On May 7, 2021, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez was on a three-way video call with Sam Bankman-Fried, then-chairman of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, and Dan Roberts, editor-in-chief of Decrypt, an online news outlet covering digital currencies and blockchain technology.
When asked how his four-year-old company could afford to pay $135 million for a 19-year naming rights agreement at the arena that’s home to the Miami Heat NBA franchise, Bankman-Fried assured Roberts that FTX has the cash on hand. (The arena is owned by the county government, not the city, and the deal has since been terminated.)
“It’s been a pretty good year for us to this point, frankly, (and) we don’t need to rely on the other 18 years to have the funds for this,” Bankman-Fried told them. “It’s been a phenomenal year for a number of businesses, and for the crypto industry. In particular, even us, even more so.”
Suarez, dressed in a light blue polo shirt, peered up from his phone, smiled and gave two thumbs up. The mayor then explained why Miami has become the nation’s crypto capital: “It started with building friendships with people like Sam.”
Fast forward 20 months. FTX can no longer afford to pay for its arena deal following the exchange’s financial collapse in early November. That led to the crypto market crashing, losing a trillion bucks in value. Last month, a criminal investigation into how FTX investors and customers collectively lost $8 billion led to federal indictments against Bankman-Fried and others. And on Jan. 11, a Delaware bankruptcy judge signed off on terminating the naming rights agreement.
Suarez’s championing of cryptocurrency outfits like FTX is emblematic of his tenure as Miami’s top elected official. Entering the second year of his second term, critics say Suarez, a Republican, is more concerned with elevating his national profile and fueling his presidential ambitions rather than tackling the city’s wealth gap, crumbling public infrastructure and affordable housing crisis.
His supporters counter that Suarez – who did not respond to requests for comment for this story – is earning his spot in the conversation for the GOP presidential nomination because he understands the current entrepreneurial zeitgeist in Miami, and is capitalizing on it to further cement the city as a bustling metropolis of the future.
“Even though the crypto world is in turmoil, it doesn’t hurt that he understands it,” Jorge Luis Lopez, a Coral Gables-based governmental affairs lawyer and Suarez fundraiser, told City & State. “We are on the cusp of a historic generational shift. There is a growing number of younger people getting more involved and engaged. Francis could be the perfect candidate at the perfect time.”
On the other hand, Thomas Kennedy, a progressive Democratic activist who lives in Miami’s Coconut Grove, said residents like himself “don’t feel we have a champion in the mayor’s office. I think Suarez is a champion for special interests … especially with all this crypto stuff.”
Among the mayor’s bad decisions, according to Kennedy, was his unyielding support for MiamiCoin, the city’s own digital currency. When it launched in August 2021, Suarez hyped MiamiCoin by claiming it could potentially generate $60 million a year and could cover municipal services at no cost to residents. Since then, MiamiCoin has lost 99% of its value, and it is currently worth less than a cent.
“None of Miami’s problems are being tackled by Suarez,” Kennedy said. “Yet the mayor was out there giving credence to this MiamiCoin crap.”
Suarez – the 45-year-old scion of the mercurial former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez – has painstakingly crafted his public image as a hip, handsome city leader unbothered by stinging criticisms. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Suarez has signaled that he is considering a 2024 White House run, looking to give GOP voters across the country a fresh alternative to the two Republican juggernauts in the Sunshine State: Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
Most recently, Agenda for America, a nonprofit organization that Suarez raises money for, bought Facebook and Instagram digital ads to run in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire. They’re the first three states holding Republican presidential primaries in 2024.
The first ad touted the mayor with a photo of him at a Miami Heat game: “Francis Suarez showing us what America’s towns and cities could be. Lowest tax rates in 62 years. Lowest homicide rates since 2013.” Other ads touched on red-meat pressure points for conservative voters, such as President Joe Biden (bad), parental rights (good), inflation (also bad) and defunding the police (very bad).
As the city’s top spokesman, Suarez has made Miami a welcoming place for established corporate giants, not just fly-by-night tech and crypto companies, Lopez said. For instance, billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin is co-developing a new office tower in Miami’s Brickell financial district that will be home to his firms Citadel and Citadel Securities, which are relocating from Chicago.
In November, Suarez and Griffin had a fireside chat at Miami-Dade College’s downtown Miami campus. The businessman – and big DeSantis supporter – praised the mayor’s efforts to make the city business-friendly. “Francis has really been able to capture the imagination of some powerful people,” Lopez said. “It doesn’t hurt him to tweet at Elon Musk and tell him to relocate Twitter (from San Francisco) to Miami.”
Suarez could be the Republican Party’s version of U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who had a respectable run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Lopez added. (Though given the “historic string of air, rail and supply-chain meltdowns (in his) first two years in office,” as Axios recently put it, including the temporary grounding of flights this month, he may not be the most flattering example.)
Nonetheless, “there are some basic issues that mayors are exposed to that make them relatable to the average American,” he said. “Francis can connect with people and get a sense of their priorities.”
Darryl Paulson, a University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor emeritus of government, sees Suarez as a longshot for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. “He is trying to get his image in place,” Paulson said. “For voters thinking we need a younger face or a more progressive (Republican), he is that candidate.”
Suarez can seize the moment and emerge as the candidate who appeals to Millenials and Gen Z voters, Paulson added. He “is certainly the mayor of a major city in Florida, but to be honest … I wouldn’t bet money on him.”
With less than a year from the first primaries, Suarez has a lot of ground to cover if he wants to stand out from DeSantis and Trump. “He definitely has an uphill battle,” Paulson said. “He hasn’t shown that he’s got voter appeal beyond the city where he serves as mayor.”
Francisco Alvarado is a Miami-based freelance journalist.