Daniella Levine Cava stares at the Lionel Messi mural painted at the entrance of the Fiorito restaurant. Immediately afterwards, she speaks fluent Spanish. Did she blend in with the footballer who is revolutionizing Inter? Did she catch the atmosphere that is breathed in this Argentine grill located in Little Haiti? Maybe. However, the Mayoress of Miami-Dade County studied Spanish while attending high school in Brooklyn, and she also lived in Santiago, Chile. Her husband has relatives in Argentina and Uruguay. Something else: one of her advisors grew up in Messi's country and helped her perfect the language. Hence, the ye√≠sta pronunciation that sometimes sneaks in her way of speaking.
The county governed by Levine Cava since 2020 is the largest in the state of Florida. About 3 million people live in Miami-Dade, spread across 34 cities. There, 70% of the inhabitants are of Latin origin. There are Cubans, Colombians, Venezuelans, Haitians, Argentines, Ecuadorians, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Mexicans, among many others included under a somewhat diffuse identity. That of being Hispanic.
Despite her low profile, the Mayoress with Democratic sympathies manages a pole of enviable power. She is responsible for waste treatment, port management, airport, transport, education and police. Miami-Dade has 30 thousand public employees and an annual budget of 10 billion dollars. Within a state that became a Republican bastion almost 25 years ago, Levine Cava strikes a balance. She dialogues a lot with people and appears more pragmatic than ideological, but at the same time she cannot avoid tensions with the ultra-conservative governor Ron DeSantis. In this interview, she supports Joe Biden's reelection and confirms that she will go for her own reelection in 2024.
In your experience governing a county with more than 70% of Latinos, is there an identity that encompasses the various Hispanic communities?
I don't think so, although I can barely distinguish them. I can say that Cubans established themselves first, and that they came to occupy a very important space in the life of the community, with a lot of power, a lot of money and possessions; and that due to their history and the sense of their political position, they considered themselves exiles. And that had a lot of influence on local politics.
How did that history influence the way Cubans do politics in the United States?
I would describe their politics as very liberal personally, but very conservative in terms of international relations. For example, The first issue I had to face in the county was advocating for a decent wage. And at that time, those who agreed were the Cubans, because they had their traumatic experience of work built in Cuba. And the Democrats were not so in agreement. That was very interesting. And now I meet Latinos from other countries who do not have the same way of thinking or without the same experience. Many are experiencing a dictatorship in their countries and come seeking freedom. But others do not, therefore they do not position themselves so much to the right but more to the left, or in the center. The Hispanic community is changing. The ambient temperature changes, although we are still living with many people focused on fighting communism, socialism, the dictatorships. I support this fight a lot.
At that point, is it more difficult to do politics in Florida as a Democrat?
While there is a mix among Latinos, we already know that many of them switched their support toward Republicans. We noticed it in the recent elections. But the position is not so clear-cut in terms of being on one side or the other. For example, I met Cuban democrats doing politics here. It is true that there are not many of them, but they are examples of adopting positions that are much more independent with respect to the traditional. There were Latinos who were in the Republican Party because of their parents, and now they are changing, thinking more independently.
In any case, voting for County Mayor does not include identifying Republican or Democrat.
For me it is a great benefit that the position is non-partisan. That's why I always focus on the community rather than the partisan. I prioritize the needs of the residents and I am not so ideological. Although yes, I always have more democratic ideas. Because that's how I am in my life. I am a democrat almost by birth. My parents thought that way. But in Miami-Dade there are issues that are approved with the support, for example, of Republicans Cubans. Because they also care about the quality of life and inflation, and they support whoever can help. During the previous campaign, in the middle of the pandemic, my opponent proposed lowering government participation. But the community was suffering: they had no jobs, they couldn't pay the bills. I am a social worker and a lawyer defending public benefits. I am very interested and committed to what helping entails.
How do you evaluate the tension between the economic need for labor and political discourses against immigrants?
