Voters in a South Florida Democratic primary looked into Michael Grieco’s soul — and decided they wanted to send him to Tallahassee as a state representative.
Grieco, a former Miami Beach commissioner who resigned over a campaign-finance scandal last year, won the Democratic primary Tuesday for state House District 113. His opponents were Deede Weithorn, also a former Beach commissioner, and Kubs Lalchandani, an attorney.
With nearly all precincts reporting, Grieco held 41 percent of the vote. Weithorn had 35 percent and Lalchandani 23 percent. More than 8,300 people had voted in the district, which covers Miami Beach, parts of downtown Miami and Little Havana and North Bay Village.
It was a remarkable comeback for Grieco, who last October stood before a judge as a criminal defendant.
“This has been quite a year,” Grieco told supporters at a South Beach tavern Tuesday night. “It takes guts to stick your neck out for a candidate.”
The district leans strongly Democratic, meaning Grieco, a criminal defense attorney, will likely earn victory in November’s general election against Republican Jonathan Parker. The seat was vacated when David Richardson ran in a Democratic primary for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“We need to thump the Republican,” Grieco said. “We need to let them know we’re coming up there with a mandate from this district.”
The primary race featured few substantive policy differences — and hard negative campaigning. All the candidates had vulnerabilities.
After stepping down as commissioner last year, Grieco cut a plea deal with state prosecutors over a campaign-finance scandal that he swore he had nothing to do with. “You can look right into my soul,” he told Miami Herald reporters before it became apparent that he had secretly controlled a controversial political action money raising money for his aborted run for Beach mayor.
Weithorn, meanwhile, told shifting stories about earning a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before admitting she had not graduated. And Lalchandani’s work as a lawyer for plastic surgery centers with dodgy safety records drew criticism. (Neither answered phone message from the Herald Tuesday.)
But Grieco’s scandal stood out, ending as it did with him agreeing not to run for public office for six months as part of his no-contest plea. He returned to politics days after the ban expired to launch his bid for state House, all the while refusing to admit wrongdoing. State prosecutors had charged him with knowingly accepting a $25,000 donation from a straw donor acting on behalf of a Norwegian millionaire, a misdemeanor crime. Foreign nationals aren’t allowed to contribute to U.S. elections.
Some voters remembered that.
“Grieco doesn’t have the best reputation,” Kurt Morrow, 62, said outside a North Beach polling place Tuesday. “I can’t justify voting for him.”
Still, Grieco’s constant presence at community events and dedicated constituent service as a Beach commissioner won him loyalty.
“We just feel like he’s a part of the community, not an outsider,” said Paola Palmieri, 38, who voted for Grieco.
And others, like Beach resident Sergio Menezes, saw the scandal as just politics as usual.
“He’s been attacked for something that all candidates likely do anyway: raising money,” Menezes said. “Unfortunately, he got caught.”
Although he triumphed in the election, Grieco still faces charges from the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust that he lied about his connection to the PAC and an open inquiry from the Florida Bar.
Grieco said the scandal did not “resonate” with the voters he met.
Sitting on the ground outside South Pointe Tavern sipping a Blue Moon, Grieco said voters knew who he was — and what he stood for.
“They care about hard work,” he said. “And they care about the retail delivery of government.”
In another hard-fought Democratic primary, attorney Dotie Joseph beat one-term incumbent Roy Hardemon to represent a district in eastern Miami-Dade. Also in the race: immigration consultant Joseph Beauvil.
With all the votes tallied, Joseph had 49 percent of the vote, compared to 36 percent for Hardemon and 15 percent for Beauvil.
In the days leading up to the District 108 election, Hardemon accused Democratic leaders in Miami-Dade of racism, saying they were trying to force him from office and “lynch” him. (Party officials denied that.) But Hardemon’s criminal history, with 19 arrests since 1987, also became a campaign issue, as did a controversial vote last year on a charter school initiative that saw him break from his own party.
Lucien Jean-Baptiste, 70, said the district — which includes the neighborhoods of Liberty City and Little Haiti, and the villages of El Portal and Biscayne Park — needed a change.
“I heard she has good positions on schools,” Jean-Baptise, a retired truck driver who goes to church with Joseph’s father, said after casting his vote for the challenger. “She wants to help the young people.
Still, Hardemon comes from a powerful Miami political family. His nephew Keon Hardemon is a Miami commissioner. That pedigree stuck out to some voters.
“He’s a Democrat and he’s black,” said Shirley Louis, 31, at a Little River polling place. “I never heard of Joseph.”
Neither Joseph nor Hardemon returned calls Tuesday night.
GOP primary results
- District 115: Vance Aloupis won ahead of Jose Fernandez and Rhonda Lopez, respectively, with Carlos Gobel running a distant fourth. The race featured a spat over ethnic politics in the heavily Cuban district, an inland strip of central Miami-Dade, after Fernandez, the only Cuban-born candidate, said the other candidates were pandering to Cubans.
- District 116: First-term incumbent Daniel Anthony Perez handily beat challenger Frank Polo, Jr.
- District 119: Attorney Juan Fernandez-Barquin was victorious over three challengers: Analeen “Annie” Martinez, Bibiana “Bibi” Potestad, and Enrique Lopez.
Democratic primary results
- District 103: First-time candidate Cindy Polo beat local college professor Rick Tapia.
- District 105: Javier Estevez won over Ross Hancock for the seat vacated by Republican State Rep. Carlos Trujillo. Estevez is an assistant store manager on Miami Beach. Hancock has run several times for public offices.
- District 109: Former State Rep. James Bush III defeated Cedric McMinn, an aide for term-limited State Rep. Cynthia Stafford, who endorsed him for her old seat. With no Republican in the race, the primary winner earns a seat in Tallahassee. The district represents parts of Brownsville, Overtown, Allapattah and Wynwood. McMinn would have been the first gay black lawmaker elected to Florida’s Legislature.
District 115: Jeffrey Solomon, a longtime community activist, easily beat James Linwood Schulman, a millennial making his first run at political office.
Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report