A bitter battle of the airwaves has erupted in the Miami-Dade mayoral race. Not over attack ads but over whether challenger Raquel Regalado can continue her career as an unpaid broadcaster.
The two-term school board member has her own Monday-through-Thursday radio show on WWFE’s La Poderosa 670 AM and a Sunday public-affairs show on Mira TV. Both Spanish-language shows give Regalado regular exposure to the crucial voting bloc of Cuban-Americans. The campaign of Mayor Carlos Gimenez is warning both outlets they are running afoul of “equal time” rules governing candidates and the public airwaves.
In recent letters, Gimenez lawyers put both stations on notice that the mayor and four other “legally qualified” candidates for the 2016 race have the right to as much air time as Regalado enjoys.
“While Mayor Gimenez does not seek to exercise his equal opportunities rights on WWFE at this time,” Gimenez campaign lawyer Frank Jazzo wrote on March 18 to an attorney for La Poderosa’s parent company, “he does reserve his right to do so.”
A Regalado lawyer responded that while Gimenez, Regalado and four others have filed their candidacy papers for mayor, none has yet legally qualified as a candidate. The Miami-Dade Elections Department on Friday confirmed that the county mayoral race does not yet have any “qualified” candidates. The qualification window doesn’t begin until June, about three months before the Aug. 30 non-partisan primary for county elections.
But the Thursday letter from Regalado attorney Michael Montiel suggests a larger fight is brewing, with the candidate taking a more liberal view of broadcasting rules than La Poderosa itself. Montiel wrote Regalado would be free to continue her broadcasting roles even after she officially qualifies as a candidate, saying federal law allows broadcasters to continue their work while running for office.
A “radio show host need not leave his or her hosting job upon qualification as a candidate for public office,” Montiel wrote Nancy Ory, lawyer for Miami-based Fenix Broadcasting Corp., La Poderosa’s parent.
Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., sided with the Gimenez camp in saying federal rules require broadcasters to go off the air once they’re running for office. “Whether or not the person had a long-running program is not the point,” she said. But McGehee said the Regalado camp is correct that the rules don’t kick in until a candidate legally qualifies for a race.
Regalado’s radio and television shows focus on public affairs, and she’s used her programs to scrutinize Gimenez’s time as mayor. John Rivera, head of the county’s police union and a top Gimenez foe, is a regular guest, and in July Regalado invited blogger Elaine de Valle to scrutinize Gimenez’s proposed budget. De Valle now works as a campaign consultant for Regalado.
Though Regalado has her own shows, she can’t compete with the free exposure Gimenez enjoys from Miami’s major media outlets. As mayor, Gimenez largely controls the communications apparatus of the county and regularly holds press conferences and media events that draw a phalanx of television cameras. His $140,000-a-year spokesman, Michael Hernández, came to county hall in 2014 after a history of working on political campaigns.
Ory and a La Poderosa executive were not immediately available for comment. In November, La Poderosa vice president Ana Vidal Rodriguez told The Miami Herald that the station plans to remove Regalado from the air once she officially qualifies as a candidate in June. Vidal Rodriguez said that was how the station handled Regalado’s father, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, running for office in the city during his career as a broadcaster. Mira TV said it functions as a cable station and was not subject to federal rules on broadcast airwaves.
The Gimenez challenge strikes at Regalado’s role as a broadcaster who inherited an audience and famous name from her parents, both luminaries in Miami’s Spanish-language media industry. Her father used his broadcasting career as a platform to enter politics, first with a seat on the Miami City Commission in 1996. She took over the La Poderosa slot from her late mother and namesake, Raquel Regalado, after she died in 2008.
But while her parents made their livings from broadcasting, the younger Regalado is not paid for her television or radio shows and only lists her $38,000 stipend as a school board member as income.
A Gimenez consultant, Jesse Manzano-Plaza, who also works for an arm of the LSN Partners lobbying and communications firm, accused Regalado of using a loophole to “attack her opponents on the airwaves free of charge.”
In a statement, Regalado accused Gimenez of a misguided attempt to muzzle her while avoiding debates. “The law is on my side,” she wrote, “but it is telling that while the Gimenez campaign claims that my candidacy is not a threat they expend so much time, energy and money trying to silence me.”