How Miami Seduced Silicon Valley
Mayor Francis Suarez at Miami City Hall.
Photo: Ysa PÃ©rez
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Silicon Valleyâs favorite politician, Miami mayor Francis Suarez, has many lures to dangle when heâs wooing techies to relocate to his city. Thereâs the old sugar: low taxes and the Florida sun. As I sat across from him in his office at city hall on a recent afternoon, Suarez was telling a Zoom grid of fellow mayors that the view behind him â a vista of swaying palms, rocking boats, and gleaming water â was ânot a virtual background.â The traditional charms have only been amplified in the COVID era: If you can work from anywhere, why not go where you can afford a better house for less, where you can be outside 365 days a year, where your favorite restaurants are opening outposts, where you donât feel judged for your hustle?
It took a tweet, though, to ignite what Suarez calls âthe Miami movement.â On December 4, Delian Asparouhov, a venture capitalist in San Francisco, posted, âok guys hear me out, what if we move silicon valley to Miami,â and Suarez, lying in bed at home in Coconut Grove, replied, âHow can I help?â Those four words got more than 2.7 million impressions. Ever since, Suarez has been on a mission to rebrand Miami â long a place to spend money, rather than earn it â as a haven for founders who feel underappreciated in more calcified urban climes. He bought (with money from a venture capitalist) billboards in San Francisco featuring his Twitter handle and an invitation to âDM me.â As he put it, âI saw the tsunami coming, got out my surfboard, and started paddling.â
The flood of new Miamians who have arrived, full or part time, during the pandemic includes tech investors (Peter Thiel, David Sacks), cryptocurrency bulls (Anthony Pompliano, Ari Paul), new-media tycoons (Bryan Goldberg, Dave Portnoy), start-up founders (Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, Steven Galanis), and many more who arenât yet billionaires but think the Magic City will give them their best shot. Theyâre breaking sales records for dock-accessed mansions by day and packing the new branches of Carbone and Red Rooster by night. The boom is visible in the cityâs crane-spiked skyline, too, with deals for Spotify, Microsoft, Apple, and TikTok either signed or in the offing. In greater South Florida, a related incursion by the finance industry â Goldman Sachs, Citadel, Elliott â is in full swing.
Wall Street may not be quaking over Miamiâs ascendancy, but in the zero-sum game among cities, San Francisco is indisputably feeling some pain. In July, according to Redfin, Miami was the top migration destination for home buyers in the U.S., while San Francisco had the largest homeowner exodus. Suarez told me about a playful text he recently received from the mayor there, London Breed: âStop stealing my techies.â He says he replied, âSorry, London, I love you, but no.â
Already, Suarez has made gains in turning Miami into the most cryptocurrency-friendly city in the U.S. In the past six months, the worldâs largest bitcoin conference happened here; a crypto exchange called FTX paid $135 million for the naming rights to the NBA arena (edging out the hometown porn studio BangBros); and a city-sanctioned currency called MiamiCoin debuted, generating millions in fees for municipal coffers. Suarez also accepts campaign contributions in bitcoin. Heâs running for reelection this November and looks certain to win, thanks in part to hefty donations and cheerleading from Silicon Valley eminences. One of them, the crypto evangelist Balaji Srinivasan, has hailed Suarez as the âfirst of his kind, the first CEO of the city,â responsible for the Miami movement reaching âescape velocity.â
Convinced that this surge will last â that it will differ from so many earlier cycles of Floridian boom-and-bust transience dating back to the land rush of the 1920s â Suarez has ready answers for what he calls the âcounter-narrativesâ about his cityâs trajectory. Wonât all these fair-weather arrivistes go poof when the summer heat hits? Suarez notes that the bitcoin conference was in June and was so popular that $300 hotel rooms went for $1,200. Wonât melting ice caps turn Miami into a swimming pool? âA lot of people donât know that New York has actually suffered more hurricane damage than Miami in the last ten years,â he says.
For all his enthusiasm, Suarez acknowledges that a robust tech ecosystem needs one thing he canât simply market into existence: a standout university. (As a Florida expat told me, âItâs hard to find a company that grew to be worth more than $100 billion that wasnât started within a bike ride of a world-class engineering department.â) To remedy this lack, Suarez, wearing a dark suit and patriotically striped tie, was at his desk one recent afternoon Zoom-pitching Randy Avent, the inaugural president of Florida Polytechnic University, a seven-year-old institution set in the soggy flatlands between Tampa and Orlando.
