Duty Free Americas last year generated about $100 million in sales at Miami International Airport, so the nearly $180,000 the company donated to elected leaders who oversee MIA hardly counts as a major expense.
But it was enough to make Duty Free Americas the top donor so far for 2016’s County Hall races, a year that has the mayor and seven commissioners seeking reelection.
With less than six months left to go before the Aug. 30 primary that’s bound to settle most races, nearly 90 percent of the $6 million raised through February has gone to incumbents. That doesn’t count the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be reported in March campaign filings due this week.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s reelection effort has received about 52 cents of every dollar raised in all eight races, and his $3.3 million tally promises to make this the most expensive election cycle in the history of Miami-Dade politics.
Duty Free Americas, which sells luxe items and liquor to international travelers departing MIA, is Gimenez’s biggest donor, too, contributing $151,000 to his reelection effort and a little less than $30,000 to three county commissioners, according to campaign-finance data.
The Hollywood-based company did not respond to interview requests, but another top donor described his contributions as a way to improve the system.
“I like to seek good government,” said developer Wayne Rosen, who landed at No. 5 on the list with $84,000 in donations through February to Gimenez and four of the commissioners up for reelection. “When I give, it’s to a candidate I believe in.”
About two years ago, the prominent South Dade builder failed in his bid to secure a $5 million business grant from the County Commission but backed the successful effort to shift the money to help build a municipal garage near one of his projects in Palmetto Bay. Rosen said he didn’t think his giving “makes any difference as far as outcomes are concerned.”
Developers hold six of the top 10 donor slots. That includes the Related Group, which recently won a hard-fought recommendation from Gimenez to redevelop the Liberty Square public-housing project.
Gimenez’s campaign and his Miami-Dade Residents First committee received about $48,000 from Related. (A Gimenez campaign spokesman noted Gimenez had also received donations from Atlantic Pacific, the company that lost the Liberty Square recommendation to Related. Atlantic Pacific gave about $18,500 to Gimenez, according to Herald data.)
In 2011, Commissioner Xavier Suarez helped Pinnacle Housing secure a $9 million affordable-housing grant funded by property taxes. This year, Pinnacle Housing gave about $80,000 to incumbents to snag the No. 6 slot on the Top Donors list, with 55 percent of its contributions going to Suarez.
The Miami Herald maintains a database with nearly 17,000 individual donations dating back to 2011, and has used public records and reporting to match various contributions to the large donors.
Suarez, a former Miami mayor who had considered a run for county mayor this year, said there are two categories of donors that give large donations. The first: ultra-wealthy activists with political agendas but no financial interests. “The other category is people who do business with the county,” he said.
Campaign cash has gotten extra attention this year as the commission’s newest member, Daniella Levine Cava, pushes a proposed law that would require all elected officials in the county to disclose when they’re raising money for organizations outside their actual campaigns.
The Miami Herald maintains a database with nearly 17,000 individual donations dating back to 2011 and has used public records and reporting to match various contributions to the large donors. The Herald also used background interviews with donors and consultants to match committees with names like Citizens for Effective Leadership (backing Commissioner Barbara Jordan) and Floridians First (backing Commissioner Juan C. Zapata) to the candidates they’re supporting.
With the mayoral race the only countywide contest on the list, it’s no surprise that contenders in that race are pulling in more money than commissioners. Of the 10 largest donors in county races, two are backing Gimenez challenger Raquel Regalado. Her top donor, auto magnate Norman Braman, has donated $131,000 to her challenge of Gimenez, making him the third-largest donor of the cycle so far.
I like to seek good government.
Developer Wayne Rosen, the fifth-biggest donor in Miami-Dade’s County Hall races.
Both camps accuse the other of using the leverage of government contracts and approvals to raise political cash. “Gimenez has raised $3 million by forcing everyone that does business with the county to donate to his campaign,” Regalado, a school board member, said in a statement Tuesday. (A Gimenez spokesman responded: “Obviously, there is no truth to that statement.”)
Regalado’s father, Tomás Regalado, serves as mayor of Miami, and she’s enjoyed support from developers building in the city, including No. 9 on the list, Corigin Real Estate.
Gimenez reelection spokesman Jesse Manzano-Plaza wrote in a statement that “our opponent’s campaign continues to receive money from individuals and corporations doing business in front of her father at the city of Miami.” (Regalado said the idea that she’s using her father’s position to pressure donors “is an unfounded lie.”)
Manzano-Plaza also works for the communications arm of the LSN Partners lobbying and public affairs firm that represents some of Gimenez’s top donors, including Duty Free Americas and Fontainebleau owner Turnberry, which landed at No. 2 on the top-donors list.
So far, money given to political committees outpaces money given to actual campaigns in county races. Campaigns for the eight races have collected about $2.75 million, compared with $3.6 million for committees supporting the candidates. Because there are no limits on committee donations, committees account for the largest checks.
Levine Cava’s legislation, which was blocked by fellow commissioners when it came up for a final vote in February, would require elected officials in Miami-Dade to report donations they solicited for groups beyond their actual campaigns. Florida already has similar requirements for state officials, and Levine Cava’s proposed ordinance is once again scheduled for a final vote Tuesday before the 13-member County Commission.
State law restricts committees from officially doubling as campaign arms, but each candidate typically has an allied committee that he or she taps donors to support. Depending on how the committee is established, it can run supportive ads for a candidate or fund polls and hire consultants that a candidate would otherwise have to finance out of actual campaign dollars.
Some candidates are upfront about which committees they’re using for races, even if the registration papers don’t disclose them as the beneficiaries of fundraising. Commissioner Bruno Barreiro confirmed the state committee called Transparency in Government is supporting him in 2016. “Will work to live up to the name,” he wrote in a text message confirming the connection.