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Gimenez wins Miami-Dade mayor's race after opponent Robaina flip-flops on gay-partner benefits

By Matthew Haggman, Patricia Mazzei and Laura Isensee, mhaggman@miamiherald.com

Carlos Gimenez, a former Miami city manager and county commissioner who touted himself as the candidate with the experience to solve the most nettlesome problems, will be Miami-Dade County’s next mayor after defeating former Hialeah mayor Julio Robaina by a slim margin.

With all precincts reporting, Gimenez won 51 percent to Robaina’s 49 percent.

The difference for Gimenez proved to be early votes, where he fared better than Robaina. The two essentially fought to a draw for absentee and Election Day votes.

“I am happy,” said Gimenez, after learning he won. “But I also know that come tomorrow I have a lot of work to do.”

For his part, Robaina surprised many by conceding the race even as the contest remained close and all the votes were not counted.

Right before 9:30 p.m., Robaina took the stage in the lobby of a Doral office park, as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing played in the background. But Robaina told the still-hopeful crowd that the election was over.

“I just called Commissioner Gimenez and congratulated him on his win,” Robaina said, to loud cries of “No!”

The vote ends a two-and-a-half-month campaign to pick a replacement for former county mayor Carlos Alvarez, who was ousted in March in the largest recall of a local politician in U.S. history.

Gimenez — an often lone, critical voice of the government he’s now charged with leading — confronts a host of challenges that must be addressed quickly and he will have little time before voters are given a chance to judge his time in office. His term runs until November 2012 — the balance of what would have been Alvarez’s term — and he must face voters in the regularly scheduled August 2012 primary.

The to-do list for Gimenez over the next year includes closing a budget gap that could be more than $300 million, reorganizing a county government widely considered bloated and inefficient, renegotiating 10 labor contracts, and initiating a host of reforms, including eight-year term limits for county commissioners.

The race results will become official Friday, when the vote is certified by the county canvassing board. But Gimenez said he hopes to go to County Hall Wednesday, the day after the election, to start work.

“Even though I am not officially the mayor, I need to get ahead of this,” he said. “If they allow me to go in, I will.”

Gimenez, a former firefighter, rose through the ranks to become the City of Miami’s fire chief, then city manager, before winning a county commissioner in 2004.

The hard-fought mayoral race started with 11 candidates, but ultimately came down to Gimenez and Robaina in a run-off election that at times turned testy, as each camp embraced negative campaigning by inundating voters with nasty — and sometimes misleading — mailers and robocalls. Throughout the contest the restive electorate showed little enthusiasm for either candidate, even as a recent poll by Bendixen & Amandi International found that 65 percent of likely voters had no regrets about tossing Alvarez from office.

Turnout has been low throughout the votes to recall Alvarez and pick a successor, and the run-off election was no exception. All told, 199,862 people voted in the run-off election Tuesday, amounting to 16 percent of the county’s 1.2 million registered voters. That’s slightly more than the number who voted in the May 24 first-round election that included eleven candidates, in which 194,467 people voted, but less than the March 15 recall vote, in which more than 208,000 cast ballots.

The victory represents a sharp turnaround for Gimenez, who was significantly outspent by Robaina and came in second to the former Hialeah mayor in the first-round election.

Robaina touted big-ticket endorsements, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, and raised $1.68 million in a race where no other candidate eclipsed $1 million. He also brandished the credential of having run the second-largest city in the county. But he ultimately couldn’t persuade a wary public as he was dogged by issues ranging from an ongoing federal criminal investigation into his personal financial dealings to several puzzling flip flops.

Robaina, for instance, declared his opposition to the public dollars being used to pay for a new Florida Marlins ballpark, even though he had appeared at County Hall and urged commissioners to support the deal the night it was approved. In the waning days of the campaign Robaina also said he would support the repeal of domestic partnership benefits, after he previously professed support for such a measure when he was trying to win the endorsement from Save Dade, a gay-rights group.

C.J. Ortuno, SAVE Dade’s executive director, and Howard Simon, state executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, issued a joint statement deriding Robaina for the switch, saying it demonstrated Robaina’s “willingness to say anything to anyone to win votes.”

Still, the election proved closer than many thought, which some attributed to Gimenez’s decision to back out of a host of debates scheduled for the final week of the campaign.

A Bendixen & Amandi International poll two weeks ago, done for The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, showed Gimenez with an 11-point lead going into Tuesday.

“The decision to sit on the lead, which is what Gimenez did by pulling out of debates, didn’t help,” said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi. “Robaina was also very effective at getting his people to the polls on Election Day.”

Both candidates spent Election Day stopping at polling places across Greater Miami in a final bid to drum up votes and energize supporters.

At the campaign victory party at a DoubleTree hotel near Miami International Airport, Gimenez’s family arrived first and stood on stage below an arc of red, white and blue balloons. They were joined by former state representative Marcelo Llorente and his wife, who were met with chants of “Llorente!”

“It’s a good night,” said Llorente, who ran for county mayor but endorsed Gimenez after failing to make to run-off. “Our community won tonight because they chose a person of honesty.”

Taking the microphone, Gimenez thanked God, his family, friends and volunteers and remembered that some people dismissed his candidacy at first.

“I don’t think very many people gave us a chance,” he said. “But my family, they got behind me. And once my family gets behind me, I think it’s pretty hard to stop.”

Noting the tight, intense race, Gimenez praised Robaina for his “gracious” concession.

“What we have to do now is what I said throughout the campaign, which is I want to be the mayor of the entire Dade County,” he said.

After he finished, Queen’s We Are the Champions came on.

Miami Herald staff writers Martha Brannigan, Jose Cassola, Laura Edwins, Wandoo Makurdi, Katherine McGrory, David Smiley, Christina Veiga and Tania Valdemoro contributed to this report.

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