âNo matter how good the MITs and Harvards are,â Suarez said to Avent, âwhat is the DeFi school or the crypto school? What is the blockchain school? I think thereâs a huge opportunity there, and itâs an opportunity I donât know has happened very often in the history of education. So I might want to explore with you the possibility of you creating a satellite campus here in Miami.â The city, Suarez suggested, could offer FPU some of its most valuable resource: land.
âOne of the great things about a new university like us is that we can think top down,â Avent said, speaking with a Carolina drawl that belied the 20 years he had spent at MIT. In previous jobs, he said, he had encountered institutional gridlock. He seemed to be warming to Suarezâs proposal.
âI think the university class is getting it,â Suarez continued, referring to his prior efforts to convince a big-name program (Stanford? Technion?) to expand to Miami. âBut Iâm not sure theyâre getting it with the same sense of urgency Iâm feeling.â
Avent started spitballing technologies an FPU Miami might focus on, like autonomous vehicles, and Suarez smoothly steered the conversation back to the blockchain. âLike, Iâm growing up, Iâm a young man, I want to go into NFTs,â he said. âWhatâs the school I go to?â He throttled up his pitch: âI donât think Iâve offered this to any of the other universities, âcause it seems like you may be nimble and smart enough to take advantage of it â and small enough, in that obviously itâs not going to be 100 acres.â
He and Avent agreed to schedule a Miami visit soon to talk about specific land parcels. âIâm a very impatient person,â Suarez added, and he and Avent shared a laugh.
After Suarez ended the meeting, I asked where Florida Polytechnic is.
Whereâs that? He smiled.
âThe middle of nowhere.â
Keith Rabois, a partner at Founders Fund.
Photo: Ysa PÃ©rez
The tech case for Miami isnât wholly persuasive. (The most notable local start-up is a company that sells kibble.) But it is infectious. To visit here lately is to wonder, first, whether greater San Francisco has outlived its usefulness to the industry, and second, if this more libertine city, one that unblushingly loves rule-breaking and money, is a more natural home â and maybe even an accelerant â for the next generation of disruption fiends.
The day before watching Suarez at city hall, I met with Keith Rabois at a coffee shop called Dr. Smood in Wynwood, a buzzy neighborhood north of downtown where much of Miamiâs tech scene is coalescing. Rabois (pronounced ra-BOY), who wore a polo shirt and lightweight slacks, is a partner at Peter Thielâs $6 billion venture outfit, Founders Fund. In 2020, a fellow investor named Jack Abraham put a bug in his ear about moving from San Francisco to Miami; it buzzed louder after Thiel bought neighboring waterfront homes on the Venetian Islands last September. Before the year was out, Rabois had paid $29 million for a 15,000-square-foot house nearby, which includes a 5,600-gallon saltwater aquarium that can be maintained only by a scuba diver. âThere are 13 fish,â Rabois told me. âI think they need a lot of room.â
Rabois now ranks second only to the mayor as Miamiâs pitchman-in-chief. He estimates that he spends 15 percent of his time extolling the city, taking prospective relocators from the Bay Area around town. Although he described himself to me as âvery introverted,â he has thrown himself into the subtropical lifestyle: Jet Skiing, leading Barryâs Bootcamp sessions for new arrivals, going out six nights a week. âItâs very common for me to be interrupted by someone coming up and saying, âI moved here because I read your tweets,â â Rabois said, his foot tapping with antsy energy.
âEveryone is just happier here,â he said. Rabois and Pete Gilligan, his chief of staff, had just returned from a meeting in San Francisco â their first visit in eight months. âIt was depressing as hell,â Rabois said, frowning and shaking his head. âIn the first 20 minutes after we landed, I said to Pete, âI canât wait to get back to Miami.â Detroit is a metaphor for the Bay Area. It was a thriving city with a very vibrant industry, and it completely collapsed of its own volition.â Nobody he knows in Miami has recently been a victim of a crime, he said, but in Silicon Valley, âevery week, without exaggeration, someone in my life has their car broken into.â Rabois spoke contemptuously of San Franciscoâs conflicting public-health mandates, which require masking in gyms but not while eating in restaurants. âAs if a virus can discriminate between breathing over dinner and breathing over a treadmill,â he said. âItâs insane.â
Rabois â who has been ideologically in sync with Thiel since their days as right-wing provocateurs at Stanford â has dismissed concerns about sea-level rise as âfake news.â But even the more prosocial transplants I spoke to did not consider the issue a deterrent to living in Miami. They viewed it as a problem of the distant future â distant being a relative term among people who have made billion-dollar fortunes overnight. To them, floods are far less pressing than the chance of their California home being incinerated by a wildfire tomorrow.
