Miami Beach

New Miami Beach commission will have no Hispanics

Hispanics are out. So are incumbents. First-timers are now the majority.

When Miami Beach voters went to the polls this month, they elected a brand-new City Commission.

Multimillionaire Philip Levine won the mayorship in just one round of voting. His closest competitor was sitting Commissioner Michael Góngora.

In runoffs on Tuesday, retired community banker Joy Malakoff beat Matti Herrera Bower for the Group III seat in resounding fashion, with 60 percent of the vote. Bower, mayor for the last six years, ran for commission because she was term-limited from her current post.

Criminal defense attorney Michael Grieco bested incumbent Jorge Exposito for the Group II seat.

In a race that was wide open, Realtor Micky Steinberg defeated Elsa Urquiza for the Group I post.

All of the losers are Hispanic. None of the winners are. The outcome: no Hispanics are left on the dais.

This, in a city where 53 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic, according to the 2010 Census. City meetings are often bilingual, and the Beach’s press office makes sure to make information available in both Spanish and English.

The Beach’s first Hispanic commissioners were elected in 1997. Two years later, the commission reached another milestone: the first majority Hispanic commission was elected. By 2007, Bower became the first Hispanic mayor of Miami Beach.

All were considered major strides towards diversity. Only a few years earlier, an airplane had flown over the city with a banner that proclaimed: “Hispanic Discrimination = Miami Beach”.

“I just find it odd that, in 2013, we will be looking at a commission with no Hispanic representation,” said defeated commissioner Exposito, who was born in Cuba. “But listen, the voters voted and we have to accept what they’ve chosen.”

The winners say their victory has less to do with ethnicity and more to do with the problems of incumbency. After all, the successful candidates all needed Hispanic support to win, Grieco noted.

“The public has spoken, and a huge chunk of that public, if not a majority of that public, is Hispanic,” he said. “Anybody who is discussing race does not have the city’s best interest in mind. I think it’s divisive and it sounds like sour grapes.”

Malakoff, meanwhile, says her win was propelled by people who are against “lifetime politicians.” Her opponent, Bower, has been in office for 14 years.

“It wasn’t anything pro-Hispanic or anti-Hispanic. They just felt they were ready to vote for change. I happened to be the candidate running,” Malakoff said.

All of the winners this election season are political newbies. None had ever ran for elected office before — let alone hold one. That allowed the newcomers to heap the city’s problems on their opponents, while offering up their candidacy as a solution.

In recent years, Miami Beach has been embarrassed by several high-profile arrests of city employees on public corruption charges. The police department still hasn’t lived down an infamous incident in which a cop partied on duty and then drunkenly ran over a beachgoer while taking a bachelorette on a joy ride.

On election day, Bower said it was the current commission that uncovered the corruption issues, and now were being blamed for it. Exposito said that maybe the incumbents didn’t do enough to explain the changes made to city personnel and policy in the wake of the scandals.

“The city has had the problems that it has had, and perhaps they felt the incumbents were to blame for it,” he said.

But perhaps the biggest distinguisher between incumbents and the new crop of candidates was their stance on the city’s billion-dollar plan to renovate the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The plan encompasses 52 acres in the heart of South Beach, and includes a new hotel and up to 90,000-square feet of retail space.

Incumbents have been largely supportive of the plan, while the first-timers were mostly in favor of a smaller, less expensive renovation.

With the election results in, Malakoff said, voters sent a “resounding message.”

“They don’t want the same ol’, same ol’. They want new ideas and a new direction for the city. They want a convention center that, I believe, is not a mega convention center.”

Added Steinberg: “The issues regarding flooding or getting a good deal on the convention center go beyond race. They affect everybody, and I appreciate diversity in our city.”

There were other factors unique to each race that the winners and losers say affected final outcomes — regardless of the ethnicity of the candidate.

Góngora, who ran against Levine for mayor, said that the election came down to one thing: money.

Levine is a wealthy businessman with businesses in the cruise industry. He spent more than a $1 million of his own money on the election, and flooded the airwaves with advertisements — even during the NBA finals.

“Money was used to influence people and convince people that everything was wrong on the Beach,” Góngora said.

Levine did not return a call and a text message for comment. Throughout the campaign, he had refused to comment by any means other than email, saying the Miami Herald is biased and would distort his quotes.

The new commission will be sworn in on Nov. 25.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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