Five months before Miami Beach voters elect three new city commissioners — and decide whether to retain Mayor Philip Levine, who just announced he’s running for reelection — a newly formed political action committee headed by a term-limited commissioner has raised $500,000 from deep-pocketed developers and vendors in just 30 days.
The committee, Relentless for Progress, is chaired by Commissioner Jonah Wolfson. As his term runs out this year, Wolfson’s fundraising efforts appear to be as sharp as ever.
Wolfson says his committee will play an advocacy role in state and local politics. He has not expressed interest in running for another public office at this time.
“Fundraising allows me the opportunity to stay fighting for good government issues,” he told the Miami Herald. “This is a statewide political committee. We could go anti-gaming. We could advocate for sea level rise issues.”
But in the Beach, the new powerhouse committee will also back candidates during an election year in which voters will pick three new commissioners.
“We will support Miami Beach City Commission candidates to keep our city moving in the right direction,” Wolfson said.
Wolfson said other RFP “team” members are Ron Meyer, an election law attorney based in Tallahassee, and Ashley Walker, who ran President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in Florida. They haven’t decided who the PAC will support in 2015 other than Levine, who told the Herald on Thursday that he’s seeking reelection and not some other office.
Wolfson noted, though, that Levine won’t need much help since he will self-fund the bulk of his campaign, just as he did the first time he ran.
In 2013, Levine contributed $2 million to his own mayoral campaign against opponent Michael Gongora, then a city commissioner. The mayor said he doesn’t plan to spend as much in this year’s campaign.
The half-million dollars raised in May by RFP is a hefty chunk to bring in during a 30-day period. For comparison, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has raised $1.1 million so far in his re-election campaign, and his only announced opponent, Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, took in a combined $244,000 in May.
The RFP money came from big-name developers with significant interests on the Beach. Argentine developer Alan Faena, who is building a big mixed-use project on six blocks of Mid-Beach, gave $100,000. Last fall, he asked the city to loosen zoning restrictions by creating an overlay arts-and-culture district in the area.
Neighbors complained it would make too much noise, but after negotiations with both sides, Faena got the overlay district with some conditions.
Another $100,000 came from Lennar CEO Stuart Miller, who is building a mansion on Star Island while moving and restoring an older historic home on the same property.
The largest chunk of cash came courtesy of South Beach Tristar Capital, LLC, headed by David Edelstein. He developed the W South Beach Hotel at 2201 Collins Ave. and fought determined preservationists and City Hall to undertake a controversial project on Lincoln Road — a new retail store in one of the last swaths of green space on the mall, the courtyard of the Miami Beach Community Church on Drexel Avenue.
The project will move forward after settling a legal dispute with the city, which involves the developer taking precautions to preserve the adjacent church.
Some community members are uncomfortable with the RFP money flowing into the upcoming Beach campaigns.
“I think it would be extremely difficult for the average resident here to begin to search out this PAC information, and it is important to know exactly who these big donors are and what business they do — or hope to do — in the city of Miami Beach,” said resident Jo Manning, who used to sit on the city’s Historic Preservation Board.
Wolfson called his group a “free speech” committee and said money from stakeholders is just part of the game.
“This is not a new practice,” he said. “Unions practice free speech. Corporations practice free speech. And stakeholders disproportionally donate, be it state, federal or local campaigns. That’s politics.”
Money, money, money
PACs and electioneering communications organizations, or ECOs, are groups that can raise unlimited money and get involved in local races without direct contributions to candidates.
The Beach’s election season has already seen one attack ad funded by an ECO. Earlier in the spring, a group called Common Sense sent emails and mailers attacking Ricky Arriola, a candidate for term-limited commissioner Ed Tobin’s seat.
The ad pointed out that Arriola is city vendor — the CEO of Inktel Holdings, which provides call center services for a number of city departments. Arriola said that if elected, he would have no conflict of interest, but did not elaborate.
Common Sense received a $5,000 donation from Arriola’s opponent Mark Weithorn, but Weithorn declined to comment on the donation and insisted he had no ties to the ad.
