Miami-Dade County

Democrats want a partisan fight in Miami-Dade mayoral race

Jean Monestime, sworn in as the new chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Monestime is the first Haitian American elected by the commission to hold the office, which is decided by the 13-member commission.
Jean Monestime, sworn in as the new chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. Monestime is the first Haitian American elected by the commission to hold the office, which is decided by the 13-member commission. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Republicans and Democrats will face-off on multiple fronts next year, but there’s an effort to add one more battleground to the war: the Miami-Dade mayoral race.

A recruiting push by Florida Democrats has Jean Monestime, the County Commission’s Democratic chairman, considering a 2016 challenge against Miami-Dade’s senior Republican, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, according to multiple sources close to the talks between Monestime and the party.

With state Democrats already planning a Monestime announcement next week, their involvement in the officially non-partisan race could test the power of party identity in a county so blue that Republicans finish third in registration totals behind independents.

“The surge of Democrats you get in the November election could definitely make a Democratic candidate viable in the mayor’s race,” said Dwight Bullard, a state senator and chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. “The thought process stems from missed opportunities in ‘08 and ‘12, during the momentum of the Obama campaigns.”

Despite Barack Obama’s lopsided victories in Miami-Dade, county voters re-elected two Republican mayors both years: Carlos Alvarez and Carlos Gimenez, who won office in 2011 to fill out the remainder of Alvarez’s term after he was removed in a recall. The last Democrat to hold the county mayor’s post was Alex Penelas, who left office in 2004.

The big question is whether Monestime will actually announce as a candidate for a race currently between two moderate Republicans: Gimenez and Raquel Regalado, a school-board member and the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. While Democratic sources say they’re confident Monestime will run, the two-term commissioner did not respond to interview requests.

With state Democrats not expecting an announcement until next week, the county’s first Haitian-American chairman would still have the holiday weekend to consider a campaign that, win or lose, would require him to surrender his commission seat at the end of 2016 under the state’s “resign-to-run” laws.

Monestime has faced a sometimes stormy tenure since his election as chairman by the 13-member commission in late 2014. He fired his chief of staff after his pick for a key transportation board was foiled, and he recently clashed with Commissioner Audrey Edmonson, a fellow Democrat, over his control of the board’s agenda.

The Gimenez camp has brushed off the potential threat from Monestime, pointing to Democrat Jimmy Morales’ failed 2004 bid against Alvarez when John Kerry swamped George W. Bush in a county that now boasts about 50 percent more Democrats than Republicans (521,000 versus 349,000).

But Democrats cite a string of conditions in their favor this time around: the record-breaking Obama turnout machine that Hillary Clinton is likely to inherit as the leading candidate for her party’s nomination; Monestime’s anti-poverty platform at a time of increasing divide in Miami between rich and poor; and Monestime’s perceived ability to galvanize the black vote.

A senior Democrat speaking without attribution to share the outlines of the party’s strategy said Monestime would get an edge from drawing clear partisan lines in a way that past mayoral campaigns didn’t see. The strategist said Monestime could overcome Gimenez’s fund-raising muscle — his reelection effort has already raised about $3 million — by positioning Miami-Dade as a national test for Democrats.

The goal would be to make it “the No. 1 mayoral race in the country for Democrats — nationalize the race and make it really partisan,” the strategist said.

Gimenez has already endorsed Jeb Bush for president, and the strategist pointed to the mayor’s ties with Donald Trump as a liability should the mogul win the GOP nomination. When Trump came under fire for comments about illegal immigrants earlier this year, Gimenez returned a $15,000 political contribution from Trump. The two golfed together as Trump began a failed pursuit of a management deal of the county’s Crandon golf course.

To enjoy the surge of Democratic voters who turn out for a presidential election, Monestime would need to compete in a run-off election for mayor. All candidates compete in a non-partisan primary Aug. 30, and the race ends if one candidate captures more than 50 percent of the vote. If not, the top two vote getters move on to a run-off on Election Day in November.

Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a spokesman for the Gimenez campaign, declined to comment. Regalado condemned the effort by Democrats to bring national politics into a race where candidates’ parties aren’t even on the ballot. “There is a reason it’s not partisan,” she said. “Who is mayor should be determined on the issues, and not party affiliation.”

Philip Levine, the Miami Beach mayor and a Democrat, said mayors usually pursue agendas outside of partisan rifts. “That’s why,” he said, “America loves its mayors.”