Miami-Dade County

Regalado’s air time draws election critics

Running for mayor of Miami-Dade County, Raquel Regalado, right, gets more radio time than any other candidate on the 2016 ballot. She hosts the Spanish-language show at La Poderosa.
Running for mayor of Miami-Dade County, Raquel Regalado, right, gets more radio time than any other candidate on the 2016 ballot. She hosts the Spanish-language show at La Poderosa. CARL JUSTE

On a recent Thursday afternoon, an elderly woman was in tears when she phoned Miami-Dade mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado. They talked about the hard life that can await immigrants from Cuba, and the bittersweet value of resiliency.

“My husband left me when I was very young,” the woman told Regalado in choked-up Spanish. “I have two healthy hands and two legs. I don’t need any help.”

The talk may have been personal, but the setting was far from intimate. Regalado listened from her regular perch behind a microphone at La Poderosa 670 AM, where she hosts an afternoon call-in show with a following among Miami’s Cuban community.

“I am grateful to your generation,” Regalado, 41, told the caller. “You are the ones who made it possible for me to be here.”

Nine months into her bid to unseat Carlos Gimenez in the 2016 county mayoral race, Regalado finds herself well behind in both polling and fundraising. But even the incumbent mayor of Florida’s largest county hasn’t matched Regalado when it comes to broadcast time. Regalado hosts her hourlong La Poderosa show, Las Dos Caras de la Noticia (“The Two Faces of the News”) Monday through Thursday and then anchors a weekly public affairs show on Mira TV every Sunday morning.

Regalado’s near daily presence on the local airwaves provide a uniquely Miami lens for viewing her campaign to unseat Gimenez, 61, and become Miami-Dade’s first female mayor. And they’re raising questions about both her financial arrangements with the broadcasters, and the propriety of an active candidate having such ready access to the airwaves.

She brings to the race a political and media legacy inherited from parents Tomás and Raquel Regalado, once the leading couple of Miami’s Spanish-language radio. Regalado followed her father into elected politics — she’s a two-term member of the school board while he’s finishing up his second term as Miami’s mayor. And she followed her mother and namesake into the radio booth, taking over at La Poderosa after the elder Raquel Regalado died suddenly in 2008.

“My mom’s voice wasn’t silenced once she passed away,” said Tomás Regalado Jr., the oldest of the three Regalado children and a producer at the federally funded TV Martí in Miami. “She has continued what my mom did for so many years.”

I get to feel the pulse of our community daily. I understand a lot of other elected officials don’t get that.

Raquel Regalado

Now Raquel Regalado’s radio audience overlaps with her political base as she mounts a countywide campaign. Though Gimenez was born in Cuba and she in Miami, Regalado sees an edge in the all-important Cuban vote.

The August primary tends to be a low-turnout election that skews Republican in Democrat-heavy Miami-Dade, said Christian Ulvert, a campaign consultant with no client in the mayoral race. “That makes the older Cuban vote an important base,” he said. “If she’s communicating with them on a daily basis, it certainly gives her an advantage.”

In campaign videos and interviews, Regalado has tried to cast Gimenez’s five years in office as a disaster for county services, which she sees the mayor sacrificing in the name of cost-cutting. It’s a theme that dovetails with her shows, which often cover topics tied to government assistance.

“I kept the same format as my mom, educating folks about government services,” Regalado said. “It’s very valuable. I get to feel the pulse of our community daily. I understand a lot of other elected officials don’t get that.”

But if Regalado’s radio and TV gigs give her a daily audience with voters, the Gimenez camp sees them as more evidence of a campaign long on talk and name recognition but short on accomplishment.

The one-time practicing lawyer receives no compensation from La Poderosa or Mira TV, rendering her a volunteer broadcaster at a time when her past financial woes promise to get scrutiny. A financial disclosure form filed in September lists her net worth at $12,270, with a $38,000 school-board stipend her lone source of income. Her house was hit with a foreclosure in early 2014, which she blamed on complications from a divorce and unexpected costs tied to therapy for her autistic daughter.

