Miami-Dade County

Overwhelming vote ousts Miami-Dade County Commissioner Natacha Seijas

Norman Braman at Versailles in Little Havana on Tuesday.
Norman Braman at Versailles in Little Havana on Tuesday. EL NUEVO HERALD STAFF

Miami-Dade Commissioner Natacha Seijas, a formidable fixture in county politics known for her acerbic style, was removed from office Tuesday amid a seething voter revolt.

An overwhelming 88 percent of those who turned out to vote in District 13, which includes Hialeah and Miami Lakes, backed the recall of Seijas, who has ruled over the western county region for 18 years.

The commissioner had mounted a major defense to the recall campaign, angling to differentiate herself from Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, an unpopular figure also on the ballot who was viewed as more vulnerable to ouster.

Seijas made no public comment Tuesday night. An aide, Terry Murphy, said in an email: “She will not be participating in any media stories about the election results.’’

Bankrolled by county employee unions, developers and lobbyists, Seijas raised $213,575 through a political action committee, Abre Los Brazos — nearly 10 times as much as her political opponents could muster. But in the end, voter anger trumped the power of incumbency, sweeping both Seijas and Alvarez from office by the same drastic margins.

“Natacha Seijas is a poster child for everything that is wrong with Miami-Dade County government, a government that is out of touch with taxpayers and has sold out to special interests,’’ said a jubilant Michael Pizzi, the mayor of Miami Lakes and an attorney who helped lead the charge to oust Seijas.

Pizzi said he plans to push for reform at County Hall, including term limits, campaign finance changes and the creation of at-large districts.

Widespread voter discontent has been palpable for weeks, on the local radio talk shows, in online postings, and in a poll conducted for The Miami Herald and its news partners by Bendixen & Amandi International, a public opinion research. But the recall vote proved even more skewed against the incumbents than most anyone predicted.

Luis Del Rio, who turned out at the Miami Lakes Branch Library, said he voted to recall both Seijas and Alvarez Tuesday because he thought they had misspent taxpayer money. “It’s time we fix what they’ve done wrong,’’ Del Rio said. “It’s time to change.’’

Seijas was targeted for recall last fall after she joined a majority of the county commissioners in approving Alvarez’s proposed budget, which raised the property-tax rate to make up for the collapse in property values. The budget, which took effect Oct. 1, included pay raises for most county employees. About 60 percent of homestead property owners got higher tax bills, despite dwindling property values.

For residents of Miami-Dade, which is often called the epicenter of the nation’s real-estate meltdown and is struggling with unemployment far above the national average, the budget and tax-rate increase quickly proved to be a touchstone for anger and frustration with the government. As Norman Braman, a wealthy Miami auto dealer, targeted the mayor for recall with a well funded, professional campaign, Vanessa Brito, a 27-year-old political activist, latched on to the momentum.

Brito started Miami Voice, a political action committee, to target county commissioners who had supported the budget. The group had little money, but it got help from Pizzi, a long-time opponent of Seijas with a knack for political theater. The group garnered sufficient petitions to force a vote only for Seijas.

For Seijas, it was familiar turf: She had handily defeated an earlier recall campaign in 2006 — then was subsequently reelected in 2008 by a wide margin.

As the threat of another recall surfaced last fall, the long-entrenched powerbroker shrugged: “Been there, done that,” she said, adding: “Bring it on.’’

She fought hard to stay off the same ballot as Alvarez, warning fellow commissioners who set a single election for both embattled politicians in January: “Today it’s me, tomorrow it might be you.” After the vote, she told them: “It could come back to you and haunt you one day.”

In the end, even fellow commissioners deserted Seijas. At a meeting Tuesday, commissioners voted 9-3 against a resolution that Seijas submitted seeking approval to spend $245,000 from her office budget on a range of community causes. Such moves are usually rubberstamped by commissioners, who give themselves wide latitude in spending portions of their outsized annual office budgets on pet causes.

But the size and timing of Seijas’ allocation drew controversy, with critics asserting she was looking to use taxpayer funds to curry favor on Election Day.

In the weeks before the election, Seijas made several tactical switches in a bid to outflank foes.

After a circuit judge signaled skepticism about Seijas’ legal argument seeking to block her election on technical grounds, the commissioner dropped her lawsuit before the judge could rule.

Last week, Seijas even took a swat at her strong union base, announcing she suddenly supported reopening union contracts that gave raises to county employees, because “I do not believe we can afford it.’’

But her political luck finally ran out Tuesday.

“I think she deserved to be recalled 100 times," said Alex Varga, a 65-year-old contractor who turned out at the Miami Lakes library to vote Tuesday. “She’s not good for Miami Lakes, and she’s been in there too long.’’

Miami Herald staff writers Jaweed Kaleem, David Smiley, Howard Cohen, John Dorschner, Laura Isensee, Patricia Mazzei, Tania Valdemoro and Jay Weaver contributed to this report.