Joe Martinez served 12 years on the Miami-Dade County Commission, held the chairman’s post until he gave up his seat in 2012 for a failed try to become county mayor. A year later made a splash with a new venture: selling a cardamon-scented cologne he created called The Commissioner.
Now Martinez wants his District 11 seat back, and the fight has turned out to be far less heated than expected.
Martinez, 58, entered the race as a formidable underdog against incumbent Juan C. Zapata. But on July 15, Zapata stunned political circles by dropping his reelection bid. His withdrawal came three weeks after the qualifying deadline for candidates. It was so late that the first-term commissioner’s name will remain on the ballot for the Aug. 30 primary, even though only votes for Martinez and newcomer Felix Lorenzo will be counted.
In explaining his decision, Zapata pointed to simmering frustration at commission politics. If the former state lawmaker soured on representing District 11 after one term, Martinez hopes to begin his fourth.
“I’m ready to work like I did before,” he said. “And try to do the best job I can. Assemble a really good crew. And go ahead and get the district moving in a direction I’ve been told by residents that they want to head.”
Martinez’s entry into the District 11 race on May 18 made it the most competitive in what turned out to be an unusually serene August primary for County Commission campaigns.
Of the seven commissioners up for reelection, only two are running against challengers: Dennis Moss in District 9 and Xavier Suarez in District 7. Three others — Bruno Barreiro, Esteban “Steve” Bovo, Barbara Jordan — drew no opponents by the June 21 filing deadline. A fourth, Audrey Edmonson, saw her challenger, longtime nemesis and former El Portal mayor Daisy Black, die shortly after qualifying for the race.
That left Zapata and Martinez in what promised to be an epic showdown between predecessor and successor, and who could chart the best course for the suburban district that centers around the Kendall area. Zapata’s withdrawal put Martinez in the unusual role of a challenger who boasts the name recognition and fundraising heft of an incumbent against newcomer Lorenzo.
A retired pharmaceutical sales executive, Lorenzo lists a net worth of $2.7 million in filing documents, with more than $2 million of that from retirement accounts and cash. But he maintains a modest campaign war chest, receiving just one donation — a $100 check from a Hialeah doctor — and contributing $2,000 himself.
Lorenzo said he’s personally reached thousands of voters and is counting on his realistic approach to District 11 as a break from feel-good politician promises. “Don’t expect that I will reduce taxes or reduce crime,” he said. And while Martinez ran for Congress in 2014 and publicly considered a run for county mayor this year, Lorenzo said he’s not interested in using District 11 as a platform for higher office.
“I’m 75 years old,” he said. “I’m not doing this to get reelected.”
Martinez, 58, reports $73,000 in income from the Centurion Security Group, a private-security firm in Miami whose website lists him as a director. He also has a county pension from his time as a commissioner and 17 years as a Miami-Dade police officer that he said paid him $54,000 last year.
He’s raised $122,000 for his campaign account, with all but $9,100 coming in after Zapata withdrew. But even while still facing the incumbent, Martinez’s political committee, Together for a Brighter Future, had drawn significant checks from prominent developers, including Wayne Rosen and Ed Easton. The fundraising pace picked up after Zapata’s exit, with Together for a Brighter Future collecting about $128,000 in all.
Two Zapata initiatives are at the center of both Martinez’s and Lorenzo’s campaign messages. And both are vehemently against them.
The first involves the identity of District 11 itself. In the fall of 2015, Zapata’s controversial re-branding effort for West Kendall reached its high point when he convinced fellow commissioners to have some county facilities carry the name “West End.” The West Kendall Regional Library became the West End Regional Library, and the West Kendall District Park became the West End District Park.
But the minimizing of the West Kendall name sparked a backlash among residents who didn’t like the idea of a new name for their community. Lorenzo criticizes the plan as one that “destroys our identity.”
The second involves Zapata’s push to incorporate two new cities in West Kendall, which would give the district its first municipalities. Voters in a would-be city must approve the incorporation, which would end Miami-Dade’s role providing municipal services to residents, such as garbage pick-up, police, and road maintenance.
Lorenzo and Martinez both oppose incorporation, arguing the change will mean higher taxes for property owners once city governments take over.
“If people want to establish a second tier of government, and establish another bureaucracy, and another mayor and another council, that’s fine,” Martinez said. “I don’t want it … The impression is this has been rammed down people’s throats.”
Xavier Suarez was about a day away from running unopposed when political newcomer Michael Castro filed his papers to challenge the five-year incumbent.
Suarez may be the best known of the 13 county commissioners, given his previous role as Miami’s mayor in the 1980s and ’90s. He holds the commission seat that Carlos Gimenez gave up for his successful 2011 mayoral run, and Suarez waged a long, public flirtation with challenging Gimenez this year before opting to seek reelection.
District 7 includes parts of Key Biscayne, Coral Gables and Pinecrest, giving it some of Miami’s most prosperous neighborhoods, but also pockets of poverty. Suarez, 67, has made transportation a central part of his agenda as commissioner, pushing a plan to siphon toll money from various highways and state revenue to fund a massive expansion of rail throughout Miami-Dade.
He’s touting his experience on the commission, and his ability to get legislation passed to help both his district and the county.
“I’ve found a way to get along with my colleagues. It took me a while to figure that out,” Suarez said. “You can’t take yourself too seriously.”
Suarez is a lawyer, listing an “estimated” $100,000 income from his Miami practice. Castro, 34 and a law-firm clerk, lists wages of about $49,000 last year but real estate holdings topping $1 million. He reported $17,000 in rental income on his 2015 tax return, which was included in his campaign-filing documents.
For fundraising, Suarez’s campaign and Imagine Miami political committee brought in about $485,000 during the last two years, compared to just $400 for Castro, paid by the candidate himself.
Castro is pushing for a more active county role in restraining development, and offering a fresh start from Suarez, whose son, Francis Suarez, is running to be the family’s second Miami mayor. “I’m up here to offer people a change,” Castro said at a recent Miami Times candidate forum. “I’m here to offer them something different.”
Dennis Moss won his first election to the County Commission in 1993, and today he shares most-senior status with Commissioner Javier Souto. Now the 64-year-old faces what could be his last election, the consequence of a 2012 referendum by county voters restricting commissioners to a pair of consecutive four-year terms.
“This is it,” Moss said. “This is the last round.”
Challenging Moss is Earl Beaver, a 44-year-old nutrition director at a nursing home who is running his first political campaign.
Both candidates say they’ll tackle two big problems in District 9: traffic and crime. Both want rail extended south into District 9, the most southern of the county’s 13 districts and the one that includes Zoo Miami, Florida City and significant swaths of agricultural land.
Moss took office on his reputation as a community activist: his job in 1993 was director of the Richmond Perrine Optimist Club. He still has that position, but said he now serves as a volunteer. His financial disclosure form lists only two sources of income: $49,000 from his stipend and salary as a county commissioner, and about $3,200 in yearly Social Security payments. His wife, Margaret, earns about $108,000 a year working for the county’s Water and Sewer Department.
Moss has raised about $530,00 between his campaign and committee, Miami-Dade Citizens for Progress.
Beaver has put in more than $1,500 of his own money to pay expenses and is using his lack of fundraising as a pitch to voters. “I’ve already taken a pledge not to take money from special-interest groups, developers or corporations,” he said. “I want to work for the people.”