Francis Suarez: Corporate America’s Favorite Mayor

The Miami mayor is pitching his city as the next New York, and it's working

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Miami Mayor Francis Suarez stood before a glass lectern, ready to deliver opening remarks at the Bitcoin 2021 conference in his city. Hundreds of crypto enthusiasts crowded the floor before him, thousands waited outside the doors. At the time, in June, it was the largest gathering in the U.S. since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The energetic, 44-year old mayor, wearing a T-shirt, sneakers and his usual slick-back coif began with a joke. “I’ve never been called the most irresponsible politician on the planet before,” Suarez chuckled. “That’s a new one for me.”  

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Then he launched into his vision for Miami, in which Bitcoin would help transform the Magic City into “a technological leader in the world,” he told the crowd. “In this city, we truly understand what it means to be ‘the capital of capital.’” 

Over the past year, Miami has transformed itself from a party town best known for its beaches and sunshine into a burgeoning business hub, welcoming some of the country’s largest financial institutions and high-flying tech companies. 

And Suarez is at the forefront of that metamorphosis. 

A centrist Republican, Suarez is up for re-election next Tuesday, when he is almost certain to win a second term. Suave, charming and unapologetic in his attempts to woo both Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the mayor is Miami’s hype man, and people love him for it.

It’s a love that’s easy to lose. Once the shine of the media spotlight wears off, Suarez will have to confront a host of issues facing Miami, which will only be exacerbated by the influx of people moving into a city already dealing with inequality, a housing affordability crisis and the looming threat of climate change. 

The success of the mayor’s likely next term will not only hinge on his power to keep the stream of startups and high-profile companies coming — cementing the city’s image as a corporate mecca — but also on his ability to address Miami’s growing pains and avoid falling into the pitfalls that have trapped other cities with high-earning workforces such as New York and San Francisco.  

That he may not have the power to do. 

Suarez’s moment in the national spotlight is surprising, given the mayor’s limited powers. Despite the prestigious-sounding title, the mayor of the City of Miami is a rather symbolic position. Miami’s five-person city commission is widely recognized as the city government’s most powerful body with the ability to approve most initiatives. The city manager — whom the mayor appoints, but who can be fired only with the agreement of the commission — runs Miami’s day-to-day operations. 

In a 2018 referendum, Suarez fronted a proposal to become what he called a “strong mayor,” and voters handed him a crushing defeat. Almost two-thirds declined to grant him control of the city’s $1 billion budget or supervision of the municipality’s 4,000-person workforce. And for all its name recognition, Miami is just one municipality among Miami-Dade County’s 34.

After the stinging loss, Suarez leaned heavily on what was left for him: persuasion. 

Financial firms, such as conglomerate Icahn Enterprises, had begun to relocate to the Miami-area after 2017 when Congress turned Florida into an even more tax-friendly state thanks to new legislation. But the numbers remained limited — until the tweet. 

“How can I help?” Mayor Suarez tweeted on Dec. 4, 2020, in response to a post by entrepreneur Delian Asparouhov, a principal at Founders Fund.

“The famous tweet took things to a completely different level,” said Philippe Houdard, a board member of the Miami Downtown Development Authority (Miami DDA), a city agency which has been lobbying companies to relocate to the Sunshine State for years. 

In the following months, the financial migration from New York accelerated as a slew of industry heavyweights, such as Blackstone, Thoma Bravo, and Point72 Asset Management inked office deals during the first half of 2021. More, including Citadel and Apollo Global Management, have employees on the ground as they tour the market for a permanent home in Miami. 

On the West Coast, Silicon Valley finally took note, intrigued by a local official that welcomed them, as well as by Florida’s low taxes and sunny weather. In January, Softbank announced it would invest $100 million in companies based in or relocating to Miami. This month, the investor said it had already funnelled $250 million to Miami startups, and has more deals in the pipeline. Miami boasted the highest growth of new tech workers, while New York and San Francisco saw the biggest drops earlier this year, according to data from Linkedin.

