On paper, Miami’s District 2 commissioner is just one of five elected officials with a vote on what happens in the city and how the government spends the public’s money. But in his nine years in office, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has elevated the position into a nexus for city government through which some of Miami’s most important deals, policies and projects are either brokered or broken.
And in less than two months, voters decide who will take his place.
Sarnoff will step down at the end of the year from the seat he has held since 2006 because of term limits. On Saturday evening, the window to qualify to run for his seat closed. Nine candidates — including Sarnoff’s wife — made the cut.
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Williams Armbrister, a retired FPL employee; Javier Gonzalez, a Remax real estate agent and elected member of the Coconut Grove Village Council; Rosa Palomino, a teacher at Citrus Grove Elementary; Ken Russell, a paddleboard wholesaler; Teresa Sarnoff, the commissioner’s wife; Mike Simpson, manager of the Mellow Mushroom in South Miami; Seth Sklarey, an elected member of the Coconut Grove Village Council; Lorry Woods, owner of a downtown gastro pub; and Grace Solares, a paralegal.
I’d be very surprised if there’s not a runoff
Sean Foreman, Barry University political science professor
Someone must win more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 3 election to avoid a Nov. 17 runoff between the top two candidates. Whoever pulls away from the pack will oversee a district that is comprised of downtown, Brickell, Edgewater, Coconut Grove, Virginia Key and Watson Island — home to some of Miami’s most important public assets and the city’s economic hub.
“District 2 is important because it encompasses the financial center of the city,” said Sean Foreman, a Barry University political science professor who has interviewed eight of the nine candidates running. “A lot of the city's strategic assets are located in District 2 and so by definition the constituency is a bit different than residential areas typically are, to the point where the District 2 commissioner is in some ways a first among equals.”
It’s a crowded field. Campaign donors, local politicians and labor unions have so far thrown their weight behind three candidates — Sarnoff, Solares and Russell — but the other six candidates believe they have as good a chance as any of their opponents of making it to a runoff.
“There’s an assumption that it’s going to be Teresa [in a runoff] simply because she can manufacture votes,” said Gonzalez, who has invested $34,000 of his own money into his campaign. “But maybe it will be someone different.”
If name recognition and campaign funds alone mattered, Sarnoff would be a shoo-in for the job. She has been the district’s first lady since late 2006, and has drawn on deep-pocketed real estate developers and investors to raise more than $560,000 in campaign funds — more than all her competitors combined.
Sarnoff has handed the reins of her campaign to veteran political operative Steve Marin, the architect of numerous successful campaigns, including a recent bid to expand FIU. She has little history in the spotlight, but believes she can show enough to voters before election day to win.
“Vote for me because I listen. I’ve walked door to door around the district two times. Now I’m on my third,” she told voters Wednesday during a candidate’s forum.
Her opponents, however, have attacked her as an unqualified proxy for her husband. Solares and Russell have already run commercials blaming the Sarnoffs for Miami’s traffic woes and “over-development,” though on issues like public safety and transportation, many of their positions are similar to those held by the incumbent.
With six weeks to go until election day, it’s likely to be a bruising campaign as candidates battle for a comparatively small number of votes. In a district of more than 40,000 voters, past elections suggest the winner may need less than 10 percent of that number to win. In 2011, Marc Sarnoff avoided a runoff with less than 3,000 votes.
“This is a winnable race,” said Russell.
And one likely to require a second election on Nov. 17 to resolve.
“I would be very surprised, if there’s not a runoff,” said Foreman.