Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava formally entered the 2020 race for mayor on Tuesday, launching a campaign expected to test the ability of a Democrat to ride a local blue wave into County Hall during next year’s presidential election.
Now in her fifth year on the commission, the former social worker and charity executive has championed most liberal causes facing the 13-member board, including legislation to boost wages for employees of county vendors, mandate developers create affordable housing, and to ban Styrofoam packaging on Miami-Dade beaches. Levine Cava, 63, is the first sitting elected official to join the race to succeed Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican in an officially nonpartisan post who must leave in 2020 under the county’s term-limit rules.
“What we all need is a mayor who cares,“ Levine Cava said to dozens of supporters gathered at the county’s Elections Department in Doral, where she filed to run for the August 2020 primary that will be the mayoral race’s first big contest. “With your support, I am prepared to be that mayor.”
Levine Cava opposed Gimenez’s 2017 order to reverse county policy and begin accepting all detention requests that federal immigration authorities send local jails when an inmate is sought for possible deportation. The policy switch, issued days after Donald Trump took office and ratified by a divided County Commission weeks later, drew Trump’s first presidential endorsement of a municipal policy on Twitter.
With about 17 months until a primary that could decide the race, Levine Cava’s candidacy officially doubles the field.
Juan Zapata, a former commissioner and Republican who served with Levine Cava until dropping his reelection bid in 2016, filed to run in January. But other prominent politicians have signaled they’re either running or strongly considering a mayoral bid, including fellow commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Xavier Suarez, former U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, former Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, and former county mayor Alex Penelas.
“It was starting to feel a little bit lonely,” Zapata said of the nine weeks when he was the county’s only candidate for mayor. Zapata served on the commission with Levine Cava, who won her District 8 seat representing South Dade in 2014 when she ousted incumbent Lynda Bell, a conservative Republican.
Asked about Levine Cava’s potential as mayor, Zapata said: “I get the sense she’d want to grow the size of government, and add more bureaucracy. Honestly, my campaign is about transforming that government. And not expanding it.”
Penelas is the only other Democrat in the unofficial and undeclared field so far, making him Levine Cava’s primary competition for the loyalty of a party that makes up 42 percent of the county electorate (compared to 26 percent for Republicans, and 31 percent for voters without a party).
Levine Cava did not mention President Trump in the prepared remarks she read in English and Spanish, which laid out a campaign focused on more affordable housing, better transit, wider prosperity and preparations for sea-level rise. “There’s no need for despair,” she said. “We are survivors. We have weathered hurricanes. We have embraced the most diverse set of cultures of any U.S. city. And we have overcome economic downturns.”
In an interview, she said she was not planning a campaign framed around partisan themes. “People that I talk with want a mayor ... that will take care of business,” she said. “There are a few issues that come along that might fall on a partisan spectrum. But mostly people want common sense solutions.”
Candidates have until June 2, 2020, to file for mayor. Levine Cava’s term as the District 8 commissioner doesn’t expire until 2022, and state rules require her to resign ahead of the filing date for mayor next year. That would add yet another open commission seat to the 2020 calendar, when the seven odd-numbered districts are up for election, too. Term-limit rules mean only two incumbents in those seats, District 5’s Eileen Higgins and District 11’s Joe Martinez, can run again.
Because county offices are nonpartisan, all candidates for mayor will face each other in a single Aug. 25 primary in 2020. If one candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she wins. If not, the top two finishers compete in a November runoff on Election Day in a county that Hillary Clinton won by 30 points over Trump.
Two Republicans, Gimenez and former school board member Raquel Regalado, made it into the runoff for the 2016 mayoral contest. No prominent Democrat opted to challenge Gimenez, despite an effort by the state party to recruit a challenger. Democratic operatives in Miami-Dade have been spoiling to back a mayoral candidate in 2020 who could ride a blue wave in November and tap into the effort to unseat Trump.
“The Democratic nominee will carry Miami-Dade County by at least 200,000 votes, which will likely give a coattail effect to whoever is the Democrat running for mayor,” said Fernand Amandi, a partner in Coconut Grove’s Bendixen & Amandi polling firm and a consultant for Democratic campaigns. “I think the math suggests it would be wise for Daniella Levine Cava — or any Democrat — to turn the county mayor’s race into a partisan race.”
Christian Ulvert, Levine Cava’s top consultant, was paid by the Democratic Party to run Higgins’ successful 2018 County Commission campaign, which included mailers linking her opponents to Trump. He said party affiliation will be “a distinguishing factor” for Levine Cava, but that the candidate’s track record on and off the commission will produce the main themes. “Daniella’s path is based on over 35 years of service in the community,” he said.
With a declared net worth of more than $8 million, Levine Cava is the wealthiest member of the 13-seat commission. Before running for office she ran Catalyst Miami, an anti-poverty charity she founded after a career in social work. In the private sector, she went by Daniella Levine. As a candidate, she ran as Daniella Levine Cava, expanding to include her husband’s name in part, she said, to highlight that she spoke Spanish.
On the commission, Levine Cava wound up in the minority for some of the board’s most controversial votes. She was the only vote against the American Dream Miami mega-mall last year, and on the losing side months later on a vote to create a rapid-transit bus system for South Dade. Levine Cava joined the side pushing a $1 billion Metrorail expansion instead, which the Gimenez administration said the county could not afford.
If elected, she would be Miami-Dade’s first female mayor and Levine Cava chose “Equal Pay Day” — a day aimed at highlighting the gender gap on incomes — to launch her run. Levine Cava sponsored legislation that produced a recent Florida International University study showing women in Miami-Dade, on average, earn 85 cents for every dollar of income for men.
“I will never stop fighting for equality and opportunity, regardless of who you are,” Levine Cava said.