A Maverick and an Outsider Join the Commission

A Perfect Storm Leads to an Election Upset

The turnout was low, the weather was bad, and the mayor was not on the ballot at the crucial moment. These were some of the reasons that two under-funded, populist candidates won in what amounts to an unprecedented rebuke of the establishment by highly motivated voters.

This past April, Ariel Fernandez and Melissa Castro were elected to four-year terms as city commissioners. This is despite their opponents Alex Bucelo and Ivette Arango O’Doski receiving vastly more campaign funding. Additionally, they received the endorsements of virtually every mayor past and present, and all of the existing city commissioners

First Fernandez won, drubbing Bucelo with 58 percent of the vote (to Bucelo’s 42 percent) in the April 11 election. In that round, Arango O’Doski won 47.25 percent of the vote, compared to 39.44 percent for Castro. However, 50 percent or more of the votes is required to win. The two went to a runoff, in which Castro easily beat Arango O’Doski with a 59 to 41 percent margin.

Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago
Mayor Vince Lago being sworn in on April 27.

Mayor Vince Lago, who was also running for re-election, went unopposed after candidate Jackson Rip Holmes switched from running for mayor to running for the same seat as Arango O’Doski and Castro. Because he was running unopposed, Lago was declared the winner before the election took place.

What Happened?

So, if Bucelo and Arango O’Doski were better funded and more heavily endorsed, why did they lose? The answer, says Sue Kawalerski of the Coral Gables Neighbors Association (which forcefully backed both winning candidates), is the perception that our city commission is not listening to the voices of residents. “I think the depth of distrust in our current administration is remarkable,” says Kawalerski. “I think [this vote] addresses the resident’s concerns that they are not represented at City Hall.” 

While it was not the only issue, she says, the commission’s willingness to permit development beyond the current zoning code was at the top of the list. 

“The Coral Gables Neighbors Association has been mischaracterized by the current administration as being anti-development,” says Kawalerski. “That is far from the truth. This association is for the right kind of development, which means it has to be according to the zoning code. We are not in favor of [breaking] what has already been compromised in favor of the developers. You either have a zoning code or you don’t.”

Coral Gables United, the political action arm of the association, came up with the idea of framing the election as anti-establishment. They sent out emails showing a raised fist that came right out of anti-establishment movements of the past, like the Vietnam War protests. And that message resonated with voters.

Lack of Voter Turnout

Even so, the unlikely upsets by both Fernandez and Castro depended on other unique aspects of the election. Paramount was the absence of the mayor on the ballot. One of the reasons why the mayor runs for election every two years in Coral Gables, while commissioners run only every four years (two at each election), is that many more voters turn out if the mayor is on the ballot.

A Maverick and an Outsider Join the Commission
Commissioner Ariel Fernandez being sworn in April 27.

When Vince Lago won unopposed, the voter turnout dropped precipitously. The 6,903 ballots cast April 11 represented only a 21 percent turnout, the lowest in a decade. By comparison, when Lago was on the ballot in 2021, there was a 29 percent turnout.

This was a huge benefit to Fernandez, whose dedicated, core followers braved stormy weather to make sure their votes counted. As with any election, even small numbers of voters can make a huge difference. Had more voters gone to the polls, the outcome could have been quite different — especially had they showed up to vote for Lago. 

Despite voter unease with the perceived pro-development direction the commission as a whole has seemingly taken on, Lago remains a highly popular mayor. According to a public opinion poll taken in January by McLaughlin & Associates of 300 random Coral Gables residents, Lago’s approval rating was an astounding 69 percent. Had those voters gone to the polls, Lago’s coattails might have carried both Bucelo and Arango O’Doski to victory.

Welcoming an Outsider

Even more surprising than the election of Fernandez, whose blog Gables Insider has built him a small but dedicated core of supporters, was the election of Castro. Unlike Fernandez, who has a history of involvement in city politics (including running campaigns), Castro was a complete outsider. She had never voted before in a city election. She had not even heard of Gables Insider or neighbors association before she decided to run for office.  

The key to her victory was the runoff after Arango O’Doski fell slightly short of the 50 percent required for a first-round win. The spoiler here may have been Jackson Rip Holmes. Had Holmes’ 6.65 percent of the commission vote been evenly split between Arango O’Doski and Castro, the former would have won.

Meanwhile, in the runoff, Castro enjoyed the backing of both Fernandez and the CGNA with their dedicated followers. Meanwhile Arango O’Doski lost more than 800 voters who supported her in round one but failed to show up for round two.

The lesson here? As the great anthropologist Margatet Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”