To build a new mall near Doral, Turnberry Associates, first needs Miami-Dade commissioners to move the county’s commercial development boundary closer to the Everglades. While pushing for the change, the Aventura developer also has given generously to commissioners’ reelection efforts.
Turnberry, the company behind the Aventura Mall and Fontainebleau Resort, stands as the No. 1 donor in this election cycle for the Miami-Dade County Commission, contributing about $70,000 since 2013, according to a Miami Herald analysis.
While Turnberry’s giving puts it at the top of the contributions list, its business dealings with Miami-Dade make it a typical major donor to county commissioners.
Virtually all of the big dollars designed to keep commissioners in office come from businesses pursuing favorable decisions from those commissioners, according to a Herald review of nearly 3,600 donations to the six incumbents up for reelection this year and the political committees supporting them.
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Of the Top 25 donors in the Herald analysis, 22 either employ lobbyists at County Hall or are lobbyists themselves, according to county records. Of the remaining three, two conduct business with Miami-Dade; the other is a developer. Since the Top 25 donors account for a third of the more than $2.3 million given to commissioners’ reelection efforts, their outsized roles makes them a key source of cash for incumbents.
“You hope to get your calls returned,” said Ron Book, No. 8 on the list and a top lobbyist whose 79 registered clients for state work includes Miami-Dade County itself. “I like to get my calls returned.”
For its analysis, the Herald crunched data from about 3,600 donations made to campaign accounts of the six commissioners up for reelection in August — Lynda Bell, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Sally Heyman, Jean Monestime, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto — as well as to county-level political committees supporting four of them.
The Herald used business-registration data, corporate websites, property records and government filings to link more than 800 individual donations to the businesses and top executives who make up the Top 25 Donor list. (For an interactive guide to all 3,584 donations, sorted by commissioner and contributor, visit miamiherald.com.)
Transportation America, which holds a $208 million contract from Miami-Dade for providing shuttles to disabled residents, took the No. 2 spot with about $51,000 in donations. Wayne Rosen, a prominent developer in south Miami-Dade, ended up at No. 3 with $50,000 in support.
MCM, the construction firm building a $25 million test track for Metrorail cars, snagged the No. 4 spot with just under $50,000 in donations. Fifth place brought a tie. About $41,000 in donations came from both Jorge Luis Lopez, the top lobbyist for the Miami Heat and multiple current and would-be county contractors; and from the Miami Dolphins, who are pursuing county dollars as part of a stadium-renovation plan.
The Dolphins’ tally included a $10,000 check given May 29 to Good Government Now, the political committee supporting Bell’s reelection effort. Bell was one of only two commissioners who voted against new subsidies for the Miami Heat earlier this month, and the only one of the two facing reelection.
She will have a chance for another stadium vote on Tuesday when the Dolphins’ proposed subsidy package for landing Super Bowls and other major events is scheduled to come before the commission. Bell said Friday she won’t feel any pressure or influence from the Dolphins contribution, or from any other campaign dollars.
“Absolutely zero,” she said. When a donor gives money before a vote, Bell said, they’re “taking a risk.”
“I’m always going to vote for what’s in the best interest of the people of Miami-Dade County,” she said.
Among the Herald’s findings:
• Big donors cover their bases.
Of the Top 25 donors, all gave to at least three commissioners’ campaigns or committees. Ninety percent gave to at least four, and 11 gave to all six.
“I’ve known most of these folks since before they became county commissioners, and I think they’re doing a good job,” said Lopez, an attorney and lobbyist whose donations landed in the campaign and committee coffers of all six incumbents. About half of the dollars tied to Lopez came from a state political committee he chairs. The name: the New Leadership Network.
“It’s been around for some time,” Lopez said. “Basically the thought was not that the individual was new, but a new form of leadership.”
•Big donors tend to write big checks.
On Nov. 20, Commissioner Diaz delivered bad news from the commission dais to Turnberry. The company, run by the brother-and-sister team of Jackie and Jeff Soffer, wanted commissioners to approve its proposed Doral Crossings mall and water park, but Diaz asked Turnberry to withdraw the proposal.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the application as it is now,” Diaz told the audience, which included dozens of people in orange T-shirts protesting Turnberry’s requested expansion of the county’s western development boundary. “I’m going to ask the applicant, if possible, that they withdraw the application at this time.”
Turnberry agreed to Diaz’s request, but showed no signs of hard feelings.
At a fund-raising event three months later, two Turnberry entities issued a pair of $25,000 checks to We the People, the political committee supporting Diaz’s reelection effort. The $50,000 combined contribution from Turnberry Development LLC and Fontainebleau Resort Miami Beach on Jan. 31 amounted to the biggest single influx of cash so far for the committee, which shares a treasurer with the Diaz campaign, Carlos Trueba, and has raised about $220,000.
Since Turnberry’s proposed project falls within Diaz’s district, the three-term incumbent has outsized influence on whether it goes forward should the developer try again to move the Urban Development Boundary.
A Turnberry publicist said the company would send a statement in response to interview requests , but hadn’t by press time. [Update: “The Turnberry publicist issued a statement Saturday evening that said in part: “Given the level of our business interests in Miami-Dade County, doing our part to strive to identify the most talented and honest possible leadership for our community is a priority for Turnberry.”]
