Miami Dolphins assemble familiar faces for lobbying team, many with ties to Mayor Carlos Gimenez

The football team’s push to renovate Sun Life Stadium has brought together a cadre of local lobbyists and political operatives, including several who worked for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

01/25/2013 12:01 AM

01/25/2013 12:20 AM

The Miami Dolphins’ lobbying team looks like a reunion of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s campaign brain trust.

To push for a $400-million stadium renovation funded in part with tax dollars, the Dolphins have enlisted three key figures from Gimenez’s recent election races: Marcelo Llorente, Brian Goldmeier and Jesse Manzano-Plaza.

Llorente, who became a frequent presence on the campaign trail after losing his own mayoral bid, has been hired as one of the Dolphins’ Tallahassee lobbyists. Goldmeier, Gimenez’s fundraiser, and Manzano-Plaza, a former Gimenez campaign manager, have been brought on as advisers to help drum up community support for the Dolphins’ plan.

The three men’s participation could indicate a calculated effort on the Dolphins’ part to appeal to the mayor, whom Miami-Dade commissioners tasked on Wednesday with negotiating a potential deal with the football team. Gimenez was a stubborn critic of the lopsided public financing deal for the new Miami Marlins ballpark in Little Havana — a position that helped the former commissioner in his campaign for mayor.

Gimenez dismissed the suggestion that a particular lobbying or campaign team could curry favor with his office.

“If anybody knows me, you can hire whoever you want. At the end of the day, I work for the people of Miami-Dade County — that’s who pays my salary,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I’m pretty black-and-white about things like that.”

Gimenez, who said he was unaware of Llorente’s and Manzano-Plaza’s involvement with the Dolphins, said his former election workers are successful in their own right.

“They’re very good at what they do, and they’re professionals,” he said. “I would hope that’s why the Dolphins hired them. In terms of me, that makes no difference.”

Goldmeier, Llorente and Manzano-Plaza are part of a larger team, led by Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, hunting for votes among state lawmakers and county commissioners, who would have to sign off on the football team’s request to raise a Miami-Dade mainland hotel tax to 7 percent from 6 percent and to receive a $3 million annual subsidy from the state. The funds would amount to some $199 million, about half the cost of proposed upgrades to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.

Voting 9-4, commissioners on Wednesday endorsed state legislation that would allow the county to raise the hotel tax — an early victory for the Dolphins, who are having to stare down criticism of the Marlins deal. Commissioners directed Gimenez to negotiate with the Dolphins. The mayor said talks would begin soon, led on the county side by deputy mayors Ed Marquez and Jack Osterholt.

“If the public is going to be investing money via a bed tax — which is tourist money, but still public money — then what are we going to be getting in return? Why should we be investing public money into the enterprise?” Gimenez said. “I know we’re not going to put the general fund at risk in any way, shape or form. There’s not going to be any fancy financing.”

His administration will likely hire outside consultants with expertise in negotiating with professional sports teams, the mayor added.

“I don’t want to be at a disadvantage,” he said. “So it may be that we come to some kind of framework — and maybe we don’t.”

Part of the discussions could center on the ownership of the stadium, which sits on county land but currently belongs to the Dolphins. A possible deal, for example, could involve giving ownership of the facility to the county, with Miami-Dade providing an operating subsidy to the team. A similar arrangement exists between the county-owned AmericanAirlines Arena and the Miami Heat.

Commissioners enumerated several wish-list items Wednesday, including guaranteed local hiring and a commitment to holding future, potential Super Bowl events — and the Dolphins’ training camp — in Miami-Dade, not Broward, if Broward does not fork over any money toward the deal.

Foreseeing the renovation push this year, the Dolphins and team owner Stephen Ross, through third-party political committees, contributed heavily last year to the reelection campaigns of Gimenez and four incumbent commissioners. Gimenez also attended a Dolphins game last year as a guest of the team.

Longtime lobbyist Brian May, a one-time aide to former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas who has led the County Hall advocacy effort for the Dolphins and raised money for Gimenez’s campaign, said all the ties to the incumbent mayor are not surprising.

“There are a lot of people who worked on the mayor’s campaign because he was going to be the winner, frankly,” a wry May said. “Funny how that works.”

Among the other familiar political faces involved: longtime Dolphins lobbyist Ron Book; attorney H.T. Smith, who is advising the team on strategy; and Penelas.

Penelas, another strategy advisor, appeared on a Spanish-language radio station earlier this week praising the team’s proposal — but did not disclose his advisory role. In an e-mail, Penelas declined to comment about his relationship with the Dolphins, citing his contract as a commentator for the Spanish-language Univisión network.

“We have assembled a diverse and experienced team with strong local knowledge to help advise us on this complex issue,’’ Dolphins spokesman Ric Katz said in a statement. “We believe this is enabling us to reach and engage all segments of the Miami-Dade community.”

The Dolphins have also garnered the support of other influential County Hall figures: Rodney Barreto, May’s lobbying partner and chairman of the Super Bowl organizing committee, and Ralph Garcia-Toledo, head of the exploratory committee to bring the Pan-American Games to Miami. Garcia-Toledo, an early Gimenez supporter, frequently drove the mayor to campaign events during Gimenez’s successful 2011 and 2012 races.

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