Throughout the world we are changing to another economic system. And in this country, what are we doing for those who live here? We are criminalizing people. Because there was work before. Now there is not much for those who do not have the ease of adapting and finding a renewed job in whatever it is. The whole world is changing. In the County we want to offer possibilities to those who live here. With training, opening channels to the future. Yesterday I was with Watsco, an air conditioning company who pay very well and where people do not require much formal education, but rather technical training. And yet they are lacking workers, such as plumbers and electricians. And those positions cannot be "exported." Those workers are needed here. We must find the way to provide work for positions with a vacancy.
Do immigration laws and obstacles make it difficult to find registered voters?
That is also a serious problem. Other countries that are opening their doors to these workers will benefit. We know that with demographic processes that are changing, we will not have enough people so that in the future we do not have problems in the Social Security system. We have to think about who is going to pay for it in the future. And we are not thinking it in the long term.
What effects did the tougher laws against illegal immigrants that came into force almost two months ago have in Florida?
I am talking and having meetings almost every night, in different areas and with diverse groups. Last night someone asked me whether my priorities and activities have changed due to the effects of the change in laws. And I can say not much, because we are still talking about equality and helping immigrants. We are trying to find employment for small companies that promote environmental aid programs. From my position, I am always trying to handle problems.
But do you perceive concrete effects among Miami-Dade immigrants?
In some ways, yes, but it is more complicated. For example, we have an ID card program for county immigrants. And it was assigned to a for-profit organization to issue it. But now we cannot continue paying it. We are helping communities find funding because it benefits all of us to know who the person is, even if they can't receive a driver's license.
What other Miami-Dade County policies for immigrants are altered by the new Florida laws?
There are programs that help children who cross the border alone and need supervision. The state has prohibited the allocation of state funds for this purpose. For now, they are still receiving federal funds. We are helping agencies to collaborate. Some issues are more difficult because of the fear. For example, in hospitals doctors have to ask for the patient's immigration, but the person can refuse to answer. They are not obliged to say it. And the hospital doesn't have to report every person either. That is outside the law, due to identity protection. So, we are talking about it, trying to calm fears. We are dedicated to what we can do so that they receive the work permit. Everyone who is assigned residency is eligible to work and already has permission. On many occasions, we have asked the head of that secretariat to ask them to please extend the work permits more quickly. We have also asked for more funding for organizations that are helping with housing. There are community groups gathered from the same towns that receive donations from churches. These are some examples.
Do you have statistical data on immigrants who have left the county out of fear?
I know some people are leaving. Although they have legal status, they feel uncomfortable and persecuted. Our police don't work as stipulated in the state. They are there to protect the community and they don't want people to avoid them, as if they were in charge of reporting the crime of undocumentation in their own community. This also happens at school. They are making immigrants resente. Status doesn't matter. They already feel that there are signs of persecution and that frightens them. And yes, some are leaving.
Are the laws that block immigration more for electoral politics or do they have concrete effects?
Some immigrants are leaving Florida. But at the same time, others are arriving. And if they arrive across the border and receive per-job or per-role approval documentation that indicates they are eligible to work, they can enter and even start or join a business, even if they cannot work under the usual employment regime. The immigration law aimed at stopping companies from hiring undocumented people has stoked panic even among immigrants with legal status, exacerbating job shortages in several industries. That is why employment agencies are now taking care of managing the paperwork for necessary workers in agricultural and construction areas. These agencies used to not want to deal with these efforts, but now they are ordered to cover the lack of personnel.
How did Florida's recent educational reforms regarding the teaching of gender, sexual orientation and history in schools impact Miami-Dade?
The laws are against the work of unions, against the history of slavery, as well as sexuality and so many issues that have changed. Educational policy became an area of repression. And it is very strong. For now it focuses more on schools than on government in general. But it is difficult. Many teachers are leaving or struggling. Unions are also trying to end their curtailed rights, that of representing. It is very difficult at the moment, and there is a lack of teachers.
