It’s election season in Miami, which means uber-activist Elvis Cruz is canvassing the tony community of Morningside introducing his preferred city commission candidate to his neighbors.
Cruz, a former Miami firefighter, has done this off and on for about a decade, previously with current District 2 Commissioner Marc Sarnoff. But this year, even though there’s a Sarnoff on the ballot, Cruz is going door to door with Grace Solares.
On an electric golf cart, they pull up to the Pardon residence on 56th Street and say hello to Leonard, a cheeky artist who has no time for Republicans (save his wife). Pardon gives Solares a once-over, learns she’s not affiliated with a political party and signals his interest, even if he’s still a bit wary of Cruz’s political judgment.
“I got to remember you brought Sarnoff here. I’ll forgive you for that,” he says.
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After the last nine years, there is noticeable Sarnoff fatigue in pockets of Miami’s District 2. Voters who continue to support the commissioner, who is term limited, might choose to stay the course by electing his wife, Teresa Sarnoff. But there are plenty of choices, including William Armbrister, Javier Gonzalez, Rosa Palomino, Ken Russell, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey and Lorry Woods. And there may not be a more obvious foil, or better shot to topple a potential Sarnoff empire, than Solares, a veteran activist with a history of challenging the city.
“Many of us supported Marc originally because he represented a fresh voice who wanted to protect the public interest,” says Cruz. “Grace is now the best embodiment of those principles.”
Solares, 69, would appear to be the antithesis of Sarnoff, even though she too supported him previously. Where the incumbent embraces Miami’s high-rise explosion and “going vertical” over urban sprawl, Solares criticizes what she sees as unfettered growth. When Sarnoff backed voter-approved city deals to redevelop city-owned waterfront in Coconut Grove and build a 1,000-foot observation tower on the bay, Solares sued to try to stop the projects.
Solares, who often sparred with former mayor Manny Diaz, has been around long enough to earn her own critics, who say she’s an anti-progress candidate in a district where new construction has helped pull Miami from the depths of a financial crisis. But Solares, a populist who says she’s never fought progress, just illegitimate process, says she’s the candidate of the people.
“We can be a force to be reckoned with,” she says, talking about what the public will “do through me” if she’s elected. “I will make a bigger difference once I’m elected because I will make them a part of my vote.”
If you want to run for commissioner, don’t tell me what’s wrong with the city, tell me how you’re going to fix it.
Pedro Diaz, political consultant
Up against a Sarnoff campaign that has raised nearly $1 million in campaign funds, and other challengers vying to win the Nov. 3 election or at least make an expected runoff two weeks later, Solares made it onto the ballot by submitting 742 valid petition signatures. She is a leader of the umbrella homeowners organization Miami Neighborhoods United, and president of the “smart-growth” nonprofit Urban Environment League. Her campaign is run by Democratic consultant Christian Ulvert.
Spending most of the $200,000 it has raised so far, her team has unleashed a slew of pro-Solares ads and a torrent of negative commercials and mailers bashing the Sarnoffs. Her campaign’s spending suggests that they’re banking as much on discontent with the incumbent as they are on Solares’ record, which she says is unparalleled by her opponents.
“What they’re talking about now in order to get elected, I’ve been talking about the last 20 years with no idea that I was going to be running for anything,” she says. “I was simply trying to work for the benefit of the taxpayers of the city.”
Solares was born in Cuba and moved to Miami with her family when she was a teenager. She has lived in the easternmost section of the Miami Roads neighborhood most her adult life, and as a divorced mother of two earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami. She holds a real estate license, and has worked for decades in law offices as a secretary and paralegal, in particular the office of former federal prosecutor Linda Carroll, who has represented Solares in multiple, unsuccessful lawsuits against the city.
Solares also has established relationships with some of the city’s current politicians. Ulvert, her consultant, says Solares has known Commissioner Francis Suarez “since he was an altar boy.” Mayor Tomás Regalado calls her a “champion of the people.” But critics say she’s never shown much of a vision for Miami.
“She never solves anything,” says Pedro Diaz, a political consultant who argued early in the campaign that Solares ought to pull out of the race and throw her support behind candidate and client Rosa Palomino. “If you want to run for commissioner, don’t tell me what’s wrong with the city, tell me how you’re going to fix it.”
What they’re talking about now in order to get elected, I’ve been talking about the last 20 years.
speaking about her opponents’ record
Some of her opponents say she’s also been disingenuous about her record. For instance, for all Solares’ railing against City Hall, Regalado is helping her raise money, and her campaign’s largest single donor is Stephen Kneapler, a Grove businessman who has been consulted by multiple mayors of Miami. And though Solares was a registered Republican until weeks after filing to run for the left-leaning District 2 — which she didn’t tell Pardon — her campaign consultant chairs a political committee, Taxpayers Engaged, that recently attacked the Sarnoffs’ support of Florida’s Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
Solares says Regalado’s support of her campaign doesn’t mean she’s in lockstep with his decisions, some of which she’s openly criticized, and her campaign has dismissed many criticisms as noise intended to drown out her message. Cruz, who gave $5,000 to Taxpayers Engaged, says Solares “is far and away the most experienced, trustworthy and public-spirited candidate, not beholden to the special interests.”
Soon it will be up for voters to decide, as they choose whether to vote Sarnoff, or not to vote Sarnoff.
Driving through Morningside in August with Solares, Cruz passes Roy Wallace as he’s about to go on a bicycle ride and stops to sell him on voting for the longtime activist, whom he met 11 years ago at City Hall. Wallace doesn’t say if he’ll vote for her, but he tells them he’s “glad someone is challenging the status quo.”
“Sometimes too much of one thing,” Wallace says, “is good for nothing.”
Education: Graduated in 1994 from the University of Miami with a bachelor’s degree in history.
Born: Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba
Residence: The Roads