At Dr. Smood, Rabois continued to tick off Miamiâs selling points. Heâs meeting a far more diverse set than he ever did in San Francisco, with more mixing of industries, nationalities, politics, and skin colors. Miamiâs relative compactness shortens his commute and leads to serendipitous run-ins. Being in the eastern time zone gives him a leg up: âIâve already read Twitter, worked out, and showered when West Coast people are just waking up.â And then thereâs the social factor. Since December, he said, Miami had become home to ânine of my 12 closest friends.â
The bestie ratio is almost a meme.
âFive of my close friends bought in Miami in the last 12 months,â said Pamela Liebman, the CEO of Corcoran, who divided her time between New York and Florida for years but recently moved her office to Miami. âWhen I play at my golf club, there are more people I know from New York than I ever knew in Florida. Everyone you talk to in Miami tells you how many steps they did every day.â
âNine out of ten of my best friends moved down here,â said Jeff Zalaznick, a partner at Major Food Group. He was in town with his family for spring break when COVID first struck; two months later, they decided to make their stay permanent. Now MFG is on track to open seven restaurants in Miami and Boca Raton by the end of the year. Roughly 100 employees have relocated from New York and Las Vegas, and Carbone and ZZâs Club have become the cityâs toughest reservations. âI just had that feeling, that energy, that positivity and optimism that for so many years I felt in New York â that intangible thing of people doing deals and wanting to do deals,â Zalaznick said.
âIâm not exaggerating,â said the academic and entrepreneur Scott Galloway, who lives in Delray Beach during the school year (and who co-hosts Pivot, a podcast from Vox and New York Magazine). âIâd say 50 percent of the people I know with a net worth over $10 million have contacted me in the last ten months asking for information about Florida schools and the lifestyle.â
âWhen I moved to Miami, I had no close friends,â said Bryan Goldberg, the owner of Bustle and Gawker, Zooming in from Ibiza with bedhead and large-format sunglasses. âBy the time winter was over, I had made so many lifelong friends. Itâs not so easy in your late 30s or early 40s to make new friends. It is in Miami, and I have.â He was one of several transplants who described Miamiâs current vibe as like freshman-orientation week.
âWhat I never saw before,â said Craig Robins, the developer of Miamiâs Design District, âwas entire social circles from different parts of America deciding to make this their residency. Imagine youâre thinking, Oh, maybe Iâll move to Miami, and you were on the fence â and then imagine three of your five closest friends moved here. Boom. All of a sudden, the value proposition psychologically changed.â
Any claims about a vogue for Miami turning permanent must, of course, be viewed in context. âThis is an economy thatâs based on growth,â Carl Hiaasen, South Floridaâs satirist laureate, once said. âGrowth for the sake of growth. We donât manufacture anything. We donât produce anything, except, you know, oranges and handguns.â He was articulating an old truth: Floridaâs economy has always depended on real estate and hospitality, which in turn rely on an endless stream of new arrivals. The result has been a series of bubbles and their aftermath â most recently, the national foreclosure crisis of 2007, which peaked here â leading some to nickname Florida âthe Ponzi State.â
The speed of the ongoing invasion raises obvious questions about how well-considered it is and what the unintended consequences may be. On a Wednesday evening, I went to a bar in Wynwood for a regular tech-scene happy hour. The gatherings were co-founded by Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, a Cuban-born, Harvard-trained organizational psychologist who moved to Miami ten years ago. Five people attended the first happy hour, but during Miami Tech Week, the number hit 470, and this evening, more than 100 entrepreneurs and investors mingled in the outdoor space. As we sat talking, Martinez-Kalinina expressed a more balanced perspective on what was happening in Miami than most people I had encountered. She described herself as âexcited for people to be here and very bullish on Miamiâ but was wary that the haste of the cityâs push for investment and zeal to cater to the one percent could lead to a techlash.
