The candidates running for Miami Beach Commission Group II have raised more than $200,000 from lawyers, doctors, real estate developers, and the entertainment and hospitality industries.
Current Commissioner Jorge Exposito is running for reelection. He faces two challengers: tutoring company owner Dave Crystal and criminal defense attorney Michael Grieco.
Donations can sometimes help voters understand where a candidate stands on issues that are important to voters.
For example, the hospitality industry has an interest in local elections because the City Commission can set rules that affect the tourism business — such as where to allow hotels and restaurants to operate. Miami Beach relies on tourism to boost its budget, and decrease reliance on property taxes. But the industry is often at odds with residents, who complain about noise, crime and dirty streets.
The industry also has much at stake when it comes to the city’s planned convention center district overhaul — a potentially billion-dollar project to remake the city-owned convention center and add a hotel, shops and restaurants on 52 acres in the heart of South Beach.
Real estate developers also have an interest in what goes on at City Hall because zoning rules could affect their bottom line. Commissioners can regulate where and what developers can build, how tall buildings may be, how many parking spaces a development requires and other requirements.
Development is especially relevant now because of an ongoing tug-of-war between developers and preservationists, who have been fighting for more protections of historically-significant homes on the Beach. Preservationists say big, new development is happening faster than ever before, and it’s changing the character of the city’s neighborhoods.
Here is a look at each candidate’s campaign finance reports:
Crystal has raised the least among the Group II candidates, about $16,300. Of that, he loaned himself a little more than $500.
The top industry contributing to Crystal: real estate. Realtors, developers and holding companies have donated about $5,400 to Crystal’s campaign. He notes that’s “far less” than what his opponents have raised from the industry.
In terms of historic preservation, Crystal says protections should be decided on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis via localized referendums.
“There’s a fine line between historic preservation and property rights,” Crystal said.
The nightlife and entertainment industries have pitched in $2,500. Leroy Griffith, owner of the only fully-nude strip club in Miami Beach, gave at least $2,000 to Crystal. Griffith has sued the city at least three times in an effort to overturn the Beach’s ban on alcohol sales in venues where dancers bare all. He has accused city commissioners of “extortion” when they asked him to pay legal fees for a slander lawsuit he filed against a former commissioner’s wife.
Crystal said he would support liquor sales in establishments such as Griffith’s.
“I’m 100 percent against any form of discrimination, and since he’s the only establishment that I can think of in the world that’s not allowed a liquor license, I can’t think of any logical reason why that should be the case,” the candidate said. “If he still desires a liquor licenses, which I think he does, I would bring it before the commission.”
Exposito has raised the second-most in the race for the Group II seat: a little more than $74,000. Of that, the commissioner loaned $1,000 to himself.
The real estate and hospitality industries have donated the most to Exposito’s reelection campaign.
A little more than $20,000 in donations has poured in from Realtors, developers and holding companies. That includes contributions from companies affiliated with Alan Faena, the Argentine developer who is reshaping mid-Beach.
In terms of development versus historic preservation in the city, Exposito said “one of the things that have made our city great is standing up for historic districts and historic preservation.”
He noted that “development can be a good thing if it’s compatible with the city and it gets public input.” He pointed to recent hotel renovations on the Beach as proof of this.
The hospitality industry — hotels, bars and restaurants — have donated almost $10,000 to Exposito’s reelection campaign. Companies affiliated with nightclubs donated another $2,500.
Exposito chairs a working group that is looking at noise issues in the city. The group is looking at issues such as where to allow restaurants to operate in relation to residential areas, how to enhance noise abatement in clubs, possibly through the use of double doors, and setting more objective standards for determining when a noise violation exists. The working group, Exposito said, is made up of residents and business owners.
The commissioner’s finance reports also show $3,000 from firefighters in Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Hialeah. The Beach’s budget has struggled under the weight of pensions — especially those for police and fire employees. Exposito’s opponent has suggested it’s tough to negotiate with unions representing cops and fire fighters when you accept their campaign contributions and endorsements.
However, Exposito points out that the city has accomplished pension reform that officials are calling “historic” and will save Miami Beach $140 million over 30 years, according to projections.
“I’ve always told the unions, I’ve been very upfront with them: ‘We need to have reform,’ ” Exposito said.
About $1,000 of Exposito’s contributions come from the owners of Magic City Casino and the Flagler Dog Track. Though not as central as in past years, gambling has come up on the campaign trail in the context of the convention center overhaul. Residents have asked for reassurances that the new development won’t create an opening for gambling on the beach.
The commissioner said he knows the owners of the casino and dog track because they’re long-time residents.
“My stance on casinos has been the same ... I don’t want to see casino gambling,” he said.
Other notable contributions include at least $2,000 donated by car dealer Norman Braman, his wife and affiliated companies.
Grieco is the top fundraiser in his group, having pulled in more than $147,000. He loaned himself $500 from his law firm. Grieco is a criminal defense attorney.
Top contributors to Grieco’s campaign include lawyers, who have donated almost $30,000. Doctors and people in the medical field have contributed the second-most: almost $18,000.
“I have no connection to the medical field. They just happen to be doctors,” who support his campaign, Grieco said.
The real estate, nightlife and entertainment, and hotel industries have each donated about $10,000. Grieco used to DJ locally and, he said, internationally.
Grieco lives in the South of Fifth neighborhood, and says he understands the friction that can sometimes form when residents and the tourism industry butt heads. But it doesn’t have to be that way, he said.
“There is a way for tourism and residents to live in harmony,” Grieco said.
In his neighborhood, Grieco said residents, police, and a nearby nightclub worked together to solve noise problems caused by honking cabbies. The result, a new traffic pattern and increased police presence, has worked well for everyone, Grieco said.
The hospitality industry also comes into play when it comes to the convention center.
Grieco has said the city should continue negotiations with a company that already has been chosen for the project, but that he would like to see the retail portion of the project greatly reduced. He also wants the tourism industry to have a greater voice in the process.
“I believe tourism and the industry should have a voice. They don’t vote but they contribute a great deal to our coffers, which affects our way of life,” Grieco.
Grieco has also received about $1,500 from the owners of Magic City Casino and the Flagler Dog Track. Like other candidates who have received similar donations, Grieco notes that the owners of the casino and dog track are long-time residents with an interest in their city. The donation doesn’t mean he supports gambling locally, Grieco said.
“I don’t believe gambling belongs in the Beach,” he said.