Of the three candidates in the race for mayor of Wilton Manors, Josie Smith-Malave would likely be considered the novice.
After all, the other two — Julie Carson and Scott Newton — have held positions in the Wilton Manors government for many years as city commissioners, and Newton also as a former mayor.
The election is Nov. 3. The race changed quickly when Mayor Justin Flippen died in office in February of a brain aneurysm. There are also three seats on the city commission up for grabs.
When it comes to assessing the 45-year-old Malave — novice or not — it would be a mistake to describe her as unprepared.
Malave, married to Marcy Miller, has lived in Wilton Manors for six years where she is the chef-owner of Bubbles & Pearls, a restaurant on Wilton Drive. She said she’s been part of the community for 13 years.
Malave was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, but grew up in South Florida — specifically in Hialeah.
“Hialeah is broken up into east and west. We were in the west where a lot of the working class lived,” she said. “We didn’t have a lot when we grew up.”
Malave, who is Puerto Rican, Italian and Filipino, grew up with her younger sister and brother.
“We’re the trifecta,” she said. “We’ve been through a lot together. When you think of the idea of unconditional love, that’s what we share.”
Near the apartment complex where they lived was a youth community center where Malave spent a lot of time playing intramural sports — something her parents encouraged.
“That was a big thing for them — to get involved in team sports. I played volleyball and badminton. I lettered in those two sports. I played basketball, I tried to play softball,” Malave said with a laugh.
Later on, she’d play professional women’s football with the former New York Sharks.
Malave’s relationship with her parents, who divorced, was important in shaping who she is today, she said.
“[They’re] indestructible. We have a large extended family now. My mother lives with me and has always been my best friend — the person in my life who has taught me about caring about people,” Malave said. “She always made sure our neighbors had food and would reach into her purse and pull out dollars for guys on the street. She’s been a real giver her whole entire life and that’s been the example that I’ve been able to experience.”
The relationship with her father has been more challenging, she admits, but nonetheless impactful.
“He’s a Trump supporter but I love him. We have a different perspective around politics, but it’s important to understand everyone’s perspective,” Malave said.
She said her father taught her about business and salesmanship.
“He’s the kind of guy that during dinner we’d be listening to Norman Vincent Peale and Zig Ziglar. He taught me the need to sell myself — to go out and create what you’re going to have,” she said.
Malave said she took all the positives she could from those lessons, and formed her own perspective.
“I call it enrolling you into a vision. We’re always enrolling people into our stories and into our own lives,” she said. “What are you broadcasting, sharing and inspiring? I check in with myself: What did you contribute today?”
Malave would leave Hialeah for the Art Institute of New York City, earning an associate’s degree.
She’d get really immersed in the restaurants, too — cooking for a decade in New York City, followed by three years in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s part of the reason she’s widely referred to today as Chef Josie.
Her career has been deep in the trenches of the service industry.
“I traveled the world. I’ve done a lot of things in my life and feel grateful and privileged for the experiences I’ve been able to have,” she said.
South Florida called her back where she and her partners would eventually open Bubbles & Pearls.
Recently, Malave has not only dealt with the volatile business atmosphere of the pandemic, but also contracted COVID-19 and battled it for several weeks. She said it’s given her even more empathy for business owners and those dealing with the virus. (Malave has since tested negative.)
Politics comes calling
Malave first set her sights on a run for city commission, but when Flippen unexpectedly died, she decided to enter the race for mayor.
“I’m very grateful for all of the support, for all the folks taking time to sit down and chat about our city, people who know a lot more than I do, but understand this is a team effort moving forward,” Malave said. “There’s not one single person with all the answers, but we need that one person who is a consensus builder, who wants an equitable, sustainable future for our city.”
Malave admits her opponents have more political experience, but she believes she’s the most qualified to move Wilton Manors forward.
She said she respects Carson and Newton, that between their almost 30 combined years of experience they’ve done a “fine job,” but that there have also been some “bad decisions.”
“This pandemic that has rocked our economy and rocked our business community,” she said. “It has us in our homes and has interfered with our ability to connect with each other and build upon our community. It’s so, so important that we don’t lose track or focus.”
Malave said her immediate goals as mayor would include public health, staying fiscally responsible and making choices in a sustainable way.
“The last thing I want is to be folded into Fort Lauderdale,” she said. “We have to be very, very serious about our city’s growth. We have to increase our tax base. In the past, maybe we haven’t moved at that pace because there’s a little bit of fear and we were comfortable. We can’t afford to move at a snail’s pace. We have to build partnerships and bridges.”
One of the goals is to unite Wilton’s three neighborhood associations into a “one city” vision. Part of that, she said, is understanding that the city isn’t just “The Drive,” as important as the corridor might be.
Malave said it’s about “fresh air, fresh energy” and convincing Wilton Manors residents to “try on some new clothes.”
“I believe in democracy and the choices are clear. You have status quo and you have me,” she said.