Martinez-Kalinina was also clear-eyed about Miamiâs more vexing problems. âI donât just mean that weâre the capital of fraud in the country,â she said wryly. She knows that the short-term viability of the city is at odds with its long-term sustainability and that Floridaâs real-estateâhospitality complex depends on glossing over deeper issues. She recognizes that many of the wealthy arrivals are perfectly okay with spending $20 million on a seafront property that will be worthless in a decade. Her concern is for the communities that currently occupy slightly higher ground and will inevitably be displaced by climate gentrification. And she thinks all the talk of sea rise occludes even more urgent problems like the loss of potable water. âWho,â she asked, before being rendered inaudible by a slider-happy DJ, âis going to talk about the fact that Biscayne Bay on many days exceeds the CDC-recommended parts per million of fecal matter?â
Restaurateur Jeff Zalaznick.
Photo: Ysa PÃ©rez
Shit metrics were not on the agenda on a recent morning at Oren Alexanderâs Flamingo Drive home, where two men were winching his speedboat into the Indian Creek Waterway so he could give me a tour of waterfront houses. With his brother Tal, who operates out of New York, Oren is the Miami-based half of Douglas Ellimanâs lucrative Alexander Team brokerage. Eight years ago, he started selling condos in the new Faena House on Miami Beach. The buyers were the first wave of New Yorkers who would previously have gravitated to Palm Beach but suddenly wanted to own in Miami: Lloyd Blankfein, Larry Gagosian, Leon Black.
When COVID got serious, a lot of the Alexander brothersâ New York clients wanted to quarantine in Miami, and Oren found himself brokering rentals and handing out paddleboards. After a few weeks, many of those clients started asking to be shown properties for sale. âThey were like, âI can never go back to New York,â â he said. His clients, according to public reports, include Ken Griffin, Kanye West, and Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. In a normal year, Alexander might hope to do $200 million in sales at best; by the end of 2020, he had represented the buyer or seller in deals altogether worth nearly twice that. These included what he said were the cityâs three biggest condo sales of the year: $33 million, $35 million, and $37 million. This year has been even more âinsane,â he said, with his sales in the first six months of 2021 exceeding half a billion dollars.
Alexander models the lifestyle heâs selling: He collects vintage Cohiba Esplendidos, his home office is adorned with Christopher Woolâs word paintings, and his Instagram account is a montage of golfing in the Dominican Republic, electric-foil-boarding in Malibu, and heli-breakfasting in the French Alps. The night before we met, he had motored an investor to the Bahamas to see a development before returning home for a table at Carbone. âWhere else,â he said, âcan you leave your home by boat and, after a ten-to-15-minute pleasure cruise, go have dinner at Zuma or Cipriani?â
We plied the Intracoastal Waterway, cruising north past Bal Harbour, a popular gated community right on the bay; Indian Creek Island, where the owners of its 32 homes, including Tom Brady and Gisele BÃ¼ndchen, enjoy their own police force; and North Bay Road, where Mickey Drexler owns three adjacent lots. âYou really canât touch any of these properties,â Alexander said. âIâve knocked on every door. No one wants to sell. A lot of families have been here for a while.â Many enjoy homestead status with their properties taxed at relatively modest rates based on old assessments that would be impossible to duplicate elsewhere.
At the moment, his clients tended to be in cooler places like the Hamptons or the Riviera, but with the school year about to start, they would soon return, and âunfortunately, a lot of very wealthy people are homeless in Miami, in the sense that they canât find a home. Thereâs just no inventory,â Alexander said. We were passing the estate section of Pine Tree Drive. âI sold this house designed by SAOTA for $23.75 million a couple years ago,â he said. âToday, Iâve said, âIâll give you $40 million.â He says, âIâm not leaving.â â Sellers keep pushing prices higher and higher. âThe way todayâs market works, youâre not just paying for the asset. Youâre paying someone enough money for them to leave their home.â
Alexander had recently returned from a ten-day spearfishing trip in French Polynesia, and he played me a video of him âstoningâ (delivering a kill shot to) a 100-pound dogtooth tuna. âFuck yeah, buddy! Look at that doggy! Woo-hoo! Epic!â the camera holder yells as Alexander surfaces with the heart-impaled beast. On his boat, Alexander chuckled. There are similarities, he observed, between his hobby and his job. Unlike the passivity of rod fishing, where you cast a line and wait, when Alexander spearfishes, âI go down there, I look for the fish, I go after the fish. Thatâs kind of my business: I target sellers, I target buyers, I go after them.â
South past the Venetian and Sunset Islands, we reached Coconut Grove, where many clients, especially families with young children, are interested in moving. It has some of the best schools in South Florida, and Alexander had recently done deals there for $30 million, $48 million, and $65 million. As he piloted his boat, he was working all the while â shooting a video of a recently listed property, trading notes over the phone with another high-end broker, inspecting city records on a $44 million property. We glided past the homes of boldface names from quainter times: Barry Gibb, Adriana Lima, Harmony Korine, Don Johnson, Pablo Escobar. They paled beside the temples to new-economy money: There went the homes of crypto billionaire Michael Saylor, Rockstar Energy Drinkâs Russ Weiner, WeWork founder Adam Neumann. Alexander said he too has become a crypto investor, and mansion sellers in Miami now routinely say they will accept bitcoin as payment. (In practice, though, blockchain people tend to want to hold on to their crypto. Itâs their fiat money they want to get rid of.) Alexander mused aloud about whether there has ever been so great a transfer of wealth and capital in such a short time as the one happening right now in Miami.