In his quest to seduce corporate America — just as the tweet indicated — the mayor made himself available to any entrepreneur and executive looking to make the move, offering them a “full concierge service,” said Nitin Motwani, another Miami DDA board member, who’s known the mayor for years. They help “these people focus on making an important decision, which is relocating their business to Miami, and then supporting them through the process.”

The Miami DDA was working to attract CI Financial, Canada’s largest wealth-management firm with $254 billion in assets, which was choosing to plant roots in Florida or Texas. Per Motwani’s request, Suarez had dinner with the firm’s CEO, Kurt MacAlpine. “His charisma and his passion just rained through,” Motwani said. “He has answers for questions in very specific detail.” 

Miami and Suarez won. In September, CI announced it would set up its U.S. headquarters in Miami at the 830 Brickell development. 

Jack Abraham, managing partner and CEO of prominent venture capital firm Atomic, needed no convincing about Miami, having purchased a home well before the famous tweet in August 2020. But his business partner, Chester Ng, was another story; he was hesitant about making the move. To convince him, a member of the mayor’s office “took him out to lunch and drove him around to schools and was super helpful in plugging him into the community,” Abraham said. Ng caved and relocated. 

It’s not just Chester that got the red carpet treatment. The mayor and his office “offered to meet with anyone that I felt was really important to sell the city. They’re just great ambassadors for the city,” Abraham said. In March 2021, Atomic signed a long-term lease at the Wynwood Annex, which helped put Miami on the map as a destination for the tech industry. 

Suarez is part of a bevy of group chats on WhatsApp, in which business executives and entrepreneurs connect, share details about the city’s going-ons and even set up playdates for their children. The first time Abraham met Suarez, the mayor gave the entrepreneur his personal cell phone number and “invited us to text him any time anything came up,” Abraham said. 

Suarez’s helping spirit is nothing new. Despite his limited authority, he’s long offered similar services to developers. “He wants to know how he can be of service,” said Dan Kodsi, CEO of Royal Palm Companies (RPC), who’s been developing in Miami for over three decades. “It’s not just to the outsiders. He’s been doing it here for us that have been in Miami a long time.” One of RPC’s newest projects, Paramount Miami Worldcenter, a 50-story condominium, will house a 10-story health center. While Suarez has no real power in government, Kodsi acknowledged, the mayor set up meetings with the “right people in the city” to make sure they understood how the project would benefit the wider community and quell potential opposition. 

Suarez gets high marks from developers for another reason: soaring real estate prices. Miami’s real estate prices have surged as moguls and high-earning employees from the tech and finance sectors relocate. In a year alone dating back to last September, the median price of a house grew by 11.5 percent, while that of a condo jumped a staggering 24.5 percent, according to data from Miami Association of Realtors. Rents have also shot up, rising by a whopping 19.9 percent between August 2021 year-over-year, per a report by ApartmentList.

Although office vacancies remain at their highest point since 2013 at 16.6 percent, according to brokerage Avison Young, landlords remain bullish, banking on demand from new-to-market firms. At 830 Brickell, landlords OKO Group and Cain International are asking as much as $84 per square foot for commercial space, rates comparable to the country’s most expensive office market, New York.

But those skyrocketing prices underline the flip side to the mayor’s success. 

The Magic City faces serious challenges, and activists say the mayor has fallen short on addressing the two most pressing ones: housing affordability and climate change. As moguls and wealthy employees relocate, housing costs have skyrocketed, exacerbating an existing crisis. At the same time, rising-sea levels and ever-more erratic storms due to climate change continue to threaten the city’s infrastructure. 

Representatives for the mayor’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.

While developers are basking in Miami’s resurgence, locals are feeling the heat. In September, the city’s housing market became the nation’s second-most expensive with residents expected to pay roughly 81.6 percent of median incomes toward homeownership costs, according to a recent report from RealtyHop. 

