The controversial political action committee Relentless for Progress has relented.
Citing personal reflection as his primary motivation, Miami Beach Commissioner Jonah Wolfson announced on Thursday afternoon that he will close his committee, which has raised more than $1 million from a gallery of city vendors, prominent developers and lobbyists. He said he will return what remains of the money to contributors, which is about half.
The PAC had become the talk of political circles both in and outside of Miami Beach for its rapid fundraising from entities who have business with the city, and its activity attracted the attention of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, which started an investigation.
The committee sparked a debate about the role of “soft money” in local politics — particularly in a city like Miami Beach, which has an ordinance that prohibits vendors, developers and lobbyists from donating directly or indirectly to candidates’ campaigns. Wolfson had planned on using Relentless for Progress — whose initials mirror the acronym for the way cities solicit city vendors, “request for proposal” — to back candidates in this year’s Beach elections. Three commission seats are up for grabs in November and Mayor Philip Levine has a challenger.
The Beach’s city attorney had opined that contributions to RFP were legal as long as they were not earmarked for specific candidates by the donors.
All along, Wolfson and Levine, who helped solicit contributors, defended themselves and the committee in the Miami Herald and on television.
But fellow commissioner Ed Tobin criticized the committee from the dais, and local political journalist Michael Putney slammed RFP on more than one occasion in a Herald op-ed and during This Week in South Florida.
During at least one of those broadcasts, a slick TV commercial starring Levine and paid for by the PAC aired between segments. The ad, which Levine insists was not a campaign commercial but featured him listing the chief initiatives during his term as mayor, ran at least three times. It has since gotten placement before YouTube videos.
Wolfson also bought a full-page ad in the Herald taking aim at Putney. The ad ran three times.
Now, Wolfson is saying he will close RFP and give contributors their money back.
“After some heated debate as well as much personal reflection, I have made the decision to close the PAC,” he said Wednesday in an emailed statement. “The PAC was legal, ethical and appropriate. Fundraising from stakeholders is a practice that has been going on throughout the country in local, state and federal elections for years. Our nation’s highest court has ruled that it is protected free speech.”
In an interview on Thursday afternoon, Wolfson told the Miami Herald that he reflected on the contentious debate surrounding his committee after former Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, whom Wolfson considers a mentor, visited him at home to discuss RFP.
“He gave me good guidance and direction on the topic,” he said. “When he came to me and mentioned it, it made me take a step back and reflect.”
Through the end of July, RFP brought in about $1.3 million and spent about $700,000 on mailers, TV spots, campaign contributions to four county judges and political consulting. The committee’s financial activity from August is not yet available.
Wolfson said he would refund all of the remaining money in the committee’s account on a pro rata basis, meaning each donor would get an amount back in proportion to what was donated.
He said he plans to bring a new ordinance to the Beach’s commission that will prohibit elected officials and candidates or their designees from soliciting any contributions from vendors, lobbyists and real estate developers with any interest in Miami Beach projects.
“We should hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “During the last two months of my service, I will continue to lead Miami Beach in the right direction, with dignity and integrity.”
Wolfson is term-limited this year. On Thursday he said he does not know what is next for him after public office, though he wants to remain active in Beach issues. A vocal opponent of the proposed land lease for a headquarter hotel next to the Miami Beach Convention Center, he said he’d likely publicly speak out against it on his own dime.
Levine had gone on Putney’s Sunday morning program to defend himself and the PAC in July. On Thursday, the mayor said he applauded Wolfson’s decision.
“I think the PAC became a distraction to the real issues that we need to be discussing in moving our city forward,” he said.
Upon learning of the PAC’s closing on Thursday, Tobin was skeptical that contributions from monied special interests wouldn’t keep finding its way into local Beach politics, either through other committees or through 501(c)(4) status organizations, which do not have to disclose donors.
“It’s not going to change,” he said. “It’s just a lack of respect for the public’s intelligence. It’s that simple.”