The mansions were beautiful, but from other people â ones not in the business of selling them â I heard gently expressed fears. âAll these historic houses in Miami are being demolished to create three separate $30 million houses on the same lot,â one lobbyist told me. âNot from a historic-preservation perspective but from an economic perspective, if at some point you have a market flooded with identical white-box houses in the $40 million to $50 million range, supplyâs going to outpace demand, and it will all of a sudden implode.â
Miami mania is also putting pressure on the amenities enjoyed by all those new occupants of luxury condos and decamillion-dollar waterfront homes. The building trades are overwhelmed, boats are scarce, country clubs have five-year waiting lists, and the best private schools are impossible to get into.
The influx of wealth is, predictably, creating friction with less-moneyed residents and visitors. Near the Venetian Islands, as we passed a pontoon full of day-tripping kids listening to loud music, Alexander said, âThis is a big issue. A lot of these guys are advertising on Instagram and picking people up off the causeway. I doubt theyâre properly licensed.â A bridge up ahead started to close. âLetâs get this bridge,â he said, and sharply accelerated. Suddenly, a couple of Jet Skiers cut across our path. Alexander pulsed his horn â beep-beep-beep-beep-beep â and was forced to slow down. âThis is one of the things I hate the most, okay,â he said, âbecause anyone can just pay a hundred bucks, rent a Jet Ski, and they tell them to go here âcause youâre allowed to go fast in this zone. But this is like a highway, and people donât know what theyâre doing, and theyâre just joyriding, going back and forth. People have been hit. As far as what Iâm advocating for â get rid of all this. Weâre a high-end town. These people that live here on the water are the highest-paying customers of the city. Protect them. Make sure theyâre enjoying their time here so they continue to bring their friends and spend money here and so forth.â
We were arriving back at Alexanderâs dock, and he nodded at a house across the water where girders were piled near the property edge. âThis is whatâs happening throughout Miami,â he said. âTheyâre raising seawalls everywhere.â Alexander opened an app on his phone and frowned. âWe really need to lobby Apple Weather,â he said. âJust âcause it rains for 30 minutes doesnât mean you get to give us a rain icon for the day. Itâs not accurate.â
Real-estate broker Oren Alexander.
Photo: Ysa PÃ©rez
Perhaps the biggest preconception the authors of the Miami craze have sought to overturn has to do with work. The diligent labor of certain cocaine impresarios notwithstanding, Miami has long had a reputation for being all about hedonism â a bad fit for vitamin-D-deficient strivers who like to go on 24-hour coding jags. As one South Beach resident told me, âCrypto people throw the worst parties.â
Delian Asparouhov, author of last Decemberâs Tweet Heard Round Palo Alto, was initially among those skeptical of Miami as a place to grind. Besides being a principal at Founders Fund, he co-founded a Los Angelesâbased start-up, Varda Space, that aims to create zero-gravity factories beyond Earthâs atmosphere. Asparouhov flew to Miami last March for Raboisâs birthday party but only after clarifying for his girlfriend (now fiancÃ©e) his geographic intentions: âWe looked at each other, and we said, âThereâs no chance we move to Miami.â â He added, âAnd then, over the course of the week, I closed multiple term sheets while there, so I clearly was capable of being professionally productive.â He and his fiancÃ©e moved in April.