It was Weithorn’s wife, term-limited Miami Beach Commissioner Deede Weithorn, who referenced Wolfson’s PAC during Wednesday’s commission meeting. She pulled more than one procurement item from the consent agenda and sought to ask each vendor if they’d been asked to contribute to a PAC.
Wolfson bristled at this.
“Are you saying, Commissioner Weithorn, that you have never solicited a contribution or been part of a situation where a political committee or state organization has solicited money for a political entity?” Wolfson said. “You’ve never done that?”
Weithorn said it was irrelevant whether she or Wolfson had taken PAC money, but she believes the public has the right to know about donations to committees, and who they’re from.
Wolfson said Friday that anyone could look up the the PAC’s contribution list online through the state’s elections department. He also suggested commissioners disclose whether vendors have donated to committees they are affiliated with.
“Instead of putting it on the individual vendors, it should be on the commissioners as a matter of ethics, and commissioner’s spouses, too,” he said. “And that could help in the transparency.”
Wolfson’s spouse also holds public office. Andrea Wolfson is a Miami-Dade County judge, reelected to a six-year term in 2012.
Levine declares candidacy
This week, Levine for the first time said he will run for mayor again. He still has to file paperwork with the city.
South Florida political consultant David Custin will run his campaign, as he did in 2013. In May, Custin’s firm DRC Consulting received $50,000 from an ECO, Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership.
Although one of a few, DRC is the main consultant for the ECO. Wolfson’s PAC gave the ECO $80,000 in May.
Custin is also a campaign consultant for Arriola and two other 2015 Miami Beach candidates:
▪ Elizabeth “Betsy” Pérez, a music business professional who works with her husband, songwriter and record producer Rudy Pérez, who served as musical director for the Beach’s Centennial celebration in March.
▪ John Elizabeth Alemán, an information technology consultant, executive board member of the North Beach Elementary PTA and chairwoman of the city’s quality education committee.
Levine said he has not decided who he’s backing this campaign season, but in March he directly contributed $11,000 to Pérez’s campaign. He made several $1,000 contributions through his personal address and several limited liability corporations.
The mayor insists the money does not equal an endorsement.
“I donated to Betsy Perez because she’s a friend,” he told the Herald. “But that’s not an endorsement, that was strictly a financial contribution.”
Critics lament that the “soft money” raised through PACs and ECOs allow special interests to inject money into elections, fuel largely negative campaigning and may even freeze out the average citizen who might want to run for office.
In an interview Friday, Custin countered that having the backing of a committee with a big war chest can allow a newcomer to effectively challenge incumbents. He added that attack ads — which his client Arriola said voters did not like in March — are effective.
“It is just a raw truth in politics,” Custin said. “People will tell you ‘I hate negative campaigning.’ Well, guess what? Negative campaigning happens every year, and it works. If it’s so horrible, people wouldn’t do it.”
These developers, vendors and businesspeople have donated to a political action committee headed by Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson. The PAC raised $500,000 just in the month of May.
▪ $100,000; Saxony Beach, LLC: The development company of Argentine mega-developer Alan Faena, who is building a mixed-used project on six blocks in Mid-Beach that aims to transform the neighborhood from sleepy area to a hip arts hub.
▪ $118,000; South Beach Tristar Capital: Owned by David Edelstein, who developed the W South Beach Hotel and plans build a retail store in the courtyard of the Miami Beach Community Church — a controversial project that pit preservationists against the developer and led to a legal dispute that was settled in March.
▪ $100,000; Wayne Boich: CEO of Boich Companies, a Columbus, Ohio-based coal company. Boich owns a big Bay Road mansion he built in 2013.
▪ $100,000; Stuart Miller: CEO of Lennar, who is building a new mansion on Star Island and moving an old historic home on the same property.
▪ $25,0000; David and Pedro Martin: Principals of the Terra Group, which is behind a few projects in Miami Beach, including a new hotel to replace the Morris Lapidus-designed Biltmore Terrace Hotel in North Beach.
▪ $25,000; Boucher Brothers: Beach concessions company that has a contract with a city rent out umbrellas and chairs.
▪ $25,000; Lanzo Construction Co.: Contractor with multiple city contracts for infrastructure work in Sunset Harbour and streetscaping on the Venetian Islands.