State Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, has all the ingredients an incumbent could hope for in seeking his final state House term: More than $60,000 in donations, nearly a decade under his belt as an elected official and a leadership title in Tallahassee.
But after redistricting, Gibbons landed in a newly drawn district where only about 43 percent of the voters are in his home county of Broward while the majority lie in Miami-Dade. He now faces fellow Democrat Sheldon Lisbon, who is trying to parlay his brief stint on the Surfside Town Commission and connections in the Jewish community to oust Gibbons in the coastal House 100th district, which spans from Surfside to Dania Beach.
The battle here isn’t for the most part about issues — both support increasing money for schools, closing corporate tax loopholes and protecting beaches from drilling. It’s a fight about experience, connections and the words Lisbon has used to appeal to Jewish voters in an overwhelmingly white and heavily Jewish district as he runs against a black politician. No Republican filed to run, so the winner of the Aug. 14 primary clinches the two-year job.
Lisbon has an interesting personal story to tell as the son of Holocaust survivors born in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany who later taught in Washington, D.C., public schools for decades. But his messages about improving public education and revamping government ethics have been overshadowed by his political missteps during his first true campaign contest.
“I’m not the political savvy guy that Joe Gibbons is,” Lisbon said.
Gibbons, who is backed by many unions, also has the upper hand in fundraising as the incumbent who can attract donations from those with business interests in Tallahassee. As of July 20, Gibbons had raised about $61,500 while Lisbon had raised about $13,500 and loaned his campaign about $21,000.
Lisbon won his Surfside commission seat in the small Miami-Dade town without opposition in March and two months later announced he would resign to run for state House — angering some residents because it will cost the town about $20,000 for a special election.
Lisbon said he quickly got a phone call from a Democratic official asking him not to run. But Lisbon said that the issues he cares about — protecting the elderly and public education — make him a good fit for the Legislature. Lisbon describes himself as a “moderate Lieberman-type Democrat” who can compromise with the other side.
In June, Lisbon sent an email to supporters with the subject line: “A Vote for Shelly Lisbon is a Vote for the Jewish Community” and stated “This district is primarily a Jewish district composed of residents like us.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism, sent Lisbon a letter asking him to retract his “divisive” email. Lisbon called the ADL “despicable” but later apologized for that comment. Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith wrote a letter to Democrats warning candidates not to appeal for votes based on religious affiliation.
Lisbon defended his email saying that he was reaching out to his base to solicit donations to compete against Gibbons, who has taken donations from lobbyists and those with gambling interests.
“I don’t have a racist bone in my body,” said Lisbon, who said he taught at a mostly African-American high school in Washington, D.C., before moving from Maryland to Surfside about six years ago. “It hurts me personally for anyone to say that.”
Lisbon now teaches history and government at Jewish schools — Beth Jacob and Lubavitch Educational Center — in North Miami Beach.
Gibbons, a New York native, was an IBM salesman before he ventured into politics and became the second African American to win a seat on the Hallandale Beach City Commission in 2003. He won his first state House seat in 2006 and was unopposed in the next two elections.
Broward legislators often play defense in the Republican-dominated Tallahassee and have little power. Gibbons points to bills he sponsored that passed that are nonpartisan: requiring community sports groups to do background checks on coaches and penalties for parents who leave children in unattended cars. Gibbons is the minority leader pro tempore — essentially the deputy to the minority leader.
Gibbons has faced questions about how much time he spends in Hallandale Beach because his wife, attorney Ava Parker, a member of the Board of Governors that oversees state universities, and their two toddler children live in Jacksonville. In 2010, the Broward Property Appraiser removed Gibbons’ exemption after determining that Parker had a homestead exemption in Jacksonville and that Gibbons’ condo was a rental unit, according to property appraiser records. In 2011, the property appraiser determined that the condo was no longer a rental unit and the exemption on Parker’s home had been removed so he was found eligible for the homestead exemption.
Gibbons says he stays in Jacksonville more during the legislative session because it’s closer to Tallahassee but says his family often comes to Broward.
“It’s the new marriages these days — nothing strange about that,” he says.
Lisbon raises concerns about Gibbons working for Akerman Senterfitt, a powerhouse law firm that has an army of lobbyists in Tallahassee. Gibbons is a public policy advisor for the firm.
“He has been proposing bills that directly impact on what Akerman needs,” Lisbon told The Miami Herald editorial board, though he didn’t cite any examples. He later said an in interview that the concept of a lawmaker also working as a lobbyist “doesn’t smell right.’’
Gibbons said Akerman recruited him when he was a freshman legislator. Financial disclosure forms show that Akerman paid him $60,000 in 2011. Gibbons says he brings in local government clients to Akerman — for example, he got North Miami to hire the firm to do its federal lobbying. He said he doesn’t lobby the state.
There is one issue on which the two candidates somewhat diverge: gambling. Gibbons supported a gambling expansion that would have allowed destination resorts. The measure died in the previous legislative session. Gibbons says if done right the expansion could have added jobs in Florida.
The Associated Industries of Florida, a powerful business group, shared Gibbons’ view and endorsed him.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce, which opposed a gambling expansion, endorsed Lisbon.
In an interview with The Miami Herald earlier this summer, Lisbon didn’t entirely rule out supporting a gambling expansion but said: “Personally, I am opposed to gambling, but if it brings in money … it has to take into consideration how it will impact the community — the traffic impact, negative impact on schools. … I don’t want it to be a Las Vegas kind of town.”
Lisbon’s campaign later said that Lisbon doesn’t support an overall expansion.