The life and times of Coral Gables’ only woman mayor
As a young mother walking her baby in the Bird Road/Red Road area, Dorothy Thomson used to look across Red Road and think “I’m going to live in Coral Gables someday because they have sidewalks.” In 1959, she and her beloved late husband Jack made good on that dream.
Advance the clock 64 years. She’s engaging, intelligent, and full of interesting, colorful tidbits of local history. Sharp as a tack, turning 91 this month, Dorothy still has the innate ability to have a thought-provoking conversation. And the most important part of that conversation, she’ll tell you, is to listen to what people have to say.
You could say listening got her where she is today. Involved with the community, PTA, and civic groups, this busy mother of four was encouraged to run for office in order to be heard. “My group was trying to figure out who we could ask to get something done in the community when someone said, ‘Why not one of us?’” she recalls.
Dorothy was already a force in the community. Her daughter, June Thomson Morris, recalls sitting with a friend outside West Lab Elementary School when she was in third or fourth grade.
“I saw my mother walking across the grass, perfectly dressed with heels, as always, and my friend said,‘Is that your mom? She’s so beautiful.’ I remember feeling such pride. I always had that pride. When she walked in, she commanded the room, feminine but strong. She always had a presence about her.”
During June’s senior year at Gables High in 1979, Dorothy and Jack gathered the family together and announced her decision to run for the Coral Gables Commission. June laughs when she says, “She forced me to recruit my friends to go door-to-door and campaign for her.”
“I loved campaigning,” says Dorothy. “I was used to campaigning for other candidates but never gave it a thought to run myself.” When she did jump in the race a few months before the election, it was, in her words, a “tough row to hoe.” She walked miles, visiting about every home in the Gables to introduce herself and her ideas.
“My dad was the creative one, coming up with campaign ideas, and he and mom would have fun working out the details and getting them done,” says June. In those more innocent times, campaign promotions included a sewing kit and a heart-shaped sponge. Eventually, a friend of Dorothy’s, Coral Gables composer Vera Hunt Gallogly, even sat down at a piano and composed a campaign song.
The Commission race followed different rules back in 1979 when Dorothy first ran. “It was so unique, people made fun of it,” she says. Comparing the contest to a crowded horse race, she explains that residents got to cast candidate votes for both mayor and commissioner, which meant you voted for one person twice. When the votes were tabulated the two with the most votes got a four-year seat and the next two a two-year seat. The mayor’s position was a two-year seat.
June explains, “One of the things that makes me proudest is the fact that she even ran for office when she did. It was a good old boys club then and she ran against an incumbent.”
Not long before election day, Dorothy’s opponent took out a two-page spread in the Miami Herald filled with names of all the prominent men who supported him. When Dorothy saw the ad, she was surprised and had a moment of doubt. It was Jack’s idea to take out a full-page ad in response, with a photo of the family and the theme, “I am supported by my family and my dog Brandy.”
“And then she won,” says June, “and that was another great inspiration to me.”
Dorothy was elected to a two-year seat, winning a four-year seat after the next election, and, in 1985, was elected the first (and only) female mayor of Coral Gables. In each race, she won against all odds on the strength of support from her neighbors.
“I met Dorothy during my first campaign season prior to her election as mayor,” said former Mayor Raul Valdés-Fauli. “I liked her and hoped she would win. She was always a very, very hard worker and she had foresight.”
At the time, the Biltmore Hotel was in desperate shape. It was “horrible, falling apart,” according to Valdés-Fauli. “She was the leader of the movement to keep the Biltmore in accord with George Merrick’s ideas.”
By the late ’70s, the once-grand Gilded Age hotel was shuttered and crumbling. Frequented by squatters and littered with broken glass and debris, it had become a neighborhood eyesore. Many wanted it torn down, builders were salivating over the property, and some wanted condos on the site.
Because of her work to save and restore the Biltmore, Dorothy found herself at a crossroads of opinion with many residents. The controversy surprised her, and she compared the situation to “a sword through my heart.” Everyone had an opinion. Dorothy decided she needed to listen to what the residents had to say.