In an email, Diaz said he opposed the project because of concerns about the strain it might put on the area’s water supply. “I encouraged the withdrawal of the application because I felt that there was not adequate protection of our well fields,” he wrote Friday. “I will not entertain an application until that protection exists.”
“I have not met with Turnberry executives about the project,” Diaz added.
•Big donors pick up their spending for contested races, but war chests grow no matter what.
With the candidate qualifying deadline arriving at noon Tuesday, only Bell faces a well-financed challenger: Danielle Levine Cava, the founder and former chief executive of the social services agency Catalyst Miami. Monestime is bracing for a fight with Dorrin Rolle, the longtime holder of the District 2 commission seat before Monestime unseated him in 2010.
As the only two candidates in races worth watching so far, it’s no surprise the two first-term commissioners are well ahead in fund-raising: about $590,000 for Bell, and more than $500,000 for Monestime. But Diaz and Heyman, with no sign of opposition yet, both have about $400,000 between their campaign accounts and committees.
Sosa and Souto do not have county-level committees supporting their campaigns, according to several fund-raisers, though Souto appears to have a state committee backing him. In their campaigns , Sosa has raised about $270,000 and Souto about $180,000.
Among the Top 25 donors, Diaz actually edged out Monestime in the big-money race. Of the more than $780,000 given by the Top 25, 20 percent went to Diaz and 19 percent to Monestime — a difference of only $14,000 but still a notable gap given Monestime’s aggressive fund-raising efforts. His campaign committee has received 890 individual donations compared to 399 for Diaz’s.
Bell easily qualified as the Top 25’s top choice, receiving almost $200,000 from the group — about 25 cents of every dollar given by the largest donors.
The Top 25 are helping fuel what looks like a bigger stream of donations than Miami-Dade saw two years ago. More than two months before the Aug. 26 primary, the $2.3 million raised by incumbents and their committees had nearly matched the total fund-raising for the past election.
In 2012, five other commissioners were on the ballot, and there was a sixth race for an open seat. The winners of those contests, plus their respective committees, raised about $2.6 million by the end of campaign season in November.
•When big donors play favorites, it can make a big difference.
Landmark, an affordable-housing developer that competes for construction subsidies from Miami-Dade, landed on No. 7 on the Herald’s list of donors with about $38,000 in contributions. About 85 percent of that went to Monestime’s reelection effort, the most exclusive relationship between donor and candidate among the Top 25.
Landmark, with headquarters in North Bay Village, was Monestime’s top donor, more than doubling the total from the runner-up in the former North Miami council member’s reelection tally.
At a critical zoning meeting in late 2012, Monestime urged fellow commissioners to back a controversial Landmark commercial project on the site of the former Westview Country Club. Residents near the 200-acre site objected to the planned Rosal Westview retail center, but commissioners passed Monestime’s approval motion 9-2.
The Landmark project falls in Monestime’s district, which includes parts of Little Haiti and North Miami. Landmark executives did not respond to interview requests.
In an interview, Monestime noted his campaign relies on small donations. About half of his $500,000 fund-raising total came from donations of $500 or less, according to records.
“I represent a poor community,” he said. “If you look at my report and see the amount of money I’ve raised from my base, I don’t think there’s any other commissioner running that has that.”
As for Landmark, Monestime said he’s been a longtime supporter of the Rosal plan. “It makes sense they would support someone who is in favor of a project they’re doing,” he said.
While it’s no secret corporate dollars drive large donations in Miami-Dade, the Herald analysis offers another measure of the money businesses spend to influence county decisions. With commissioners overseeing a $6.3 billion budget and holding the final vote on contract awards and bid procedures, companies often see campaign contributions as a “cost of doing business” in Miami-Dade, said Katy Sorenson, a former commissioner who left office in 2010.
“They’re very much about having access to the elected officials and making sure they can make their case, whether it’s a contract or some policy or a planning issue,” said Sorenson, who held Bell’s seat and now runs the Good Government Initiative at the University of Miami. “They want to be able to ensure that commissioners will be friendly to them, so they like to donate.”
Donors note the law allows businesses to participate in elections, and that the Supreme Court considers contributions a form of political speech.
“They’re exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Miguel De Grandy, a lawyer and registered lobbyist for Transportation America. “When they see commissioners who they consider good for the community, they are happy to contribute to their campaigns.”
And while election law caps candidate donations at $1,000, there’s no prohibition against a company’s many subsidiaries and holding companies from each sending the maximum to a campaign. Transportation America donated $10,000 to Bell’s campaign committee through 11 different corporate entities all listing the same address as the family-owned company’s headquarters.
“It’s totally legal,” said Mark Herron, a Democratic elections lawyer in Tallahassee who has represented both Democratic and Republican clients. “Any type of entities can separately give a contribution up to the maximum limit.”
Rosen, Bell’s top supporter with $29,000 in contributions, is a prolific donor, giving to local, state and federal campaigns. Rosen’s biography on the website of his company, Shores Development, describes him as “a Major Donor and Majority Maker for the Republican Party.”
“I’ve been involved in politics from the federal level to the state and local level,” he said in an interview. “That’s just the way I give back.”