In 2006, en route to an upset victory, then-Miami Commission candidate Marc Sarnoff criticized an incumbent for raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers.
“When somebody gives you half a million dollars, they expect to get a return on their investment. And that return means large high-rise buildings in Miami. That's the bottom line,” Sarnoff was quoted as saying in the Miami Herald just days before he won the city’s powerful District 2 commission seat.
Nine years later, as Sarnoff prepares to leave office, and his wife campaigns for his seat, their opponents are using his words — and the nearly $900,000 in political donations they raised over the past two years — against them.
Early this week, voters received glossy mailers made to look like a Monopoly board, depicting Teresa Sarnoff as a sort of Rich Uncle Pennybags presiding over a campaign funded by special interests. Monopoly’s precious Boardwalk space, for instance, is represented by $56,000 in contributions to her campaign fund and her husband’s soft money account by entities tied to the Related Group, Miami’s premier high-rise developer.
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“Sarnoffopoly,” the center of the board reads. “A special interest money game by Miami’s big developers, lobbyists and the well-connected.”
The mailer was produced by Taxpayers Engaged, a political committee chaired by Christian Ulvert, the political consultant hired by candidate Grace Solares. Ulvert said the committee — which has received money from some of the same sources its mailer criticizes — created the mailer after reading Sarnoff’s quote from the Herald story in 2006.
“I wanted to do, in working with our design team, a piece that showcases the Sarnoff way,” said Ulvert.
Commissioner Sarnoff has certainly, like many political candidates, turned to developers, lobbyists and companies doing business with the city for campaign contributions. His ECO, Truth is the Daughter of Time, has received $318,000 through dozens of contributions, including $35,000 from entities tied to Related Group, $10,000 from the law firm of lobbyist Jorge Luis Lopez, and $10,000 from a company linked to developer Armando Codina.
Teresa Sarnoff’s campaign coffers, meanwhile, rose to $561,000 last month. Her biggest donors include Melo Group, which gave $20,000 from entities and company principals; Related Group, and Fortune International Realty, which contributed $14,000 through various corporations. She often counters criticisms by saying her campaign, which has also received hundreds of smaller contributions by residents and small business owners, is funded by the “three legs of the stool.”
Other candidates with far less money, however, have sought to use her war chest against her. Last week, during a forum in Brickell, candidates Javier Gonzalez and Ken Russell claimed that developers have been strong-armed into giving to the Sarnoffs, and only the Sarnoffs. They offered no names or evidence to back their claims.
But the Sarnoffs aren’t the only ones taking donations from developers or the “well-connected.” They’re just raising bigger amounts.
“We’re being very transparent,” Commissioner Sarnoff said during an interview. He criticized Solares for declining to file a voluntary statement for fair campaign practices, and for claiming during the candidates’ forum last week that her campaign has received only one small contribution from a developer. “We're not the ones up there saying I only got $500 from one developer.”
The Taxpayers Engaged PAC has received $3,500 from developer Martin Margulies, $1,000 from a city waste hauler, and $5,000 from Aabad Melwani, a businessman bidding to retain his stake in Miami’s Rickenbacker Marina. The PAC has also received $25,000 from an entity registered to Stephen Kneapler, the former business partner of past Miami Mayor Manny Diaz and the man who, under a different mayor, negotiated Miami’s sale of bayfront land to the county for the development of the AmericanAirlines Arena.
Sarnoff also said a complaint has been filed with the Florida Elections Commission over Ulvert’s failure to clarify his PAC’s support of Solares and opposition of Teresa Sarnoff in the current election. Ulvert contends that the PAC’s attorney advised that neither was required, in part because the committee isn’t engaged in express advocacy, and says he hasn’t been contacted about any complaint. He said he’s not worried about copyright infringement for the mailer — representatives of Hasbro, the manufacturer of Monopoly, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ulvert downplayed the PAC donors’ interests and connections with the city, calling them concerned citizens or, in Margulies’ case, an art collector. He called on Sarnoff to acknowledge just how far his current position on fundraising has strayed from his position in 2006.
“When you have a half-million given to you,” Ulvert said, “it's an investment.”