Suarez has called the lack of affordable housing “another pandemic,” but some activists wish he would throw more of his weight behind the growing issue as he did for the corporate migration. “He’s recruiting people to come to Miami. Why can’t we take that passion to address the lack of affordable housing?” posed Audrey Aradanas, vice president of programs for non-governmental organization Miami Homes for All. Aradanas fears Miami is falling into the same trap that has plagued other major cities, like New York and San Francisco, where home prices are out of reach for large swaths of the population. 

Suarez’s next term will undoubtedly test whether he can steer Miami away from a similar fate.  

Perhaps Suarez’s pro-growth approach will help alleviate some of the pressure. Unlike New York and San Francisco, which sit on peninsulas, Miami does not have the same land constraints, noted Atomic’s Abraham. While San Francisco’s government has long resisted new real estate projects, which caused a housing shortage, South Florida is fast developing, the entrepreneur added. As more residential units come on the market, prices should drop. 

Beyond housing, the devastating effects of climate change loom large over all residents and Miami is widely considered ground zero for the rising sea levels. 

“The basic feeling is that Mayor Suarez is greenwashing,” said Theresa Pinto, the staff Attorney of the PEER Group, a group that supports current and former public employees who seek a higher standard of environmental ethics and scientific integrity within their agencies. “He’s not really thinking about climate change.” In 2019, Suarez declared a “climate emergency,” but only after activists protested in front of his office. The city government has released a carbon reduction plan, but Pinto believes it doesn’t go far enough. “It relies on a middle-of-the-road model that actually allows for carbon emission growth up until 2050,” she said. Like Aradanas, Pinto wishes Suarez would use the power of his office — and platform — towards making true strides to combat climate change.  

Suarez has made bold bets on cryptocurrency, which for now, are paying dividends. Miami became the first municipality to accept cryptocurrency contributions, launching its own MiamiCoin in August. By the next month, the scheme had generated over $7 million for the city. With Suarez’s endorsement, the city is also moving to pay municipal employees with cryptocurrency. The jury is still out whether the bet will pay off and become a game-changer for municipalities to raise funds or a cautionary tale, given the digital currency’s volatility and recent ascension.

Recently, Suarez also stumbled when faced with thorny city politics. Six months ago, he had recruited Art Acevedo from Houston to lead Miami’s police force, calling Acevedo the “Michael Jordan of police chiefs.” But as Acevedo became embroiled in a feud with city commissioners — over his own missteps, and alleged corruption on the part of two commissioners — Suarez largely ducked the issue. For weeks, the mayor refused to publicly say whether he stood by Acevedo or even discuss the corruption allegations. When he did, he mostly deflected, saying that he was not “a prosecutor or an investigator” and that Acevedo’s position was “untenable.” 

Despite Suarez’s misstep, his star hasn’t dimmed, and he remains the front-runner as he faces voters next Tuesday. That may be because he is running against a slate of opponents, none of whom are truly competitive. Left-leaning candidates Max Martinez, who runs a digital consultancy, and Marie Exantus, a former call-center representative and a student at the University of Miami, have never held public office. Fellow Republican candidates aren’t much of a threat either: Private investigator Francisco “Frank” Pichel was implicated in Acevedo’s corruption allegation — and was in fact recently arrested; horse trainer Anthony Dutrow has performed little campaigning, and a judge tossed out the candidacy of Mayra Joli because she lived in a neighboring municipality. 

Suarez has outraised all of his opponents, reaping an eye-popping $5.2 million, according to state records. Just as Suarez has embraced the business community, moguls have opened up their coffers. Finance billionaires and new Miami home owners, Daniel Loeb, CEO of hedge fund Third Point, Daniel Sundheim, founder of hedge fund D1 Capital Partners, and Orlando Bravo, founder of private equity firm Thoma Bravo, donated a combined $250,000 in May. 

At the Bitcoin 2021 conference, Suarez wore a T-shirt emblazoned with his tweet-turned-slogan, “How can I help?”

So far, those words have been directed at Silicon Valley, at the financial moguls lining up for Florida tax goodies and at real estate developers reaping the rewards of the mayor’s strategy. The question remains whether he can harness Miami’s new image into a movement that benefits all Miamians.

Julia Echikson can be reached at jechikson@commercialobserver.com