Incumbents looked more vulnerable in June after first-time candidate Eileen Higgins beat establishment favorites for an open seat on the 13-member commission, but Tuesday’s results showed sitting commissioners cruising to victory in their bids to hold office for another four years. With close to 85 percent of the county’s precincts reporting results, commissioners Daniella Levine Cava, Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Jean Monestime, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto each beat their nearest competitors by a spread of somewhere between 30 and 55 percentage points.
Each ran separately in their districts for a 13-seat board that staggers its nonpartisan August primaries every two years. Each incumbent won more than the 50 percent share of the vote needed to end the election after the primary, rather than face a November runoff. Along with dispatching challengers, some of the wins marked defeats for some significant players in local politics.
American Dream Miami, the mega-mall planned for Northwest Miami-Dade, bankrolled the campaign by Gus Barreiro, a former Republican state lawmaker, against Levine Cava. Levine Cava was the lone commissioner to vote against the $4 billion project in May. Donors tied to American Dream, a top donor in other county elections, gave Barreiro about $109,000 of the $133,000 he raised for the race.
The well-funded challenge wasn’t enough to threaten Levine Cava, who took about 62 percent of the vote to win her second term representing South Dade’s District 8. Barreiro took just under 22 percent of the vote, and the third candidate, Johnathan Burke, won roughly 17 percent.
The Democratic Party targeted two Republican incumbents, Diaz and Sosa, in an effort to tie them to President Donald Trump. That was part of the winning strategy for Higgins in the June 19 special election for District 5. The local Democratic leader defeated Zoraida Barreiro to win the seat that Barreiro’s husband, Bruno Barreiro, relinquished to run in a Republican congressional primary (which he lost Tuesday night). Higgins also beat former state Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican.
But Republicans outnumber Democrats in District 6, where Sosa was running for a fifth term. She ended the evening with the largest margin of victory among the incumbents, taking more than 75 percent of the vote. Maryin Vargas, a Democrat and condo-reform advocate, benefited from a national postcard campaign aimed at helping turnout for Democratic voters. Sosa also was hit with attack mailers trying to link her to President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. Vargas took less than 25 percent of the vote.
“I think it shows that when Democrats can focus all of their resources into one race, they can over-perform,” said Nelson Diaz, chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Party. “But they can’t handle too many races. They went in hard, and they lost badly.”
A “blue wave” wasn’t Diaz’s top worry as he sought a fifth term representing District 12, a western zone anchored by Doral where Republicans also outnumber Democrats. This was his first election since a 2015 drunken-driving arrest during a motorcycle trip to Key West. He declined to let the police test his breath for alcohol, and a jury later acquitted him on the charges. During the campaign, he was slammed by mailers showing body-camera footage of the arrest.
The best-funded of his two opponents, Rafael Pineyro, also is the first challenger in recent memory to be endorsed by a sitting commissioner. Xavier Suarez, who represents District 7 and wasn’t up for reelection this year, used his political committee to fund attack ads against Diaz.
Diaz had the lowest vote total among the incumbents, but still managed to more than double the vote received by Pineyro. Diaz captured about 60 percent of the vote to easily win a fifth term. Pineyro took 26 percent and Patricio Moreno, a former candidate for the state Legislature who was recruited by the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to challenge Diaz, took 14 percent.
“It was dirty and ugly,” Diaz said of the race. “With the votes we won today, it’s very satisfying. I’ll be saying ‘thank you’ for a long time.”
The 13-seat commission has elections every other year, with odd-numbered districts chosen the same year as presidential elections and even-numbered districts decided 24 months later. Sally Heyman, who represents District 4, was the lone incumbent in an even-numbered district to face no challenger when the filing deadline passed in June.
Despite the advantages reaffirmed on Primary Night, Tuesday also marked the end of an era for veterans of the County Commission. Term limits approved by voters in 2012 bar commissioners from running for a third consecutive four-year term. For commissioners on the board that year, the new rules meant a maximum of two more terms. The commissioners from odd-numbered districts who were reelected in 2016 must leave in 2020. Heyman and the five incumbents who held onto their even-numbered seats on Tuesday must leave in 2022.
The incumbents went into the election with a massive fundraising advantage: Five sitting commissioners raised 90 cents of every dollar of the more than $3 million donated in the races. The 10 challengers accounted for the remaining dime.
Party affiliation wasn’t a factor in District 2, where Monestime won a second rematch against a fellow Democrat: former commissioner Dorrin Rolle.
Monestime unseated Rolle in 2010 to win his first term on the commission representing an area that includes North Miami and North Miami Beach, and then went on to face a challenge from Rolle in 2014. For Rolle’s second challenge this year, he received 35 percent of the vote — the strongest result of any challenger in a Miami-Dade commission race. But Monestime took 65 percent in the two-candidate race, handing him a third term on the commission.
Souto faced the most challengers among the sitting commissioners, and took 62 percent in the five-person race to represent District 10. Another western district, it includes the neighborhoods of Westchester, Fontainebleau and parts of Kendall.
First elected in 1993, the former state senator won his seventh full term on the commission, continuing his tenure as one of the two longest-serving commissioners (Dennis Moss, of District 9, is the other). He beat Jose Garrido (14 percent), Alfred Santamaria (11 percent), Roberto Suarez Jr. (9 percent), and Julio Sanchez (4 percent). Sanchez was the lone Democrat in the race against a Republican incumbent, but the Democratic Party did not get involved in that race, said county chairman Juan Cuba.
“It’s always incredibly difficult to defeat an incumbent,” Cuba said. “I think the Higgins win showed that, in an open race, people do want something different.”