How many teacher vacancies do you have in the County?
I don't have precise numbers, but we don't have enough. Because they feel persecuted. They have just now approved a new employment contract law that increases their salary considerably. Also under this state administration they gave some awards. They are improving the salary because in other states they pay better and the teachers were leaving.
Do you perceive an educational atmosphere against sexual diversity in Florida?
Married teachers, for example, two women, cannot have a family photo on their desk. Things like that. In case they have questions about their families, they cannot talk to the children openly. There was a questioning of Amanda Gorman's poem about freedom and struggle, to the point that they decided to remove it from primary school books. So we invited Amanda Gorman to come talk to us, but she rejected the invitation. Neither she nor other speakers want to.
Do they fear?
Fear of taking sides, of standing up against an oppressive system.
The accumulation of waste is a problem in Miami-Dade, especially after the recent accidental fire at the plant that processed almost half of the county's garbage. What is your plan in this regard?
The garbage problem is very complicated, and it is new for me, because I am not an expert, given that I am a social worker and lawyer. But the amount of garbage is increasing. We are not doing the correct recycling and we have little space for it. We were incinerating almost half of it. And when the factory collapsed, we had to react quickly to send it to other places such as temporary landfills. But that is not permanent. We have to foresee an amount of empty space for garbage within the next 5 years within the state area. We have a plan for what to do in the short term, and in the long term too. We want to build a large processing campus suitable for not only burning it, but also for composting, which is another way to process it. The long-term plan is going to cost a lot, but it will eventually reach a more sustainable processing point for the future.
What do you plan to do in the short term?
At the moment, the point is whether we have to quickly open another power-up space. The County Commission is going to decide. They will debate it on September 6. We are recommending not to open it because that would take two years to complete. Because we have to go build, but it will cost so much that it is not worth it if we have something much better and sustainable in mind. It is a global problem, not just here, and I have a broad and futuristic vision. I don't want to go back to doing what we were doing, which is applying old technology.
Are you determined to seek re-election as mayoress next year?
I always work hard, it is my style and my way of approaching life. I am here to improve the community. And I know that there are always people who want to have their place, but the work I have done for almost ten years is already known. The community knows that I am working hard and solving problems. I know other people are going to enter the race, but it doesn't matter, I am going to show up.
Regarding the presidential campaign, do you think the primaries are heading towards a confrontation between Joe Biden and Donald Trump?
I don't have my crystal ball here, although I have one in my office! But it seems that Trump is still ahead. And he has his base that does not shrink, no matter what happens and whatever he does. Nothing changes, neither in what he does nor in what emerges from his history. For example, during the Republican debate, when the other candidates criticized Trump, that didn't end up well. They received a violent response from the audience.
Are you referring to the boos against Chris Christie and Mike Pence?
Yes, although what they were saying was very reasonable. But it didn't work well. So it seems to me that it will turn out as we are thinking, with Trump finally. But I can't say for sure.
Do you support Biden for re-election?
I think he has done a good job. Without him managing, we would not have been able to recover our position in the county. We are recovering from the pandemic, far ahead of the country, thanks in part to investment in infrastructure.
How much federal assistance did you receive?
We have received almost a billion dollars to recover, in funds that counties compel for by submitting projects, more than we have received through the federal sharing formula. That allows us to recover our economy and invest in infrastructure. And we are moving forward to receive even more funding. For example, in the project to process garbage we will possibly receive half from the federal government.
Will the economic agenda be enough for Biden to win re-election?
I think he has a great vision about the structural thing, the infrastructure support from the central State, in relation to the necessary change towards clean energy, the drive to alleviate climate change and global warming. A whole agenda that is very important, especially in the future. So I hope Biden wins again.
Translator: Bibiana Ruiz.
Please do not cut or paste our notes on the web, you have the possibility to redistribute them using our tools.