Medley, a tiny industrial town just west of Miami International Airport, may have more warehouses than people, and its handful of residents are some of the poorest in South Florida. But that hasn’t stopped the candidates who want to be their mayor from playing hardball as the Nov. 8 election approaches.
Incumbent Mayor Roberto Martell says his only challenger, 52-year-old charity manager Lily Stefano, is a carpetbagger who hasn’t lived in the city long enough to run for office. He’s filed suit to have her thrown out of the race.
Stefano says the 55-year-old mayor is just peeved at her because she refused to let him use her foundation’s free-grocery program for Medley residents as a political tool to promote his re-election — so peeved that he canceled the city’s participation, potentially jeopardizing the hundreds of bags of free food the foundation hands out each week.
Political issues between the two? Not so many of those, unless you count the mayor’s plan to bring skyscrapers — his word — to Medley. He’s gotten the city council to lift all height restrictions and predicts a wave of cloud-kissing construction that will bring in legions of big corporate offices. Stefano is skeptical: “Really? Right next to an airport?”
“It’s going to boil down to personalities, to a certain extent,” says Stefano. “I guess a lot of people are going to vote based on which personality they prefer, mine or the mayor’s.”
Medley has long been an odd little enclave of Miami-Dade County. By day, its population swells to near 60,000, the workforce in the town’s freight-shipping warehouses that gives it a huge commercial tax base.
But at night, it shrivels away to 1,100 or so residents, nearly all of them living in the town’s three trailer parks. Many are retirees living on small pensions — a third of the population is past the age of 60 — and average household income is a third less than the rest of the county’s.
Yet the $180,000 annual salary for the mayoral job makes it worth fighting for, even if the mode of combat is unusual.
“Political campaigns here are not done the way they are in the rest of Miami-Dade,” says Martell. “There’s no TV advertising, no big media buys, no polling. You put an ad in the paper, maybe, and then you go door-to-door. You walk the city.”
Political campaigns here are not done the way they are in the rest of Miami-Dade. There’s no TV advertising, no big media buys, no polling. You put an ad in the paper, maybe, and then you go door-to-door. You walk the city.
Mayor Robert Martell
The one-on-one nature of Medley’s retail politics also makes them intensely personal, fed by gossip and rumor. “My mom calls it Peyton Place,” says Stefano, referring to the scandalous 1960s soap opera and the book that spawned it. “She loves it.”
Mayor Martell admits it was gossip — though, he insists, true gossip — that led to his lawsuit claiming that Stefano didn’t move to Medley in time to legally qualify as a candidate. “In another city, she would have gotten away with it,” he says. “In a bigger city — in Miami, in Hialeah — nobody would have known when she got here. But in Medley, everybody knows everybody.”
The circuit court file on his lawsuit, filed last month, is packed with plenty of Peyton Place-ish details. Was the trailer in which Stefano says she lived for months really empty except for a huge pile of trash, as Martell says? Did the mayor really send his minions to peep in a bedroom window to find that out, as Stefano says? Those neighbors who signed a statement in support of the suit claiming they had never seen Martell at the trailer, were they really spies who lived blocks away, as she claims?
Nearly buried under the salacious back-and-forth are the actual legal issues. According to Martell, the city charter requires that a political candidate live in Medley for a year before registering to run for office — which, in the case of the 2016 mayoral race, would have been July 12, 2015. He says she didn’t arrive until Oct. 1, then tried to fake four months of prior residency.
By day, Medley’s population swells to near 60,000, the workforce in the town’s freight-shipping warehouses. At night, it shrivels away to 1,100 or so residents, nearly all of them living in the town’s three trailer parks.
Stefano — executive director of the Santana Moss Foundation — and her attorney argue that the charter requires residency for only a year before the actual election — that is, Nov. 8, 2015 — but that in any event, she was living in Medley in June 2015, plenty of time no matter what a judge decides was that legal deadline.
Martell’s lawsuit, filed last month after first the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission and then the state attorney’s office refused to take up his complaint, asked the court to keep her name off the ballot. When it turned out the ballots were already printed, he asked for a judicial order that her votes not be counted. After a hearing two weeks ago, a ruling is expected any day.
Whether it will lay to rest the feud between Martell and Stefano remains to be seen. By all accounts, they began locking horns in December 2014, shortly after she opened up a Medley office of the charitable foundation funded by former University of Miami and NFL football star Santana Moss.
Social-welfare services are a big thing in hardscrabble Medley. Using tax money and donations, the town government provides everything from free weekly lunches to all residents to occasional day-trip buses to places like Key West for senior citizens. Under a contract with the town, the foundation managed by Stefano began handing out weekly bags of food, mostly supplied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Stefano says the mayor tried to make political hay out of the donations. “I told him he could volunteer to help out with the food,” she recalls. “But I told him he couldn’t say as he handed it out, ‘I, Mayor Martell, brought you this food.’ You can’t mix politics into the food distribution.”
He was willing to take all that food away from Medley’s residents, just because we wouldn’t let him use it for politics. And now he’s trying to keep me off the ballot because he’s afraid of competition.
Lily Stefano, candidate for mayor
Martell remembers exactly the opposite: that it was clear from the beginning that Stefano set up shop only so she could run for mayor. “She was always promoting herself, right from the first day,” he says. “The residents complained to me about it.” Some of the mayor’s supporters still have bags of chocolate bars that came in the grocery bags, stamped with Stefano’s name and cellphone number in large type.
The quarrel steadily escalated, and when the foundation’s contract to distribute the food was up for renewal last year, Martell canceled it.
“He was willing to take all that food away from Medley’s residents, just because we wouldn’t let him use it for politics,” says Stefano, who managed to keep the grocery program alive without city help. “And now he’s trying to keep me off the ballot because he’s afraid of competition.”
“I canceled the contract because they didn’t do what they said they’d do,” the mayor replies. “That program was about her ambitions, not about food. And I filed the suit because I’m here to enforce the law. It’s sad that I had to do this, but the law is clear.”
Miami Herald writer Bill Daley contributed to this report.
Medley Town Council races
Four candidates — including two incumbents — are running for two seats on Medley’s town council. Medley has no political districts, so the top two vote-getters will be elected.
▪ Incumbent Griselia Digiacomo, 49, is running for a third term. (Her first, won in a special election to fill a council opening, lasted only a year.) Formerly in the import-export business, she’s now a full-time councilwoman. “We don’t have many issues in Medley compared to other municipalities,” she told the Miami Herald. “Our biggest problem is infrastructure — the roads, for all the trucks coming in and out — and we need to keep addressing that.”
▪ The other incumbent, 37-year-old Susanna Guasch, also left her career (she was a real-estate agent) to work full-time on the council after she was elected in 2012. She’s campaigning on a platform of expanding the city’s programs for children and senior citizens. “That’s been my main focus in office, and I intend to continue it,” she said.
▪ Elisabeth Rowley, 39, lost her first race for the council in 2012, when she was still married to former councilman Gerardo Silva Jr. A marketing coordinator for a Doral commercial real-estate company, she thinks Medley’s development is too hasty and ill-planned. “If you got through our town, a lot of sections look like a bomb exploded in it because we have so many half-finished buildings,” she said. “It’s not that development is a bad thing, it’s just that the way we’re doing it is wrong.”
▪ Ivan Pacheco, an export agent for a freighting company, was defeated in his first bid for a council seat in 2014 and declared on election night: “There was a lot of wrongdoing here, and I call it a fraud.” The 47-year-old Pacheco, who refused a telephone interview with the Herald and answered only questions that were emailed to him, says he nonetheless expects this election “to be clean and fair.” He says Medley needs more services for children and the elderly.