Asparouhov quickly fell for the cityâs charms, not least its heterodox politics. âMiami is such a purple city,â he said over FaceTime from Bulgaria, where he was visiting family. âAs an immigrant with more conservative political views than many in San Francisco, I felt more at home. I enjoy that in Miami, American flags are flown very proudly from houses and retail, whereas I canât remember the last time I saw a flag hanging from a window in San Francisco. I felt unbounded in leaving.â
Miami has only grown on him. âI run into tech people all the time,â he said. âLike, walking my dog on Sunday at 8 a.m., chatting up some guy, heâs like, âIâm a PM at Coinbase.â Of course youâre a PM at Coinbase, the one stranger I randomly talk to in the dog park.â
Asparouhovâs experience is at the crux of whether Miami can sustain a new identity as a tech hub. It used to be the case that the fatal flaw in basing a start-up here was the shallow pool of local talent and the limited desire of talent elsewhere to move. âI always had software-developer needs,â said Mike Komaransky of the crypto platform Grapefruit Trading, who moved from Chicago to Coconut Grove in 2018. âThatâs changed completely. You can contact people in different states now and say, âWould you be willing to move to Miami?â and not get an immediate no.â The same shift is true of capital. âItâs bizarre for local founders,â said Maria Derchi Russo, the executive director of Refresh Miami, a nonprofit created to foster the cityâs start-up community. âThey used to get on a plane to San Francisco to raise money. Now itâs a complete 180 where San Francisco VCs are saying, âIâm coming there to meet you.â People are still in awe of that.â
Itâs tempting to get swept up in all this, but when I called Billy Corben, he offered a dramatically different take on his city. Corben is the preeminent documentarian of Florida sleaze, most recently in the latest Netflix installment of his Cocaine Cowboys franchise, and on the phone, he was as quick to enumerate Miamiâs flaws as everyone else was to rhapsodize about its allure. There were the record pediatric-ICU COVID admissions the city was experiencing just then. There were the king tides that foretell a perilous future: âWeâre sinking. Weâre one big hit from a Cat 3 hurricane from being the next city of Atlantis.â There was the collapse of Champlain Towers South, the result of the âgenerational incompetence of this government.â Corben pointed to the cityâs rising cost of living and widening income gap, citing a United Way report from last year that found 54 percent of residents canât afford to live in Miami-Dade County. âMark my words,â he said. âIn our lifetimes, we will see swamp favelas in Miami. We will see people building ramshackle tent villages in a swamp.â
In Corbenâs view, the pandemic-era frenzy over Miami is just another South Florida real-estate hustle, one that will inevitably go splat, returning Miami to its age-old identity as âa sunny place for shady people.â He routinely mocked the invasive species that is tech bros, whom he calls âarroz con manbros,â and pointed out that several of the more prominent Silicon Valley transplants faced accusations of wrongdoing in California: Rabois resigned as COO of Square after an employee accused him of sexual harassment; the venture capitalist Shervin Pishevar left Sherpa Capital and Virgin Hyperloop One after Bloomberg reported that five women had accused him of sexual misconduct; and Emil Michael, a top executive at Uber, was pushed out amid an internal investigation into the companyâs toxic culture.
Corben thinks the new arrivals are in for a rude awakening when they eventually grasp the deep-rooted tribalism and feuds of Miami politics. âWhen we hear people whoâve been in Miami for 34 days try to tell us what our community is and tell us about the competency and responsiveness of our government, itâs science fiction, a genre of Twitter. Itâs all lies,â he said. Corben, who in his caustic Twitter feed likes to explain that Miamiâs mayor has two private-sector jobs that are potentially rife with conflicts of interest, has variously derided Suarez as âa very bro-ey mayorâ who âloves toxic masculinity,â âa hood ornament,â and âa Realtor dressed as a mayor.â
I saw Miamiâs intractable politics intrude on Suarezâs tech aspirations one morning. Instead of attending the groundbreaking for a new office tower downtown, he was diverted at the last minute to a meeting with Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who was making an impromptu visit to Miami to confer with local politicians and activists about the humanitarian and political crises in Cuba and Haiti. Talking with Mayorkas at Ermita de la Caridad, a sacred site for Cuban exiles, Suarez aired the idea â popular among Miamiâs Cuban community but not with the part of the Democratic Party that was mostly represented at the meeting â of at least considering military intervention.
