Daniella Levine Cava claimed victory Tuesday night against incumbent Miami-Dade Commissioner Lynda Bell after a costly race that was divided along partisan and ideological lines, and ended with the former charity executive posting a small but stubborn lead against the one-term commissioner.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Levine Cava led Bell by 688 votes out of more than 17,000 cast. Bell, who scheduled no post-election celebration, offered no remarks, and she and her aides did not respond to repeated telephone calls. In a texts message Wednesday morning, Bell said her campaign would be releasing a statement soon.
Levine Cava’s apparent win was a rare defeat for an incumbent county commissioner and reset the voting balance on the 13-member commission, strengthening its progressive wing.
Shortly after 10:20 p.m., Levine Cava took the microphone at her Palmetto Bay election party and declared victory in her run for elected office.
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“The results are clear, and my platform is clear,” she told the crowd of supporters. “After a good night’s sleep, I am ready to go.”
As midnight approached, Levine Cava held 52 percent of the vote, compared with Bell’s 48 percent.
The fight for Bell’s District 8 seat was easily the most competitive of the four commission races being decided Tuesday, with three other incumbents winning easy reelections. Combined, the Bell and Levine Cava campaigns raised about $1.2 million, making the contest for the South Miami-Dade district that includes Homestead and Cutler Bay the most expensive in commission history.
By Wednedsay morning, Miami-Dade’s election department said it had counted all but provisional ballots that need review by a special canvassing panel. The result in District 8: Levine Cava with 9,078 votes, and Bell with 8,390 votes. The margin stood at 51.97 percent for Levine Cava and 48.03 percent for Bell.
Though officially nonpartisan, the commission primary race also became a fight between parties, with the GOP backing fellow Republican Bell, a former Homestead mayor, and Democrats working to elect Levine Cava, until recently head of the Catalyst Miami nonprofit. Miami-Dade unions lent their organizing muscle to Levine Cava, while Bell enjoyed an incumbent’s typical backing from some of the county’s top lobbyists and business interests.
The election marks a setback for Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who supported Bell, helped her raise money and has generally counted his fellow Republican as an ally in his push for union concessions. Gimenez is pressuring unions to accept less-generous healthcare plans, and the police union — one of the biggest backers of Levine Cava — is resisting the change.
A Levine Cava win also is sure to ripple throughout Miami-Dade’s political world. Democrats said they were using the District 8 race as a warm-up for the 2016 mayoral race, in hopes of mounting a challenge to Gimenez’s reelection effort. Bell’s win in 2010 marked a major GOP win in the Democrat-leaning district, which had been represented by one of the 13-seat commission’s most liberal members, Katy Sorenson.
In Tuesday’s early results, Bell bested Levine Cava in absentee balloting, taking about a 530-vote advantage. But Levine Cava took the early-voting results, with an edge of about 900 votes. Levine Cava’s lead mostly grew as Election Day results began posting on the county’s website.
While Bell’s reelection fight attracted the most cash and attention, Commissoner Jean Monestime faced one of the best-known candidates in the race: former Miami-Dade Commissioner Dorrin Rolle. Monestime ousted Rolle from the District 2 seat in 2010, and the rematch pitted Monestime’s $500,000 campaign war chest and four-year record against Rolle’s lingering popularity from his 12 years representing one of Miami-Dade’s poorest districts. District 2 includes parts of Little Haiti, Liberty City and North Miami.
Even members of Monestime’s inner circle pointed to Rolle’s high name recognition as a worry. But Monestime defeated Rolle soundly — with nearly 90 percent of District 2’s precincts reporting, the incumbent had won two votes for every one Rolle received. A third candidate, A.D. Lenoir Sr., came in a distant third.
“We had a campaign that everyone was a part of. We had support from every segment of our community,” Monestime said at a victory party in the Joe Celestin Community Center in North Miami, where he once served on the city council. “We will continue with that and represent those who supported us and those who didn’t. Those who like me and those who don’t.”
He then added: “Though I’m sure everyone likes me.”
The remaining two commission races pitted incumbents against rookie candidates. Three-term commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz captured 73 percent of the votes in District 12 against former schools administrator Marjorie Figueira, who received 27 percent. Figueira responded to a television ad, seeking candidates to challenge incumbents, that was funded by the group pushing for additional tax dollars for animal services in Miami-Dade.
Javier Souto, now in his third decade as District 10’s commissioner, also held an overwhelming lead over Marina Meadows, with 78 percent of the early votes and absentee ballots to Meadows’ 22 percent.
The elections are officially primaries, but the two-person races will be final. Had a candidate not won more than 50 percent of the vote in District 2, the top two vote-getters would have faced a runoff in November.
Tuesday’s results marked only the third time in 20 years that an incumbent county commissioner lost a reelection bid in Miami-Dade. Katy Sorenson unseated Commissioner Larry Hawkins in 1994, followed by Monestime’s 2010 ouster of Rolle. Sorenson left the commission in 2010, creating the open seat that Bell ultimately won.
In taking the District 8 seat four years ago, Bell first beat Charlie Crist’s current gubernatorial running mate, Annette Taddeo, during her own run in the county commission primary, and then went on to beat former Palmetto Bay mayor Eugene Flinn in a November runoff.
Bell tried to brand Levine Cava as someone reckless with public money, sending campaign mailers alleging that Levine Cava tacitly endorsed the unpopular 2009 financing deal for Marlins Park. The allegation was tied to comments that an employee of the social-services agency Levine Cava ran, Catalyst Miami, made at a Marlins hearing, which Bell claimed were supportive of the plan but which the Levine Cava campaign said weren’t and noted that the Catalyst executive signed up to speak in opposition to the stadium.
The issue was on the mind of Alvaro Garcia, 68, as he went to vote in the Coral Reef library in Palmetto Bay, a key battleground for the District 8 race.
“I don't want to vote for Levine,” said Garcia, a Republican and retired teacher. “I was always opposed to the stadium issue, and I don’t think our money should be involved in that.”
Levine Cava spent the day visiting polling places in Cutler Bay, Palmetto Bay and Kendall, dropping in on a robust volunteer corps made up in part of county firefighters and police officers who endorsed her.
At the Leewood K-8 Center in Kendall, she met up with her husband, physician Robert Cava, who had manned the post all day with picnic tables and chairs he brought from home and set up under a tree. He offered water from a cooler to volunteers and to the slow trickle of voters.
Most people who showed up were dropping off or picking up their kids from school. Still, Levine Cava jogged across the grass to greet them.
One voter promised to cast her ballot for her — and did, she said after voting.
“I didn’t think Lynda Bell did a lot since she’s been there,” said Elizabeth Buchholz, a college professor and Kendall resident. “I think it’s time for a change.”
Miami Herald staff writer Philippe Buteau, Matias Ocner and Jackie Salo contributed to this report.