Miami-Dade County

Suarez exits Miami mayor race with many options for big bankroll

As Francis Suarez stood in his driveway of his Coral Gate home two weeks ago with his pregnant wife Gloria at his side to announce he was no longer running for mayor, the Miami commissioner was well on his way to raising the most money for an election in city history.

And that was still three weeks away from even qualifying for the November 5 election.

The money raisedby Suarez’s campaign and by an organization working on his behalf Swas bulging with more than $1.32 million, almost three times more than his politically seasoned rival, incumbent Mayor Tomás Regalado.

Only former Mayor Manny Diaz, during his 2005 victorious run for office, raised more money, $1.44 million. Suarez’s final fundraising total, though, is likely to catapult well past Diaz because the commissioner has yet to report fundraising for July and August. That report is due in early October.

Pollster Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University, credited Suarez’s potent fundraising to a combination of unhappy benefactors and skyrocketing costs.

“Francis, I think, kind of rode a wave of discontent by lobbyists in the city,” said Moreno. “And I think we’re in the age of multi-million dollar elections for mayor in Miami. I used to poll once or twice in an election, now it’s constant polling. It’s increasingly expensive to run for office.”

Suarez’s money includes almost $900,000 in contributions to something called an Electioneering Communications Organization. That ECO, called The Future is Now, has no ceiling on contributions. He also raised almost another $500,000 in a separate campaign account to which contributions are capped at $500 per person or company.

He pulled out of the race two weeks ago after a series of miscues by campaign aides, including an absentee ballot scandal that led to two arrests, and a rogue campaign aide who insulted constituents on her Twitter account.

Now it’s decision time for the commissioner, who will continue to represent his Flagami district through his 2014 term.

Of the $1.32 million raised in both accounts, reports show that only $315,567 was spent by the end of June.

Questioned about what he intends to do with the money at the impromptu press conference last week Suarez said he was exploring options. Reached last week while out of town on vacation with his wife, Suarez said much the same, and that staffers were taking down signs and cleaning up.

“I’ve requested legal opinions from elections lawyers. Probably in the next week or so we’ll make a final decision,” he said.

The commissioner’s choices on what to do with the money are somewhat limited by city charter rules and state statute.

Suarez raised money two ways: Through his campaign account and in the ECO.

An ECO is a vehicle to raise money for communications through any media, direct mail, or telephone that clearly identifies a candidate without advocating for the election or defeat of that candidate. The account doesn’t have to be run or opened by the candidate — in Suarez’s case the The Future is Now is run by political operative Jose “Pepe” Riesco. There are no limits on contributions.

The commissioner’s own campaign account, on the other hand, clearly identifies him, and is overseen by the city clerk’s office. Contributions are limited to $500 for people or companies. The money must be spent on campaign-related activities like direct mails, advertising, or events.

City records show Suarez raised $495,911 in his campaign account with the city by the end of June, and only spent $63,812. Suarez has several choices on what to do with the remaining $432,099: He can transfer the money into another campaign account to use in the 2014 race for his commission seat (though to do so he must send letters to contributors asking if they want their money returned on a pro-rated basis.) He can officially withdraw from the race before the Sept. 21 qualifying date by writing a letter to the clerk’s office, then either return the money to contributors, donate it to a nonprofit, or give it to the city.

Or, if he does nothing by the Sept. 21 qualifying date, he must return the money on a pro-rated basis to all contributors.

The options for what to do with the $575,756 that remains in the ECO are much simpler: The ECO can return the money to contributors, keep it in the account to advocate for whatever issues the ECO’s organizers sees fit in the future, or contribute it to other campaigns.

The list of contributors to the ECO and Suarez’s campaign account are for the most part the usual cast of characters — lobbyists, developers, consultants, contractors, and friends.

According to records of the ECO, Midtown Miami land owner Midtown Opportunities gave $50,000. Wireless communications innovator Nsoro MasTec contributed $25,000, as did local healthcare provider Simply Healthcare Plans. Uber lobbyist Ron Book helped out with $10,000, and so did local technology giant Medina Capital Partners. Magic City Casino operator West Flagler Associates tossed in $15,000.

Consultant Thomas Jelke contributed $7,500 to ECO. Jelke said he gave money because Suarez took time to sit down and discuss his positions — then asked for money.

“If there’s a possibility for him to give it back to the people who contributed, that would be a good gesture,” said Jelke. “To me, it’s all about follow-up with his supporters.”

Suarez political strategist Steve Marin was paid almost $80,000 through the ECO for his work by the end of June. He also contributed $17,500 toward Suarez’s campaign. He believes the money should be returned to contributors on a pro-rated basis.