Miami-Dade County

County commissioners endorse campaign reform. After grumbling.

Daniella Levine Cava, shown as she kicked off her political campaign in 2014, this week won passage of an ordinance requiring candidates (including herself) to disclose fundraising for political committees.
Daniella Levine Cava, shown as she kicked off her political campaign in 2014, this week won passage of an ordinance requiring candidates (including herself) to disclose fundraising for political committees. Miami Herald Staff

Miami-Dade commissioners may have agreed to disclose more of their political fundraising, but that doesn’t mean they have to be happy about it.

“I’m going to support this only because I don’t want it out there that I’m voting against it,” Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said Tuesday before casting her support for a long-delayed — and watered-down — ordinance requiring disclosure of ties to political committees. “This is a gotcha situation.”

The new legislation, sponsored by rookie commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, goes into effect next year and requires all candidates for local offices in Miami-Dade to register when they raise money for political action committees. The new county rules track regulations already in place for state officials.

Each of the seven County Commission incumbents running for reelection this year has at least one known PAC or related committee raising large donations for his or her reelection efforts. But current campaign-finance law for the county does not require the commissioners to divulge their ties to the groups, leaving the media, opponents and others to unearth the information through donors, consultants or (sometimes) the candidates themselves.

Levine Cava’s proposal passed 7 to 1, meaning one more commissioner remained in the chambers than needed for a quorum. Barbara Jordan cast the lone no vote, and Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Rebeca Sosa and Juan Zapata left the meeting before the vote took place. Commissioners Sally Heyman and Dennis Moss did not attend Tuesday’s session.

I’m going to support this only because I don’t want it out there that I’m voting against it.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson

The new rules, which won’t take affect until January, won passage the same day a group led by Levine Cava’s former campaign consultant advocated for a major change in how Miami-Dade candidates raise money for elections.

Accountable Miami-Dade, a new political committee started by Christian Ulvert, who ran Levine Cava’s successful 2014 campaign unseating incumbent Lynda Bell, launched a petition drive to put on the November ballot new campaign-finance rules. The proposed changes would ban lobbyists and county vendors from contributing to campaigns of candidates for county offices.

They also would lower the maximum campaign donation from $1,000 to $250 and attempt to bolster the county’s existing public-financing option for candidates willing to accept government money in exchange for limiting contributions.

County Hall incumbents rely on donations from vendors, developers, and lobbyists who do business with Miami-Dade. That includes the record-breaking war chest of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has raised more than $3 million and whose top donor as of last month was the duty-free chain of stores at the county-owned Miami International Airport.

About 55 percent of the more than $6 million raised so far for the 2016 county races went to political committees, which wouldn’t be governed by the changes sought by Accountable Miami-Dade.

“It’s no secret that corruption has been a part of Miami politics for a long time,” Sara Yousuf, a member of the Engage Miami advocacy group, told commissioners. “And it’s in no small part due to the influence that special interests have in funding our elected officials.”

The proposed rules would rob county vendors and lobbyists of being able to directly donate to campaigns. The $250 limit could be a boon for unions, which can tap hundreds of individuals to give smaller donations that can collectively amount to significant sums.

Eric Zichella, a lobbyist attending Tuesday’s meeting, said he found the proposed rules an unconstitutional restriction on his ability to participate in the democratic process. “Political contributions are free speech,” said Zichella, who said he has contributed about $15,000 to county candidates, mostly to County Hall incumbents. “Is my free speech limited because I’ve chosen to petition the government.”

Levine Cava isn’t listed as one of the leaders of Accountable Miami-Dade — the group behind the push includes Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, union leader Monica Russo, and rookie Miami City Commissioner Ken Russell — but she endorsed the proposed changes.

Most commissioners have resisted passage of Levine Cava’s PAC-disclosure ordinance, raising a string of objections when the legislation first came up for a vote in February. All but one skipped a workshop Levine Cava convened to address some of the concerns. Objecting commissioners cited concerns about fundraising they might conduct for nonprofits, and how a technical violation of the ordinance could be overblown by the media or opponents.

Financial disclosures show Levine Cava is the wealthiest member of the County Commission, with a net worth listed at $3 million when she ran for office in 2014. She and her husband, a physician, gave $25,000 to her 2014 campaign and her mother, Lois, donated $25,000 to a political committee backing Levine Cava during the race.

That committee, Changing Florida’s Future, helps illustrate one significant change Levine Cava made after her fellow commissioners resisted her original legislation. An early draft of the bill would have required candidates to either link themselves to an entire committee’s fundraising, or identify which donations they solicited. Other candidates used Changing Florida’s Future as a PAC fundraising vehicle, making it impossible to link donations to the candidate without either the donors or the candidate themselves disclosing them.

When the Miami Herald asked Levine Cava to disclose her solicitations for Changing Florida’s Future, she had Ulvert email a list that included her mother, the Metro Firefighters union ($25,000), Magic City Casino ($12,000), and the Florida Laborers Political Committee ($12,500).

In locking up support for her proposed county ordinance, Levine Cava dropped the earlier rule for candidates to disclose individual solicitations, along with reducing first-time penalties to a warning and delaying implementation until after the 2016 elections.

“I’ve taken my colleagues’ input very much to heart,” she said before the vote.