Term limits are finally kicking in for Miami-Dade commissioners next year, and the race to replace them has spawned more competitive, high-profile contests than the county board has seen in at least a generation. And that was even before Hillary Clinton got involved.
Five commissioners with 71 combined years on the dais are required to leave office in November 2020. That alone gives Miami-Dade the most open board seats since a court ordered the creation of geographic commission districts in 1992 to protect minority voting rights.
But the open seats don’t stop there, since two commissioners safe from term limits until 2022 are running for Miami-Dade mayor in 2020. Candidates are already lining up to pounce on the special elections that would likely be called if Daniella Levine Cava and Jean Monestime end up on the mayoral ballot next summer.
If nobody drops out, a majority of the 13-seat board would be occupied by new officeholders at the end of 2020, joining the first new mayor since 2011 when a term-limited Carlos Gimenez gets replaced after presiding over county government for nine years.
“It’s a sad time,” said Audrey Edmonson, the chairwoman of the commission forced to leave office next November after 14 years. “If you don’t have an experienced commission, you won’t be able to see through what the lobbyists are telling you.”
If some commissioners are lamenting their coming exits, others see the forced change as a chance to refresh county governance.
“It should be seen as a positive development to see fresh faces,” said Marili Cancio Johnson, an appointee by Gov. Ron DeSantis to a local toll board created by a state law Miami-Dade is suing to overturn. “These are good candidates with experience. ... It’s very hard to beat an incumbent.”
Voters overwhelmingly approved term limits for commissioners in 2012, but past time on the board didn’t count toward the cap on two consecutive four-year terms. That made 2020 the first forced exits for commissioners in office in 2012. The contest to replace them has attracted a string of officeholders and prominent community activists running for the open seats.
“I haven’t seen anything like it,” said Oliver Gilbert, the Miami Gardens mayor running to succeed four-term incumbent Barbara Jordan in District 1.
Gilbert happens to find himself in the most high-profile race in the history of commission politics, thanks to the other candidate in the District 1 race.
Sybrina Fulton, a social-justice activist and mother of the late Trayvon Martin, has used her national profile to solicit small donations across the country. That effort received an unprecedented boost on Sept. 27 when Clinton endorsed Fulton in a Twitter post with a fundraising link for the District 1 candidate.
“A Mother of the Movement to prevent gun violence, @SybrinaFulton has already helped turn tragedy into action,” read the Clinton post about a surrogate who joined the 2016 Democratic nominee for two weeks on the presidential campaign. “If you can, contribute to help her win and make the change we need.”
Within a week, Chelsea Clinton and New Jersey’s Cory Booker, a Democratic senator and presidential candidate, followed up with their own Fulton endorsements for the kind of county race that typically attracts fewer than 30,000 voters. The famous backing isn’t expected to alter the broader financial landscape, though, with Gilbert leaning on establishment county donors to maintain a significant fundraising edge. He raised $640,000 through September, compared to $42,000 for Fulton.
“We’re not trying to win a fundraising war with Oliver Gilbert,” said Darnell Roberts, Fulton’s political director. “We’re not calling lobbyists. We’re not calling developers.”
Gilbert, a two-term mayor who won Jordan’s endorsement after entering the District 1 race, said he isn’t concerned about national attention for his opponent.
“I think all politics are local,” he said. “Everybody can tweet. ... Only the residents of District 1 can vote.”
If Fulton and Gilbert are running in the commission race getting the most exposure, the most crowded race is in a district about 45 miles away.
The District 9 seat being vacated in 2020 by Dennis Moss after 27 years on the commission has attracted three sitting officeholders — Kionne McGhee, a state representative and leader of the Florida House Democrats; Homestead City Council member Elvis Maldonado; and Johnny Farias, who holds an elected seat on a zoning board known as the South Bay Community Council.
Also running are Mark Coats, a pastor and former county administrator, and lawyer Marlon Hill, whose $155,000 fundraising total puts him in second place behind McGhee’s tally of nearly $375,000.
