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Amid tuition tussle, Miami-Dade commissioner teases a mayoral challenge


Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan C. Zapata found himself under the media spotlight this week, and he blames Mayor Carlos Gimenez's staff for the tempest. Now he's vowing to run for reelection next year unless he tries for another elected post -- Gimenez's. 

Wrapping up his first term in the western District 11, Zapata earlier this month returned $31,000 in county funds he had secured to cover fall tuition for a Harvard master's program in public administration. He reimbursed the county as Univision was  pursuing a story on the tuition money. 

"The question is who leaked it and why?" Zapata said Wednesday during an interview in his commission office. In an email first obtained by Univision, Zapata blamed county budget officials for "maliciously" leaking the information. "You all should be ashamed."

A Gimenez spokesman denied Zapata's allegation and blamed him for bad judgement.

In an interview with Naked Politics late Wednesday, Zapata countered by sounding more definitive about a bid for a second term in 2016. He also fired a shot across the bow toward Gimenez. 

Asked if he planned to run reelection, Zapata said:

"I'm planning on it now," he said. "And if the mayor's office keeps it up, I may just decide to run for another seat." 

Zapata dropped a similar hint last year in the early days of speculation for who might challenge Gimenez in 2016. A spokesman for Gimenez's reelection effort declined to comment Thursday. 

A fellow Republican, Zapata is known as a top Gimenez foe on the dais with a penchant for questioning expenditure and management decisions of the administration. He's also the most willing to clash with fellow commissioners (including a recent memorable spat with Commissioner Audrey Edmonson over below-market rent the Miami Heat pays for county land). 

He doesn't deny his contentious streak.  "What is my job? Is my job here to get along with others, or is my job to ask the tough questions?" Zapata said in this week's interview.

Admirers don't dispute it, either. When  Xavier Suarez wrote Zapata a recommendation for Harvard, he scored his fellow commissioner "Excellent" or "Superior"  for 11 out of the 12 categories the school asked to be rated.

Only on "Ability to Work with Others" did Suarez give Zapata a middling ranking of "good."