Miami Heat

updated 02/23/1998 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/1998 01:00AM

WHEN EDNA BENSON WRITES city hall, she expects attention to be paid. But the 68-year-old Miamian got more than she bargained for one night not long ago when Mayor Xavier Suarez rang her doorbell at 10:30 p.m. clutching four pages of criticism she'd sent him just days before. Benson, a retired city worker who lives alone, grabbed her .38 and peered out the window. Recognizing the mayor, she opened the door just long enough to register her feelings about being disturbed. "I shut the door in his face," she says. "I was furious."

Many Miamians are more concerned than angry about their mayor these days, and his late-night meanderings are just one of the reasons. Since his election last November, Suarez, 48, has:

•twice burst into tears while talking to reporters about his son, now 20. ("A few years ago, Francis was going through a difficult time," he says, refusing to elaborate.)

•arrived at the Miami Herald before dawn, wearing a blue terry-cloth robe, to buy an early edition out of a newspaper box. ("Everybody has insomnia now and then," says an aide.)

•left a message on voice mail at the Herald threatening to pull all city advertising unless the paper started being "nicer to me, my people, my citizens and my city." ("I was trying to be funny," the mayor explains.)

Though Herald columnist (and best-selling novelist) Carl Hiaasen has written, only half-jokingly, that "the mayor is either certifiably nuts or seriously undermedicated," Suarez's supporters dismiss his eccentricities as inconsequential. "I'm not telling you it's 100 percent quote-unquote normal," says José Ferrer, a Suarez confidant, of the Benson incident. "But it's being blown out of proportion." Suarez's friend Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, calls him "an able executive" with the "capacity to be a first-rate mayor," and city manager José Garcia-Pedrosa says, "Whatever the media has said recently about Mayor Suarez, no one has questioned his integrity."

But someone has questioned the integrity of his election. Earlier this month a Miami-Dade County grand jury concluded that many of last fall's election results in Miami Beach and Miami, including Suarez's strong showing, were tainted by fraudulent absentee ballots. Suarez denies any wrongdoing, and he has asked city commission chairman Humberto Hernandez to investigate the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's vote-fraud inquiry—though it focuses partly on Hernandez himself.

Suarez, who ascribes his seemingly erratic behavior of late to his torrid, 17-hour-a-day pace ("I was a little hyper at the beginning of my term, but I like motion"), is the ninth of 14 children born to an engineering dean at Havana's Villanueva University and his wife. "We were raised a little wild," says his brother George, 59, an administrator in the Miami-Dade County schools. "We climbed trees, went into the rivers, hunted with rifles." When Xavier was 9, Fidel Castro took power, and Suarez's father was later jailed for two months as a suspected dissident. For Xavier it was a defining moment. "When I saw Cuba fall to Communism," he says, "I realized how much impact politicians can have on your life." His parents fled to Florida with 10 of the kids—the others had already-left—and soon settled in Washington.

Suarez graduated with a degree in engineering from Villanova University and went on to earn a law degree and a master's in public policy at Harvard before driving a rusty Buick he bought for $88 to Miami, where he met his wife, Rita, now 43, a substitute elementary-school teacher. ("It wasn't love at first sight," she says. "But we had the same morals and ideas, and we were moving in the same direction.") He went to work at a local law firm and became passionately involved in various political causes, including the antiabortion movement. "He really wants to make a difference in people's lives," says George. "It's his calling." (Long admired for calming tensions among Miami's diverse ethnic groups, the mayor cites keeping Miami clean and putting more cops on the streets as two current missions.)

Suarez served two terms as Miami's mayor from 1985 to '93, when the mayoralty was a $6,000-a-year ribbon-cutting job, then returned to private law practice. Deciding to run again last fall after charter reform turned the mayor's job into a position of consequence (with a $96,000-a-year salary), Suarez won by about 3,000 votes in a runoff with incumbent Joe Carollo. Now a civil trial stemming from a vote-fraud lawsuit filed by Carollo could force a new election or Suarez's removal from office. The situation recalls a remark Suarez made in a recent rambling discussion on urban renewal: "One thing I don't like about Miami's signage. Instead of telling you where you are, it's telling you where to go." In fact, the mayor knows where he is; where he is going is not so apparent.

MEG GRANT and FRAN BRENNAN in Miami

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