Miami-Dade County

Running for county mayor again, Alex Penelas snags Miami-Dade’s top donor (so far)

Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and his wife, Lilliam, pose at a 2015 event. Out of public life since leaving office in 2004, Penelas is preparing to run for mayor again in 2020.
Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas and his wife, Lilliam, pose at a 2015 event. Out of public life since leaving office in 2004, Penelas is preparing to run for mayor again in 2020. ALBERTO E. TAMARGO

Last month, Miami healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez wrote a $100,000 check to the political committee that Alex Penelas hopes will get him elected county mayor again.

The April 10 donation to Penelas’ Bold Vision committee makes Fernandez the largest single donor so far in the 2020 race for Miami-Dade mayor, according to a Miami Herald review of campaign filings. With 15 months to go until the first votes are cast for a successor to term-limited Carlos Gimenez, official and unofficial candidates are raising money to prepare for a contest that’s sure to set new records for political spending in Miami-Dade.

So far, the contender with the most money in the bank is County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, one of the two candidates who have actually filed for the 2020 mayoral race. The other is a former county commissioner, Juan C. Zapata. Out of office since 2016, Zapata has not made a splash with fundraising. As of May 1, his campaign account had $23,000 in donations and Zapata said he had not yet formed a political committee for the race.

Levine Cava, now in her second term, reported more than $800,000 in cash from her mayoral campaign and her political committee, Our Democracy. That puts her ahead of fellow commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo ($630,000 in his political committee, Transportation Solutions for Miami-Dade) and Xavier Suarez ($709,000 in his committee, Imagine Miami), who are raising money like mayoral candidates but haven’t confirmed 2020 runs. Penelas has about $500,000 in Bold Vision.

“I’ve been told it’s a several-million-dollar race,” Levine Cava said. “That’s what I’m planning.”

Miami-Dade Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava announces her bid for county mayor on Tuesday, April 2, 2019, at the Elections Department in Doral. Of the official and unofficial candidates for the 2020 race, Levine Cava has the most money to spend — about $800,000. Emily Michot

Gimenez set a new record for a countywide race in Miami-Dade when he raised $7 million for his 2016 reelection effort against challenger Raquel Regalado. That race stretched into November when Gimenez fell just shy of the 50 percent tally needed to end the nonpartisan contest in the August primary. In 2020, Gimenez predicts candidates vying for his office will have to spend $10 million to be competitive in an open mayoral race.

“You have so many candidates that will be able to raise a good amount of money,” Gimenez said Tuesday. He’s assuming another runoff, with the top two contenders having to raise millions once they get through the Aug. 25, 2020, primary and have to compete in a two-person race on Election Day. “I think you’re going to have to get to $10 million” by November.

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Esteban “Steve” Bovo, left, a Miami-Dade commissioner, is preparing a run for county mayor in 2020 to succeed incumbent Carlos Gimenez, right, who must leave office after finishing his second term. Pedro Portal El Nuevo Herald

Two potential candidates, former Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera and former Congressman Carlos Curbelo, haven’t raised money in 2019.

For his tally, Penelas relied on Fernandez for about 20 cents of every dollar raised since forming Bold Vision in early April. Penelas left the mayor’s office in 2004 after serving the maximum of two consecutive terms. After a failed bid for U.S. Senate, the Democrat moved into suburban real estate as an apartment developer and condominium converter.

Mike Fernandez, a healthcare executive in Miami, is backing Alex Penelas for mayor in 2020 with the largest donation (so far) of the campaign. Tom Hudson WLRN file photo

“I’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Penelas said. “There are people who are running for mayor, or who may be running for mayor, who have been raising money for seven or eight years.”

Bovo, a former commission chairman who now is chairman of the board’s transportation committee, formed his political committee in 2015. Since 2018, his top donor has been lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez, who gave $30,000. Bovo said he’s “warming” to the idea of a mayoral run, but that his fundraising results don’t reflect his most aggressive efforts.

“I think you’ll notice the difference after I am in campaign mode,” he said. “I haven’t made raising money a priority so far.”

Levine Cava, the wealthiest of the 13 county commissioners, received the most contributions in the last two years from her mother, Lois Levine, who gave $50,000.

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Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a former Miami mayor and the father of the current Miami mayor, said he expects to run for county mayor in 2020.

The top donor in that same time period for Suarez was Mike Eidson, a lawyer pushing a preservation plan for the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Suarez’s district. Eidson gave $37,500, and people working at his Coral Gables law firm, Colson Hicks Eidson, gave $8,500.

Suarez, a former Miami mayor whose son, Francis, now holds the office, on Tuesday said he is probably going to run for county mayor now that’s he’s approaching the $1 million mark for 2019. “I wanted to be sure I could raise a substantial amount of money,” he said. “I guess it’s feasible.”