that to me - when I'm asked to do an interview, I never ask, what are you going to ask me? Because anybody can ask whatever they want and it works because not only I do this - we do a lot of public forum and people interact and, you know, if you're exposed to the media, people will go to these public meetings when they are called and be really outspoken with government, which is what we need now.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, you know I have to ask you about your Miami Heat facing the Oklahoma Thunder in the NBA Finals.

REGALADO: I'm not a person, you know, to judge the team. I'm very happy with the team because it gives us a sense to be proud throughout the whole season and then, every year we get to the playoffs since we have the three kings here, so even if they don't make it this year - I don't want to jinx it - but even if they don't, we're still going to be very proud of the Heat and, you know, we've been two years almost there, so I guess that, this year, we may have a parade in downtown Miami.

MARTIN: Do you have any side bets going with the mayor of Oklahoma City?

REGALADO: No. Absolutely not. I...

MARTIN: What?

REGALADO: I'm very superstitious, so I don't want to even bet anything because I don't want to jinx the team.

MARTIN: Tomas Regalado is the mayor of Miami and he was kind enough to join us from member station WLRN in Miami, Florida.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

REGALADO: Thank you, Michel. Thank you.

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