Outside the church, the politiciansâ entourages cooled their heels. Suarezâs body man showed off his Coinbase debit card to another local mayorâs digital director. His deputy chief of staff, who drives a Tesla and puts 80 percent of his monthly income into crypto, gently ribbed a social-media aide for not having bought ether when he told her to. âSheâd have quintupled her money by now,â he said. Back at the office, they have a whiteboard with a ticker for the prices of bitcoin, ether, and solana, and they have discussed the possibility of turning the mayorâs âHow can I help?â tweet into an NFT.
After the meeting with Mayorkas, Suarez was driven to a comedor â a community center for the elderly â to meet constituents and then stopped for a quick lunch on Calle Ocho. As we sat in the back corner of a fritas joint, he reminisced about the moment, last December, when everything changed. After his initial tweet went viral, he posted another 800 times that month. âIt was all me, all hours of the day and night, two in the morning sometimes,â he said. Up to that point, his social-media output had been âtypical politician stuff. I wasnât really expressing myself in an unfiltered way, which is also very dangerous. But in doing it â this may sound hokey-pokey, but in a way, I found my voice. I realized I could be myself, and I wasnât going to pay a consequence for that, and that people liked me for who I am and not necessarily for the generic, sanitized version of myself. And that was very liberating for me and, frankly, a huge confidence boost.â The 800 tweets got 27 million impressions. As we left the restaurant, a table of older Cuban men bantered with Suarez in Spanish. âYou hear that?â he said, turning to me with a grin. âThey said, âStay with the technology.â â
As a pro-tech centrist Republican, Suarez has seen his national political profile rise of late: Besides making Fortuneâs âWorldâs 50 Greatest Leadersâ list, he has been invited to the White House, met with Nikki Haley amid speculation that she was vetting running mates for a 2024 presidential run, and next year will become head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But even some staunch supporters of Suarez wonder whether the entrenched Miami will stand in the way of the new.
When Formula 1, with Suarezâs support, wanted to add a downtown Miami circuit to its calendar a few years ago, the move was blocked by city commissioners. Suarez may walk on water with the tech crowd, one lobbyist said, but âin city hall, where his actual job is, he is constantly kneecapped and cut down by the old guard.â The Miami Cuban machine that dominates city politics is âvery afraid of non-Cubans becoming a majorityâ and has little interest in seeing its power base diminished by all the wealthy non-Cuban outsiders arriving at Suarezâs invitation.
Suarez is also up against the state in which his city is located. âFlorida is insane,â as one transplant put it. âMiami and Florida are different things.â While Suarez is a moderate Republican who favors mask mandates, the Trumpist governor, Ron DeSantis, has vigorously opposed them. On the day I was with him, Suarez and a local developer did a live remote with Bloomberg TV. Toward the end of the interview, the anchor started grilling Suarez on his differences with the governor. Afterward, Suarez turned to the developerâs PR person, who had arranged the interview, and said, âThanks for prepping me for the DeSantis questions.â
DeSantis may have deeper objections to Miamiâs becoming a tech tub. For one thing, according to a Republican political operative, DeSantis doesnât believe Florida has sufficient high-end resources to accommodate hordes of rich newcomers. âWhen I spoke to him,â the operative told me, âI got the impression that the last thing he wants is wealthy Republican donors who moved from New York calling to complain about how they canât get into country clubs.â DeSantis is also acutely aware of how neighboring states have drifted purple in recent years and of the effect the Austin tech boom has had on statewide Texas elections, which Republicans have been winning by increasingly narrow margins. âHeâs like, Why do I want to incentivize companies that will bring thousands of employees, most of whom will hate me?â
Miami must contend, too, with lingering anti-Florida snobbery. The New York media investor Strauss Zelnick has told people, âI thought the whole reason we made lots of money was so we wouldnât have to live in Florida.â And a New York hedge-fund executive who hasnât moved suggested that the Delta-variant surge â and the attendant images of overrun ICUs â has dinged Miamiâs glossy rebrand: âIt doesnât make it as attractive as it was six months ago, when a lot of my friends were saying, âItâs great down here, itâs paradise, itâs a great place to raise kids.â Theyâre not trashing their decision now, but itâs weird down in Florida. Thereâs a chaos quality.â
On the ground in Miami, though, zeal reigns. âIn the future, Miami is going to be the most important place to be for three or four months a year,â Bryan Goldberg told me with the full-blown fervor of a convert. âFrom December through March, itâs going to be the place to be, globally, for decades to come. I think that every ambitious business-person has to have a Miami strategy from this day forward for the rest of their lives.â