Miami-Dade County

Who needs county commissioners’ votes? All of their top donors.

A rendering of the proposed American Dream Miami retail theme park in Northwest Miami-Dade.
A rendering of the proposed American Dream Miami retail theme park in Northwest Miami-Dade. Triple Five

The battle over a proposed mega-mall in Northwest Miami-Dade has many fronts. One is the campaign coffers of six county commissioners seeking reelection this year.

Developers behind American Dream Miami, which would bring about 200 acres of shopping and entertainment outside of Miami Lakes, have given roughly $26,000 to four of the six incumbents on the ballot in August. That’s enough to make the project a top source of campaign dollars in the early stages of this election cycle, but it still trails the top-tier contributors.

At the top of the list sits Turnberry, owner of the Aventura Mall, currently the largest in Florida. Aventura would lose that title to American Dream, an even larger version of the Mall of America that developer Triple Five wants to build about 15 miles away from Turnberry’s signature property. Turnberry gave more than $60,000 to incumbent commissioners since the 2018 cycle began shortly after the 2016 elections.

In all, six commissioners facing reelection — Daniella Levine Cava, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto — have raised about $1.8 million in the last two years. Commissioners rarely lose their seats, and the campaign reports help show one reason why: Incumbents rely on developers, county vendors and their lobbyists for big dollars.

All of the 10 largest sources of donations for the six candidates’ campaigns and political committees have financial ties to decisions by the 13-member County Commission. And the major donors don’t play favorites.

With eights months to go, each of the 10 top donors gave to at least half of the incumbents. Most gave to four or five, and one, Munilla Construction Management, gave to all six. Last year, the commission voted to back Munilla’s ongoing protest of Florida wanting to award an $800 million contract to a rival firm for a new bridge linking downtown Miami with I-395. Records show Munilla executives and entities gave about $25,000 through the end of 2017.

As the Aug. 28 election gets closer, the leader board is sure to change as major donors accelerate — and expand — their giving. Llorente & Heckler, a Miami Beach lobbying firm whose clients include Turnberry, has given about $27,000 through donations to five of the six commissioners running for reelection. The one exception is Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, but that gap shouldn’t last long.

“I’m doing an event for him this month,” partner Alex Heckler said.

The 13-member commission staggers its elections for four-year terms on even-numbered years, with six seats up for election in 2018 and the remaining seven in 2020. New term-limit rules are forcing historic exits from the board overseeing Florida’s largest local government. Commissioners reelected in 2016 were the first affected by the limits, and must give up their seats in 2020. The commissioners up for reelection this year must leave in 2022.

So far, two challengers have filed their papers to run. In District 2, Monestime faces A.D. Lenoir Sr., a local pastor who ran against him in 2014, too. Lenoir has not reported raising any money. Souto, who started on the commission 25 years ago, faces Jose Garrido, a longtime civic planner who has served on community boards. Garrido has raised about $6,000. Souto has raised about $85,000.

That puts Souto at the bottom of the incumbents’ fundraising list. Vying for the top: Levine Cava, who has raised about $555,000 and Heyman, with $540,000. Diaz raised about $350,000, followed by $143,000 for Monestime and $98,000 for Sosa. The totals reflect donations to campaigns and affiliated committees.

Sosa, whose husband died last year, said she hasn’t focused much on the campaign yet but plans to ramp up efforts in the coming months. Unlike most commissioners, Sosa does not maintain a separate political committee, meaning she’s left with the $1,000 cap on campaign contributions to her campaign committee.

Donors routinely amp up their campaign giving by funneling $1,000 donations through a string of corporate entities. GL Homes, which is pursuing a Kendall development requiring county approval, gave its $30,000 through more than a dozen companies based in its Broward County headquarters.

An Accountable Miami-Dade held a press conference Tuesday to announce a lawsuit against Miami-Dade to force a quick count of the signatures of the petition drive for new restrictions on campaign cash in Miami-Dade to get the item on the November ballot.

GL Homes gave $5,000 to Sosa. The commissioner, in office since 2001, said she lets donors know they shouldn’t expect their support to be reciprocated.

“I represent the residents of Miami-Dade County,” Sosa said. “I don’t represent companies. If they are right, they are right. If they are wrong, they are wrong.”

Ranking donors in county races isn’t an exact science. For this story, the Miami Herald used its database of more than 24,000 contributions in county races since 2011. Using corporate records, websites, news reports and interviews, the Herald matches individual contributions to major donors in order to compile occasional reports on the money flowing into county races.

Perhaps no major donor has more at stake than Triple Five, the Alberta-based developer behind American Dream Miami. Family-owned by the Ghermezian family, it’s the same company that built the Mall of America in Minnesota in the early 1990s. It wants to bring an even bigger version of that retail theme park to an area of undeveloped land outside Miami Lakes and Hialeah, and needs the County Commission’s permission to change the land’s zoning designation. A decisive vote could come later this year.

“The Ghermezian family and Triple Five view Miami-Dade as their home,” a company lobbyist and lawyer, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, said in a statement. “They will invest $4 billion to build American Dream Miami, an economic development project which will create 25,000 jobs in our community. The Ghermezian family and Triple Five will continue to be energetic participants in the civic life of Miami-Dade.”

Turnberry, which needs county approvals for its own residential development project in North Miami and hopes to bring a casino to its Fontainebleau resort in Miami Beach if state gambling laws ever change, has not joined the formal campaign against American Dream Miami. Heckler, who represents Turnberry, also lobbies for a group formed by other large malls in Miami-Dade to oppose American Dream, and they are backed by national companies that he said have not donated to county races.

In a statement Turnberry, run by the brother-and-sister team of Jackie and Jeff Soffer, touted its community involvement in explaining why it gives so much in campaign contributions.

”The Soffer family has a long history of charitable and philanthropic contributions that benefit our community,” the statement read. “Their participation in the political process is another part of their civic involvement and is always conducted in a transparent and accountable manner.”

Most of 2018’s Top 10 list would have been banned from giving big campaign dollars this year under an unsuccessful union-backed effort in 2016 to change Miami-Dade’s charter to ban donations from county vendors and their lobbyists.

Miami Beach has a similar rule already, but the countywide petition effort fizzled after a majority of commissioners voted against putting it on the ballot. An appeals court later ratified that decision, which was based on flaws in the paperwork behind the effort funded largely with out-of-state dollars.

Maribel Balbin, one of the local activists involved in the 2016 push, said there hasn’t been an effort to revive the restrictions for 2018. But she said the need remains to try and distance elected officials from the campaign cash readily available from county vendors and lobbyists.

“Government functions better when there is no connection between a campaign contribution and policy,” she said. “It seems so simple.”

But critics of the proposed ban on lobbyist and vendor donations called it unconstitutional and unfair, since it would prevent one sector of people from participating in a key part of the election process.

“Political contributions are free speech,” said Eric Zichella, an active “bundler” of campaign donations for commissioners (meaning he recruits other donors to give) and president of the lobbying firm P3 Management. “I give because I like getting my calls returned.”

Campaign donors

Six Miami-Dade commissioners are up for reelection in 2018. Combined, they’ve raised about $1.8 million. The top sources of those donations are developers, government vendors and lobbyists with financial interests in the commission’s votes. The top donors to incumbents are:

Turnberry: $62,000.

Transportation America: $45,000.

Ronald Book: $32,000.

GL Homes: $30,000.

Landmark Development: $30,000.

Llorente & Heckler: $27,000.

Secure Wrap: $27,000.

American Dream Miami: $26,000.

MCM: $24,000.

Weiss Serota: $24,000.