During the most incendiary meeting she ever conducted, the Commission chamber was packed with angry residents. Because there was so much discord, Dorothy decreed everyone would have the opportunity to be heard, without interruption. And, one by one, everyone got to speak their mind. Leave it alone, repurpose the building, or tear it down.
When no one was left to talk, Dorothy took a deep breath, called for discussion, and took a vote of the Commission. It narrowly carried three to two, with Valdés-Fauli voting in favor. The Biltmore would be saved and restored to reflect George Merrick’s vision.
“It was the right historic move,” says Valdés-Fauli. “If not saved, it would’ve been a blow to our historic memory.”
That was also good news to share with Eunice Peacock Merrick, the widow of George Merrick, who would call Dorothy and ask, “Tell me what’s going on in George’s city.”
Saving the Biltmore is certainly Dorothy’s most prominent legacy, but just one of many, including co-founding the Coral Gables and Miami-Dade County Citizens Crime Watch. But the combative battle hurt Dorothy’s prospects for re-election. “You can’t make everyone happy,” she reflects. Things were changing and, politics being politics, she lost.
Dorothy didn’t waste the years she wasn’t holding elected office. She served in other ways. She headed to Tallahassee, working in Emergency Management and the Department of Transportation, seeing another side of the political fence, commuting home on the weekends.
In retrospect, she says she should’ve stayed in the Gables during those years, but she gained even more experience and brought back new ideas, including a concept borrowed from the League of Cities about launching foundations to augment a city’s community support. From that spark, the Coral Gables Community Foundation was born.
“Something I think is unusual and pretty great is that my mother has stayed involved in the city after being in office,” says June. “Some never show their face again after their term ends, [but] she loves Coral Gables.”
She waited six years to run again, and then won big, winning all precincts, going on to serve on the Commission for another eight years as vice mayor. June describes her mother as having a mind like a “steel vault,” but that she never holds a grudge, remaining friends even with people who supported her opponents.
After leaving office in 2001, Dorothy stayed involved on city committees and with community organizations, including the Coral Gables chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. For the city, she served on the Historic Preservation Board for many years and chaired the Parking Advisory Committee. As Valdés-Fauli sums it up: She’s a “wonderful activist, with her heart in the right place.”
In 2008, she also found the time and energy to complete a very important personal goal, one interrupted by motherhood almost 50 years earlier. Heading back to college, Dorothy finished her degree, graduating cum laude from the University of Miami.
Her commitment to the city continues to this day. She watches every Commission meeting on cable and will text Commissioners directly if she feels they need additional perspective, facts, or background.
Commissioner Kirk Menendez, who was elected in 2021, benefits from those texts and finds Dorothy’s input welcoming and needed. “We have a 24/7 open line of communication,” he says, adding that he reaches out to her more than she does to him and appreciates that someone with her stature and experience is watching and following every word of the Commission meetings. “Her advice is always on point,” he says. “She’s up-to-date on all the issues and she sees things from multiple angles.”
Taking great pride in her family ancestry and the importance of legacy is evident throughout Dorothy’s life. She instilled those lessons in her children, about the importance of having a voice and what democracy needs in order to work. An example for her children and others, she showed “you can do great things if you really work hard,” says June. “She taught us not to be ruled by the fear of failure and have the guts to go against the flow. When she walked through the door, she was there to get things done.”
Being Mayor was the “pinnacle of what I always wanted to do,” says Dorothy. And then she smiles and laughs, “I wanted sidewalks and got the throne.” Says Commissioner Menendez, “She helps me find the strength I need sometimes, and I am blessed to call her my friend. Quite honestly, if the city had a Mount Rushmore, Dorothy Thomson would be on top.”
Dorothy Thomson has donated her private collection of campaign materials and mementos from her time in office to the Coral Gables Museum, which has put together a curated exhibit of her memorabilia and an exhibition catalogue. The exhibit will be on display through August 13, 2023.