Although Regalado’s mother used to buy air time from La Poderosa, Regalado doesn’t treat her free show as a gift on the disclosure forms she must file as an elected official. Gimenez’s campaign plans to use the arrangement as a platform for questioning her ethics.

“We don't feel that a declared political candidate can take advantage of public airwaves to further her political aspirations, attack her opponent, and wage a political campaign without having to pay for the air time and/or report it as a political expenditure,” Gimenez campaign consultant Jesse Manzano-Plaza wrote in a statement. “This is definitely inappropriate, unethical and potentially in violation of Florida elections code.”

Regalado’s run for mayor thrusts La Poderosa into the legal thicket of federal rules governing equal exposure for candidates. (Mira TV said it functions as a cable station and so isn’t subject to the same broadcasting rules.)

This is definitely inappropriate, unethical and potentially in violation of Florida elections code.

Jesse Manzano-Plaza, campaign consultant for Carlos Gimenez

One academic expert said other mayoral candidates could make a case for free time right now, but La Poderosa said it would keep Regalado on the air until candidates officially qualify for the mayoral ballot in June. “Forty-five days within the primary, she’ll have to go off the air,” said Ana Vidal Rodriguez, vice president of the family-owned station. “That’s what we did for her father.”

“It’s a hyper-technical reading of the statute to say equal-time opportunities only kick in once the name is on the ballot.,” said William Lee, a journalism professor at the University of Georgia and author of the book The Law of Public Communications. “The station is really on the hook for a big block of time.”

Although she goes by Raquel, radio listeners often call her by the nickname her mother used on the air when sharing family anecdotes during a radio career that started in Miami in 1972.

Buenas, Raquelita,” a male caller said during the Social Security show. Regalado’s guest, local Social Security spokeswoman Maria Diaz, was a regular guest for her mother, too. On her cellphone, Regalado produces a photo of her mother standing in the same booth, where yellow-carpeted walls insulate the sound.

“The only difference that we have is that I have a tendency to sit people here,” Regalado said, pointing to Diaz on her left, “and my mother would put people over there.”

Regalado’s financial arrangement with La Poderosa is another big difference. The elder Regalado purchased time from the radio station, then kept revenue from ad sales, Vidal Rodriguez confirmed. When her daughter took over, she asked to flip the arrangement: give her free air time for the 2 p.m. show, and the station could handle ad sales and keep the money.

La Poderosa seems to welcome the deal. “She’s a name,” Vidal Rodriguez said. “The name recognition — nobody could pay for that if they wanted to create it.” But it also has Regalado working for free, with exposure being the sole compensation. “People pay good money to run campaign commercials and get their views out to potential voters,” said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida. “It’s air time that in a campaign could be valuable.”

“I love doing radio,” Regalado said. “Honestly, it’s the only thing I have left of my mother.”

Regalado said lawyers told her the broadcasting arrangements wouldn’t trigger disclosure rules at the school board, even though La Poderosa charges upwards of $600 for a half-our of air time and Mira TV about $300, according to written quotes obtained by the Miami Herald. “If I were just doing an hour talking about Raquel, you would say, ‘OK, it’s a gift because it directly adheres to your benefit,’” Regalado said. “But it’s not a show about me.”

She has used air time to criticize Gimenez. John Rivera, the police union chief and one of Gimenez’s most public foes, is a regular guest. On July 16, Regalado had Political Cortadito blogger Elaine de Valle (a consistent Gimenez critic) on to discuss the mayor’s 2016 budget. Regalado questioned why Gimenez should get credit for restoring service cuts he had imposed in earlier years. “This was a budget where he was putting out the fire that he himself had begun,” Regalado said.

In an interview, Gimenez spokesman Michael Hernández said he would like to appear on Regalado’s show to defend the mayor. “I’ve never received any phone call from her to clarify anything about his budget proposal,” he said.

Regalado said she was not interested in interviewing a spokesman but would welcome Gimenez back to the airwaves. “Carlos Gimenez was a regular on my show,” she said, “before we started having issues.”