Lynda Bell draws serious challenger for Miami-Dade County Commission reelection

01/06/2014 12:47 PM

01/06/2014 6:16 PM

Miami-Dade County Commissioner Lynda Bell, the commission vice-chairwoman who has recently come under political fire, has drawn a reelection opponent in what could become a polarizing race.

Daniella Levine Cava opened a fundraising account Friday and plans to kick off her campaign Tuesday. Levine Cava is the founder and former chief executive of the social services agency Catalyst Miami, formerly known as the Human Services Coalition.

Behind Levine Cava’s campaign is a concerted effort by liberal progressives in Miami-Dade to challenge the conservative Bell, a one-term commissioner whom they view as vulnerable. While the commission race in nonpartisan, Bell is a registered Republican and Levine Cava is a Democrat.

“There’s perception of lack of integrity or corruption in county government generally, so my goal would be to epitomize the opposite of that so that the entire character of local government would change and be regarded with greater respect,” Levine Cava said Monday in an interview with the Miami Herald.

Her entry into the race sets up a second high-profile county commission contest for the Aug. 26 election. In Northeast Miami-Dade, Commissioner Jean Monestime faces a challenge from the man he ousted from office, Dorrin Rolle.

A third commissioner, Javier Souto, has drawn an opponent in political rookie Marco Antonio Valdes. Three other commissioners will also be on the ballot, with plenty of time left for candidates to qualify.

Levine Cava’s run against Bell has the backing of the Democratic Party’s organization, with Christian Ulvert, the state party’s political director, serving as her chief strategist. The Miami-Dade Democratic Party, which didn't even run a candidate in the past two mayoral elections, has been stepping up its involvement in county politics.

A day before her kickoff, Levine Cava had a functioning website prominently displaying a photograph of her with Homestead Mayor Jeff Porter, who defeated Bell’s husband in a November election, and City Councilwoman Judy Waldman, a longtime Bell critic.

Despite that support, Levine Cava will begin her campaign far behind Bell in fundraising. Bell, perhaps aware of a likely challenge, had raked in more than $179,000 by Nov. 30 — more than any other commissioner facing reelection.

Bell could not be reached for comment Monday.

In November, the commissioner made headlines when a local blog reported that she had failed to disclose that her daughter and son-in-law own a fencing company. Bell championed legislation last year to lift a decade-old ban on chain-link fences in front yards of homes in unincorporated neighborhoods. The commissioner denied there was any favoritism or personal gain behind her proposal.

In December, the Herald reported that state prosecutors are investigating as potential fraud the case of four absentee ballots a Homestead family says at least one campaign worker for Bell’s husband filled out against their wishes. Mark Bell, who lost his bid for Homestead mayor, fired the worker, James Brady, during the campaign and has denied any wrongdoing.

Lynda Bell was briefly the target of an attempted recall campaign in September by a coalition of pro-labor and animal activists. But the effort didn’t meet paperwork requirements with the clerk of the court, and activists dropped it altogether after an embarrassing public launch raised questions about whether the recall — a supposed lottery where the commissioner’s name was picked out of a hat — was rigged.

Levine Cava was careful not to make any direct jabs at the charismatic and politically savvy Bell, a former Homestead mayor who has deep ties to South Miami-Dade. Bell has represented District 8 since 2010, when she narrowly defeated former Palmetto Bay Mayor Eugene Flinn to replace Katy Sorenson, long considered the most progressive voice on the county commission.

Sorenson was listed as one of Levine Cava’s supporters in an email announcing Tuesday’s campaign launch.

On Monday, Levine Cava, who used only “Levine” in her business life, limited her comments to broad statements about the importance of transparency and what she called issues of fairness.

“I am the person who is dedicated to integrity in government, with a focus on results that improve the lives of people and communities,” she said. “I’m a person with vision.”

The 58-year-old, a married mother of two adult children, said she has lived in South Florida for 30 years. She said she moved to Palmetto Bay, in Bell’s district, from Coral Gables in November.

Levine Cava, an attorney and social worker by training, said she resigned from her Catalyst Miami position at the end of 2013 to concentrate on her political campaign.

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