Miami-Dade County Commission seats are nonpartisan, but that’s hardly apparent in the bitter contest between incumbent Lynda Bell and challenger Daniella Levine Cava, which has likely become the most expensive commission race in county history.
One mailed advertisement displays Bell with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. Another shows Levine Cava posing with Miami Congressman Joe Garcia, a Democrat. Neither association is portrayed as a good thing: Both fliers are attack ads.
Levine Cava, a Democrat who calls herself progressive, blames Bell for voting against a gender-identity law. Bell, a self-described conservative Republican, counters that Levine Cava is in the pocket of labor unions.
There are nonpartisan jabs more typical of commission races, too. Bell, a Homestead resident for more than three decades, paints Levine Cava as a carpetbagger who moved to Palmetto Bay from Coral Gables late last year only to run for office. Levine Cava, a first-time candidate, argues Bell is part of a cozy County Hall where lucrative contracts go to generous campaign donors.
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But it’s the strikingly negative political tone — and the hundreds of thousands of dollars raised by both women — that stand out in the race for District 8, which includes Palmetto Bay, Cutler Bay, Homestead and parts of Kendall and Redland. The election is Aug. 26.
The partisanship is largely by design. Florida and Miami-Dade Democrats recruited Levine Cava in an effort to get more involved in local politics and test their organization before 2016, when Republican Mayor Carlos Gimenez will be up for reelection. They targeted Bell, a first-term commissioner in a district where 41 percent of voters are registered Democrats, 30 percent are Republicans and 27 percent are independent, according to the county elections department.
The contest has easily drawn more dollars than any other commission race since 2006, which is as far back as online campaign-finance records go. It’s unlikely that any prior race raised more money, given that campaign spending laws used to be more restrictive than they are now.
Bell’s campaign had raked in about $585,000 as of July 25, compared to Levine Cava’s $398,000. Good Government Now, an election committee backing Bell, had raised an additional $220,000, and Changing Florida’s Future PC, a committee supporting Levine Cava, an additional $189,000. That’s more than $1.3 million total.
Bell, 57, a former Homestead mayor who holds no outside employment, was elected four years ago to replace the retiring Katy Sorenson, a reliably liberal vote on the commission who had backed Bell’s opponent and has endorsed Levine Cava. Bell tried to campaign then, as now, as a pragmatist above the partisan fray.
“I’ve gotten things done,” she said at a Kendall Federation of Homeowners Associations forum last month. “I’m a problem-fixer.”
In office, Bell — the commission vice-chairwoman — has usually been a Gimenez ally, and he is supporting her reelection. But there have been notable exceptions, at least in the time since Bell knew or suspected she faced a tough reelection challenge.
Last year, Bell voted to restore garbage workers’ pay, which they had given up as part of a union-contract concession, against the mayor’s wishes. This year, she opposed deals with the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Heat. Bell also agreed to a higher property-tax rate than Gimenez had proposed to fund public libraries.
While that rate would probably stave off library layoffs, other job and service cuts loom across the county. To make the budget whole, Bell would like to rewrite union contracts to remove pay perks and other benefits she says are unsustainable. Levine Cava said concessions workers gave up to help balance the county’s budget three years ago should be restored.
“There are definitely things in the budget that can be cut,” Levine Cava said at the Kendall forum, without offering specifics.
But Bell says Levine Cava will be forced to support a tax-rate hike instead.
“My opponent will absolutely have to raise taxes, because she’s in bed with nine bargaining units,” Bell said Sunday to WFOR-CBS 4 reporter Jim DeFede on Facing South Florida.
Bell’s campaign has been dogged by other decisions. She sponsored legislation lifting a ban on front-yard chain-link fences — without mentioning that her daughter and son-in-law owned a fencing company. She opposed amending the county’s existing gay-rights law to include transgender protections. She named a new Cutler Bay affordable-housing facility for seniors after her mother. Her top campaign donor was chosen to receive a county economic-development grant that has yet to be awarded.
Outside County Hall, prosecutors continue to investigate her husband’s failed 2013 Homestead mayoral campaign for potential absentee-ballot fraud. Activists briefly tried to oust Bell from office for voting against a tax-rate hike.
It’s precisely that keeping-taxes-low stance that Bell touts on the campaign trail. She also notes her sponsorship of a successful 2012 charter amendment that set commission term limits, her legislation that did away with parking charges for county jurors, and her ordinance that required Miami-Dade employees to take additional and more frequent ethics training, and lobbyists to complete an ethics course.
Levine Cava, 58, who is campaigning in part on a platform of ethics reform, has characterized Bell’s effort on that front as nominal. Levine Cava has proposed banning campaign contributions from county contractors, requiring commission candidates to disclose fundraising for political committees, and mandating recusal from votes that could benefit commissioners’ family members.
“People lack confidence in their government,” Levine Cava told the Miami Herald’s editorial board last month. “People feel government is there to benefit a few people who have influence.”
To introduce herself to voters, Levine Cava, an attorney and social worker by training, has stressed her career as a social-services advocate. She founded the nonprofit Catalyst Miami, formerly known as the Human Services Coalition, and served as its chief executive until stepping down to run for office. The agency is a recipient of county funds.
Until becoming a candidate, she was known as just Daniella Levine. The addition of her married name has been lambasted by Bell as a calculated attempt to appeal the 45 percent of district voters who are Hispanic — a notorious practice in South Florida politics. Levine Cava counters that she has used her full name for decades on records such as her mortgage, though she didn’t use it professionally.
Her longer name and move to Palmetto Bay — which Levine Cava has tried, with little success, to claim was not prompted by her candidacy — have led Bell’s camp to accuse the challenger of being a political opportunist.
“I didn’t just move in the district and change my name and have zero political experience,” Bell told DeFede.
Said Levine Cava: “I hardly think that running against a seated incumbent… is political opportunism.”