If Homestead residents thought the political waters would be calmed after Mayor Steve Bateman was indicted on corruption charges and then suspended from office, it looks like they were wrong.
The runoff between Mark Bell and Jeff Porter, which culminates in a vote next Tuesday, is a nasty, expensive affair.
There is the usual political back-and-forth: Porter, who owns Worldwide Supply Solutions, has hammered away at Bell’s lack of political experience, while Bell, an innkeeper, says Porter drove Homestead to “the brink of bankruptcy” during his previous stint as vice mayor (1997-’99) and councilman (’99-’07) and backed an unpopular rate hike by the city-owned power company.
But there are also claims of absentee ballot chicanery, an assertion that Bell received a $25,000 “gift” from the taxpayers of Homestead, a related, pending ethics complaint by Bell’s camp against Porter, and, perhaps strangest of all, a whispering campaign over a nearly 40-year-old animal control citation. The latter gripe has bubbled to the surface at a campaign event.
“It’s absurd,” said Councilwoman Judy Waldman, who is not on the ballot this year, speaking about the campaign literature piling up in her mailbox. “One day I got three mail-in pieces.
Mailers and Money
When it comes to the race for campaign contributions, Bell has Porter beat. Bell has raised more than $93,000. Many of the donors are also supporters of his wife, former Homestead mayor and current County Commissioner Lynda Bell. A lot of the money is from developers, including politically connected charter-school developer Wayne Rosen.
During the Bateman years, Rosen’s influence on the political process and ties to Bateman sometimes roiled the waters. There was a much consternation over his sale of a used Mercedes-Benz to Bateman’s wife, Donna, for $13,000, a price that critics said was lower than the car’s true value.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office deemed it unworthy of action.
With no Bateman in the race, Rosen has dropped $4,000 on Bell’s campaign.
“I will take money from whomever can give it to me,” said Bell, 57. “It doesn’t matter if they are a developer, a homeowner or a farmer. That doesn’t mean I work for them, and that I ever will work for them.”
Porter, 54, has raised about $31,500.
“It’s not all about the money,” said Porter. “It’s the quality of the candidates.”
In addition to the money donated by individuals, which are limited to $500 (although that has been circumvented by donating through various business names and family members), thousands of dollars have been pumped into independent political groups that can raise unlimited amounts, known as electioneering communications organizations, or ECOs.
ECOs, which can’t explicitly endorse candidates, have funded various Homestead campaign missives. For instance, something called People for Truth & Integrity paid for a mailer that reads: “Porter is wrong for Homestead!” It’s legal because it doesn’t actually say “vote for” his opponent. The rest of the mailer depicts a shotgun.
The shotgun imagery is a reference to the city’s purchase of the “shotgun property,” a patch of decrepit housing owned by a former mayor, Steve Shiver. The land was purchased by Homestead’s Community Redevelopment Agency a deal made possible by a loan from the city. The land was bulldozed, the former mayor cashed in, but nothing has been built in a section of town that desperately needs clean, affordable housing. Porter voted in favor of the loan.
Both sides have ECOs doing their bidding. Something called Excellence is Key has sent out mailers that say, in part: “I read Being Mayor for Dummies. I think I got this covered.” That is a reference to Mark Bell’s lack of previous involvement in Homestead politics.
Earlier this month, a campaign worker on Bell’s payroll was accused by a family of four of filling out their absentee ballots with the names of people they did not want to vote for.
After the allegation was publicized and referred to the Commission on Ethics & Public Trust, Bell told the campaign worker he was being suspended. Instead, the worker resigned.
The most bizarre episode centers on a mysterious 1977 animal ordinance violation involving Bell.
Hard copy records of the event seemingly no longer exist, but that hasn’t stopped Bell’s enemies from referencing it on blogs, often anonymously.
Bell says he can’t remember what it involved.
“This was what, in ’77?” he said. “It could have been anything from my dog getting out of the yard, or I didn’t get his rabies shot.”
At one campaign event, Bell said, a voter brandished a plastic table leg and screamed at him about the citation.
“She cussed out one of my campaign workers and gave her the bird,” said Bell, who contacted the police.
As for that $25,000 “gift,” referenced in a Porter-funded flier, that involves a grant from the city’s CRA for upgrades at the vintage Hotel Redland, which Bell owns.
The grant was actually in the name of the hotel, although a bogus check on the campaign flier makes it appear the grant was issued to Bell and his wife, the county commissioner.
That infuriated the Bell campaign, which filed a complaint with the Commission on Ethics & Public Trust. At a hearing on Wednesday, probable cause was found that the mailer violated fair campaign practices.
Porter doesn’t think so.
“What’s in the mail piece that’s not true?” Porter asked.
Once the campaign signs come down and the bashings subside, the winner will be faced with tackling Homestead’s problems and living up to promises made during the campaign.
Porter touts a four-point plan: 1. Create jobs. 2. Reduce taxes and fees. 3. Alleviate traffic. 4. Strengthen the police department.
Bell cites two problems — high electricity costs for residents serviced by Homestead’s power plant and a building moratorium because of water sewer pump stations functioning at maximum capacity — and says he’ll do something about them.
“It’s hard to attract new businesses if we can’t fix our infrastructure,” he said.