“Everybody wants to be a part of what’s going to be an historic County Commission,” said J.C. Planas, an election lawyer active in Miami-Dade politics and a former state lawmaker. “This is going to be the largest number of new commissioners since” the court-ordered redistricting.
Commission terms are staggered so that board members from odd-numbered districts face voters during presidential years and the even-numbered districts are up during gubernatorial years in the Sunshine State. By 2022, each of the commissioners in office when the term-limit referendum passed will be forced to leave the board.
By then, the only current incumbents allowed to remain on the board would be District 5’s Eileen Higgins and District 11 Joe Martinez — provided the single-term commissioners are reelected next year. Both face challengers: former Miami commission candidate Miguel Soliman is running against Higgins, and former state representative Robert Asencio, D-Miami, filed in September for Martinez’s seat. Martinez said he plans to run again in 2020 but hasn’t filed for the race.
Candidates have until noon on June 9 to qualify for Miami-Dade’s commission and mayoral races. Florida law requires qualified candidates holding other offices to resign by November 2020, a rule that would likely trigger special elections in 2020 for the District 2 seat held by Monestime and Levine Cava’s District 8 seat. The remaining commissioners could also name interim commissioners to fill the seats.
While candidates can’t file for those hypothetical contests, contenders are already lining up for the races by registering to run in 2022. Marleine Bastien, a Haitian-American activist and director of the Family Action Network Movement in Miami, and former North Miami City Council member Jean Rodrigue Marcellus are both registered to run for District 2 in 2022.
And while neither candidate has raised more than $1,000 for that contest to succeed Monestime, the money race is picking up steam to replace Levine Cava.
Lawyer Danielle Cohen Higgins raised about $140,000 since filing her candidacy papers in May. Leonarda Duran Buike, a medical practitioner and local activist for the Democratic Party, raised about $17,000.
John DuBois, vice mayor of Palmetto Bay and owner of the video-surveillance company Eyecast, has more money in the bank than any commission candidate after loaning his campaign $1 million in April. He’s raised an additional $45,000 since then. In the event of a special election, candidates can transfer campaign dollars to that contest.
Candidates typically raise money for at least a year ahead of county races that often get decided in nonpartisan August primaries. If no candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote in that contest, the top two finishers face off on Election Day in November.
An open seat doesn’t guarantee a slog for candidates. The District 13 seat being vacated by mayoral candidate Esteban “Steve” Bovo next year only has one candidate, former state senator Rene Garcia.
In the District 3 race to succeed Edmonson, Miami commissioner Keon Hardemon is the only candidate to raise significant dollars. Hardemon, who must leave his city seat in 2021 because of Miami’s term-limit rules, has taken in about $260,000 since filing for the county race in May. The other two candidates, both seeking their first elected office, Eddie Lewis and Temidayo Olukemi Ogedengbe, have not raised money but Lewis has given or loaned his campaign about $5,000.
The most high-profile race in the commission cycle may still be yet to come. Gimenez, who held the District 7 seat until he won his first election for mayor in 2011, told WLRN on Oct. 8 he may try to reclaim his old commission seat.
In the interview, Gimenez said he’s weighing a run for the commission seat being vacated by Xavier Suarez, the term-limited father of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and a candidate to succeed Gimenez as county mayor.
Gimenez’s public maybe for District 7 — he’s also weighing a run in a Republican congressional primary — has the existing candidates competing in a contest that could be rattled by a two-term mayor who raised a record $7 million for his 2016 reelection.
“I have been told that people are waiting to see what Gimenez does,” said former Pinecrest mayor Cindy Lerner, who has raised about $190,000 for the contest. Her District 7 opponent, former school board member Raquel Regalado, has taken in about $32,000. The radio host was Gimenez’s main rival in the 2016 mayoral race, and said she’s not worried about facing him again in 2020.
“I don’t care if he runs,” Regalado said. “I’m running in District 7, no matter what. “