Miami-Dade County

Miami commission candidates want to be more than spoilers

Candidates who are campaigning to claim the Miami Commission seat held by term-limited commissioner Marc Sarnoff attend a candidates forum at the Coconut Grove Woman's Club on Tuesday September 29, 2015. From left to right: Williams Armbrister, Javier Gonzalez, Rosa Palomino, Ken Russell, Teresa Sarnoff, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey, Grace Solares, Lorry Woods.
Candidates who are campaigning to claim the Miami Commission seat held by term-limited commissioner Marc Sarnoff attend a candidates forum at the Coconut Grove Woman's Club on Tuesday September 29, 2015. From left to right: Williams Armbrister, Javier Gonzalez, Rosa Palomino, Ken Russell, Teresa Sarnoff, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey, Grace Solares, Lorry Woods. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

One played a zombie named Orville in a cult film. Another runs a downtown pub and married her husband in a Vegas service officiated by an Elvis impersonator.

There’s also an elementary teacher who produces a late-night political radio show; a self-made, Maserati-driving Re/Max agent; a retired Florida Power & Light employee who sometimes speaks in the third person, and a pizza-joint manager happy simply to make it onto the ballot.

They are part of “the field” in the nine-candidate race to win Miami’s powerful District 2 commission seat, which represents the city’s waterfront communities from Coconut Grove to Morningside. They don’t have the money, name-recognition or endorsements of the three frontrunners angling to win the Nov. 3 election. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance.

“It’s not a three-person race,” says Javier “Jav” Gonzalez, a real estate agent who as of mid-October had loaned his campaign $43,600. “When I knock on doors and I walk the streets, there’s a different sentiment.”

It’s not a three-person race.

Candidate Javier Gonzalez

Though fighting for votes with fewer resources makes winning an uphill battle, Gonzalez, Williams Armbrister, Rosa Palomino, Mike Simpson, Seth Sklarey and Lorry Woods are grinding through their campaigns. They’re using different methods to gain attention, including radio broadcasts, community gatherings, social media and even group runs.

Gonzalez, 53, has won an election before, receiving 810 votes two years ago to be appointed to the Village Council in Coconut Grove, a politically active community targeted heavily by the District 2 candidates. He believes his work in the Grove, his personality and work ethic will give him a shot.

Gonzalez tells voters the story of a local boy who was born in Havana, grew up in Coconut Grove and made enough money as a businessman to live comfortably and drive a Maserati. He went to Coral Gables High, started in retail after bailing on college, and soon launched a bakery that he ran successfully until he sold it in 2005. He then got into real estate, specializing in the sale of single-family homes.

Gonzalez says he supports the county’s new sensible marijuana policy, wants to revamp the city’s website, and endorses the creation of new parks like the Underline. He’s got jokes, too.

“I’ve always said the only way we’re going to solve traffic is with flying cars,” he says.

Laughs don’t necessarily translate into votes. But Elias Egozi, Gonzalez’s campaign consultant, says an internal poll conducted last month among 250 likely voters shows Teresa Sarnoff in the lead, but Gonzalez neck-and-neck with Grace Solares and Ken Russell to hopefully win a runoff election should no one win more than 50 percent of the vote.

“We never thought or wanted to be in first in this thing, especially because we're so underfunded,” Egozi said.

The presence of nine candidates makes a runoff more likely. But pollster Fernand Amandi, who says his firm has polled the race, said some of the lesser-known candidates might be running counterproductive campaigns.

In many ways, the election has become a referendum on term-limited Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who isn’t running for office but is helping his wife campaign for his seat. If the lesser-knowns are campaigning to keep the Sarnoffs out of office, then Amandi said they might be better off supporting a more established candidate.

“It's not enough to have the will to run and think that that's going to be enough. You have to have some sort of support,” Amandi said. “They're only ... going to keep a Sarnoff in the seat by running quixotic campaigns.”

It's not enough to have the will to run and think that that's going to be enough. You have to have some sort of support.

Pollster Fernand Amandi

That’s a position that Lorry Woods has heard before and rejects. The 51-year-old owner of Elwoods Gastro Pub downtown is relatively new to Miami, and soft-spoken. But the licensed U.S. Customs broker has been active in pushing for solutions to downtown problems through the Downtown Miami Partnership and cultivated her pub as a place where the civic-minded can go to talk politics after work.

As a business owner, she says she is intimately aware of how difficult it is to process paperwork and get the city to respond to needs. She’s only raised $23,000 — maybe two percent of Teresa Sarnoff’s war chest — but says she’s not deterred by the disparity.

“We're doing the damnedest to run this campaign with the least amount of dollars,” she said. “I'm set in doing this in a completely different way, whether it works or not. It's almost like a social experiment to see if you can lift people up and engage them without sending marketing materials to their homes over and again.”

Woods says the amount of money raised in the race — close to $1.5 million in hard and soft contributions — is “ridiculous.” Candidate Rosa Palomino says it’s pay for play.

“I'm running because our political system, our local government is broken,” Palomino, a teacher at Citrus Grove Elementary in Little Havana, said recently. “We have blood money” fueling elections.

Palomino wants to “copy and paste” Miami Beach’s stringent campaign finance laws in Miami. The Beach’s code prevents vendors, developers and lobbyists from contributing directly or indirectly to candidates’ campaigns. But they can still give unlimited amounts to third-party political action committees and electioneering organizations.

Palomino has only raised $16,000 herself. But her team says she has a good reputation from years of activism, and she also has the advantage of co-hosting a political radio show on 880 AM Bloomberg radio, called Miami After Dark. She has used the platform as a way to promote some of her ideas, like bringing computer-controlled, magnetically levitating pods called SkyTran to the city and investing in convention space to spur business.

“I created and co-produced this program in order to offer a platform for discussing real solutions to the problems of our city,” she said recently on her radio show, which invited each candidate for an interview.

Seth Sklarey doesn’t have a pub or a radio program to help promote his campaign. He has $1,500 in campaign funds and filed for bankruptcy in April. But like Gonzalez, the tall, lanky 70-year-old is an elected member of the Coconut Grove Village Council. And he probably has the richest history of anyone in the race, having held a slew of jobs, including contractor, auctioneer and painter.

Sklarey claims he was once a bodyguard for the Rolling Stones. And in 1972 he played the leading role of Orville, a zombie, in the film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. “I was the dead thing,” he announced at a September candidates’ forum.

I was the dead thing.

Candidate Seth Sklarey

If Sklarey is the undead, then Williams Armbrister is the light. “Praise the Lord Jesus,” the retired 63-year-old FPL employee from the West Grove often says when greeting audiences. Armbrister has run for office several times before, earning more than 2,000 votes in the 2013 mayoral election. But he says people with no voice in government like him because he’s not a “polished-tician.”

“They’re groomed to sell you a product you wouldn’t buy,” he says of elected officials. “When I’m elected, I will be the first one to represent the invisible people.”

Perhaps the only candidate willing to concede he probably has no shot in the Nov. 3 election is Mike Simpson, a 47-year-old manager of a Mellow Mushroom in South Miami. Simpson says he filed to run because he didn’t see anyone he would vote for.

“There is a part of me that understands that [winning] is a very outside chance. So long as I make the frontrunners address the issues I think are important, then I'm ok with that,” he said. “But winning would be cool.”

David Smiley: 305-376-2284, @newsbysmiley

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