The money was rolling in, the supporters lining up.
Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez’s campaign for mayor was driving forward — until police raided the home of his campaign operations manager Thursday as part of an investigation into possible absentee-ballot fraud.
Suarez has denied wrongdoing, and insists staffer Juan Pablo Baggini did not “intend to” violate the law when he requested absentee ballots on behalf of other voters. Baggini resigned from the campaign on Friday.
Still, the headlines dealt a heavy blow to the 35-year-old Suarez, a Republican running in a nonpartisan race, who has campaigned on a promise to return ethics and professionalism to Miami City Hall.
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“It undermines the image that Commissioner Suarez is trying to cast, which is that he is not Miami politics as usual,” veteran political observer Fernand Amandi said. “What it does do — until the investigation wraps up, at least — is lump him in with the other Miami politicians who are willing to do whatever it takes.”
Amandi did, however, note a silver lining: The election isn’t until November. And in Miami politics, five months is more than enough time to change the narrative.
Grace Solares, president of Miami Neighborhoods United, agreed, saying not all voters will rush to judgment.
“If the investigation determines that this was a mistake, or that it was a campaign worker acting beyond his or her authority, it shouldn’t affect the campaign,” she said.
Even before Thursday, Suarez was facing a dogfight against sitting Mayor Tomás Regalado. The popular incumbent has a long-established political machine, and a strong base of older voters in Little Havana and Flagami.
Suarez, who drew from the same base in his last commission race, has been targeting younger voters and working professionals this time around. He has used social media to draw a generational distinction between himself and the 66-year-old mayor, and to highlight the need to modernize and professionalize City Hall.
“Suarez is running as a new type of leader, someone from a different generation with the ability to change Miami’s political culture,” said Sean Foreman, a political science professor at Barry University.
Suarez has won key endorsements from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, and three of his four colleagues on the Miami City Commission.
His message also has resonated with donors, who have given more than $1 million in campaign contributions. Some observers believed Suarez was on track to collect more than $2 million before November.
But to secure all-important votes, the campaign turned to absentee ballots.
At a Cinco de Mayo event in Mary Brickell Village, Suarez’s campaign collected absentee-ballot request forms from registered voters who wanted to vote by mail. When Baggini went online and submitted those 20 requests electronically on May 29, county election workers took note.
In Florida, it can be a third-degree felony to submit an absentee-ballot request for anyone who is not a family member, and a first-degree felony to use another person’s confidential information online.
Police officers seized the forms from Baggini’s house early Thursday. Baggini, a 37-year-old political newcomer, has declined to comment.
Suarez said he did not know Baggini had submitted the forms at the time they were sent. He declined to say when he found out.
Still, Suarez said, each of the forms had been signed by someone who wanted an absentee ballot. Though he initially said he believed the forms authorized the campaign to request the ballots, he has since backed off that position somewhat — without acknowledging any illegality.
Suarez said he is cooperating with the investigation. He said his attorney, Robert Fernandez, has spoken with the state attorney’s office.
Baggini resigned Friday to “not become a distraction,” Suarez said.
“I am confident that he did not have any intent to violate any Florida elections laws and there was certainly no fraud in any activates the [political committee] was engaged in,” he added.
But even if the investigation finds no evidence of wrongdoing, some damage may already be done.
“The people who [Suarez] hired to turn young people on to the campaign have actually done the complete opposite,” Florida International University political science professor Dario Moreno said. “They have turned them off.”
Frank Rollason, a former assistant city manager and Upper East Side activist, said the headlines will remind voters of Suarez’s father, current County Commissioner Xavier Suarez. In 1997, Xavier Suarez’s victory in a Miami mayoral race was invalidated by a judge because of massive ballot fraud. Xavier Suarez was not implicated in the wrongdoing.
“It’s the same thing, over and over and over,” Rollason said.
Regalado was quick to draw a contrast between his old-school campaign, and the tactics being used by Francis Suarez. The mayor said he has encouraged voters to request absentee ballots, too, but only by giving them stamps to mail the forms in themselves.
Despite the setback, some observers say Suarez isn’t out of the race.
“The good news is, there’s still a lot of time,” said Moreno, the FIU professor. “People haven’t really started to focus on the election yet.”
El Nuevo Herald staff writer Melissa Sanchez contributed to this report.