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Lobbyist sues to block ballot item limiting campaign cash

Eric Zichella, a lobbyist in Miami-Dade County
Eric Zichella, a lobbyist in Miami-Dade County

A Miami-Dade lobbyist on Monday joined the court fight against a ballot item that would sharply limit campaign donations as advocates release a study claiming smaller donors to local races better reflect the county’s diversity.

Eric Zichella,who represents firms seeking county contracts, filed the action in what appears to be an effort to join this week’s appeals fight over the ballot item. A Circuit Court judge on Friday overruled Miami-Dade commissioners and ordered the item be placed on the November ballot, but county lawyers are seeking a reversal at the Third District Court of Appeal before ballots are printed this weekend.

The ballot item would ban Miami-Dade contractors and their lobbyists from donating to county candidates, and lower the maximum campaign contribution from $1,000 to $250. That cap is the subject of a new report from advocates of the ballot item claiming large donations in Miami-Dade tend to come from white, non-Hispanic donors.

Demos, a New York-based advocacy group, analyzed six months of campaign donations in Miami-Dade’s commission and mayoral races in late 2015 and early 2016. The study found that while about two-thirds of Miami-Dade’s population is Hispanic, that demographic only accounted for about 40 percent of donations over $1,000. Almost half of donors to commission races are non-Hispanic white, according to the study, far higher than that demographic’s 15 percent share of the population.

By contrast, more than 80 percent of the donations for less than $100 came from Hispanic donors, according to the study, which was conducted with the help of two University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers.

“These data suggest that empowering small donors would lead to a dramatically more diverse donor pool in Miami-Dade,” the report said. “Policymakers spend time fundraising from a donor class that doesn’t resemble their constituents.”

The analysis looked only at donations made by individuals — which does not include the large checks that come in from corporate entities. For example, companies controlled by Sergio Pino, one of Miami-Dade’s top Hispanic developers, gave more than $50,000 in campaign contributions in recent years, through dozens of donations. Pino himself is only listed in records twice, according to a Miami Herald database.

Supporters of the new rules, led by a union-backed group called An Accountable Miami-Dade, gathered nearly 130,000 signatures to get the proposal on the ballot. Last week, county commissioners sided with staff attorneys and declared the item too legally flawed to go before voters in November.

Leaders of the petition drive pitched the package as a potential milestone for reforming Miami-Dade’s political system, where lobbyists and county contractors routinely hold the top slots in donor lists (along with developers, who would not be impacted by the proposed rules). Critics say the rules favor unions, which rely on smaller donations from members to help bankroll favored candidates.

Zichella has given at least $15,000 to county candidates during the 2016 cycle. While the proposed measure wouldn’t ban his donations outright, Zichella couldn’t give if one of his clients held a county contract worth more than $250,000 a year.

His suit — which lists both Miami-Dade and An Accountable Miami-Dade as defendants — does not cite his role as a lobbyist. Instead, the complaint says that as a county voter, Zichella has a right to have the ballot item struck down for misleading language. County lawyers made the same argument last week before Circuit Court Judge William Thomas, saying the item’s description of “large” county contractors is misleading because $250,000 is such a modest amount.

Zichella’s suit was filed in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, too, which gives the lobbyist a chance to join the legal clash already underway against An Accountable Miami-Dade.

Zichella referred questions to his lawyer, former state representative J.C. Planas. In an interview, Planas said Zichella’s occupation could become central if the legal argument moves beyond the ballot language and into the legality of the campaign-cash restrictions themselves.

“This is illegally restricting his free speech,” said Planas, a Republican.

Joe Geller, the Democratic state representative representing An Accountable Miami-Dade in the suit, said Zichella’s legal challenge, like the county’s, would rob voters of the chance to decide the issue in November.

“We think the important thing is that the people are heard,” Geller said. “We think the important thing is that everybody who wants to see our elections run on a level playing field are heard.”

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