Miami Beach faces important and expensive issues: whether and how to upgrade its convention center; how to tackle sea level rise issues that lead to persistent street flooding when the moon is high; how to balance residential quality of life with the city’s powerful economic engine: tourism.
There’s an election there Tuesday, and early voting began Oct. 21. Voters will choose a new mayor and two city commissioners. Spending is high. Invective — and distortion — is even higher.
To most Beach residents — I’m one of them — the campaign appears to be about something else: an unending junk mail dump of allegation and distortion, dozens of pieces each, a daily steaming stack of negative piled upon negative.
Herald reporter Christina Veiga covers Miami Beach, and has the job of writing about the issues as well as how the campaigns are waged. She must sift through the sarcasm and innuendo to discern who is saying what about whom, and whether it is relevant or true.
Often, getting answers means questioning the candidates — and getting responses from their contentious consultants. Such was the case last week, when she pursued a story about mayoral candidate Philip Levine, whose campaign has filed complaints and a lawsuit against people he says are launching “illegal” attacks against him.
Levine wouldn’t be interviewed. In response to written questions, his campaign manager wrote:
You are only authorized to write the answers below, verbatim. You are NOT allowed to edit or paraphrase these on the record answers....
Christina’s story included some of Levine’s lawyer’s remarks. Christina’s editor sent Levine’s camp a note that said we’d include only the comments that were relevant to the story. Alongside the story, in print and on MiamiHerald.com, we ran campaign manager Alex Miranda’s “demand’’ letter, to show the tenor of the Levine camp’s response. A media colleague, Michael Putney, shared a concern that running that letter gave the impression we were submitting to Levine’s demand.
In hindsight, our presentation of the letter and the reason for doing it should have been more clear. A political campaign doesn’t determine what we are “authorized’’ or “allowed” to write. Our job is to be the neutral arbiters of campaign rhetoric, sifting and fact checking claims and counterclaims.. The nature of the Levine demand letter speaks to the tenor — and tactics — of this Miami Beach campaign.
For the average Beach resident, the nature of this campaign has been laid bare in allegations stuffed in their mailboxes six days a week, many from organizations not clearly identified with opposing candidates.
Levine’s camp has cried foul over tactics used against him. Opponents have accused him of trying to buy the election to advance his own business interests, and have raised questions about his role in the city’s successful Sunset Harbour parking garage.
Some allegations came in paid fliers from a group called Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, which has close ties to opponent Michael Góngora’s own mother and former campaign manager. Disingenuously, Góngora has said he doesn’t know who is behind the attacks.
Levine’s camp, meanwhile, has piled on Góngora with fliers that blame him for every misstep at City Hall during the past decade. Others feature mug shots of Góngora from DUI arrests in 1994 and 2002. Those attacks come from Citizens United for Truth, Inc., which has been linked to the Levine campaign.
Then you have candidate Steve Berke, a former stand-up comic who is running for Miami Beach mayor for the second time. To his credit, Berke hasn’t been shielding himself with shadow fund raising groups, and has initiated some new ways to deal with Miami Beach traffic. But his candidacy has gained the most notoriety because he has a contract with MTV, which is doing a “documentary” on his campaign.
For Beach voters, this campaign is enough of a reality show.
It all takes place in a city where commission meetings often reflect the decorum of a prep school playground — meetings starting late, commissioners insulting each other and the public, forcing citizens to wait hours for discussions scheduled for specific times.
Our job is to help you cut through the clutter, and when possible, expose what candidates are saying and how they conduct themselves. Veiga provided several step back stories on the candidates and their positions on key issues, available at www.miamiherald.com.