Miami-Dade County

Juan Zapata drops reelection bid for County Commission

Juan Zapata celebrating his election as the new Miami-Dade District 11 commissioner in November 2012.
Juan Zapata celebrating his election as the new Miami-Dade District 11 commissioner in November 2012. MIAMI HERALD FILE 2012

Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan C. Zapata stunned local politicos Friday by dropping his reelection bid in District 11, leaving challenger Joe Martinez a clear path to retake his former seat on the powerful board.

In a letter to the Elections Department delivered by email shortly after 3 p.m. Friday, the first-term commissioner and former state lawmaker wrote “the time has now come for me to pursue other endeavors in my life.” The exit comes so late that Zapata’s name will remain on the Aug. 30 ballot, forcing Miami-Dade’s elections department to print a notice for voters that the incumbent is no longer an eligible candidate.

“I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you and the hard working elections staff,” Zapata wrote in his letter.

The abrupt withdrawal by Zapata, 49, took County Hall insiders by surprise and instantly positioned Martinez as the likely successor to a suburban commission seat he surrendered in 2012 for a failed mayoral bid. A critic of Zapata’s push for incorporating West Kendall into its own city and re-branding the area as the “West End,” Martinez said he had wrongly been considered the underdog in the contest.

“Inside baseball may tell you something,” he said of the conventional wisdom that had Zapata winning. “But the people who matter — the people who vote — tell you something different.”

Of the seven incumbent commissioners up for reelection this year, only Zapata was seen as facing a competitive race. Martinez held the District 11 seat for 12 years before Zapata succeeded him four years ago. In March, a private poll of 455 likely voters in the district found Martinez within six points of the incumbent, according to a source involved in conducting it, and a political committee backing Martinez has raised $67,000 from notables that include developers Wayne Rosen and Ed Easton.

A third candidate, Felix Lorenzo, is new to elected politics and his campaign has raised just $2,100.

Zapata, a Republican, was the first Colombian-American elected to the Florida House of Representatives, where he served from 2002 to 2010. He did not respond to an interview request and issued no statement.

Of the 13 commissioners, Zapata has the rockiest relationship with both the media and Mayor Carlos Gimenez, serving as the harshest critic on the dais of administration actions. On Friday, people close to him described Zapata as giving in to long-simmering reluctance to face another four years on the commission.

“It’s a taxing life,” said J.C. Planas, Zapata’s election lawyer, who served in the Florida House with Zapata. “Zap had 12 years.”

People close to Zapata said he also remained frustrated about the negative coverage that followed his brief effort in the summer of 2015 to use county funds to pay tuition for him to pursue a master’s degree at Harvard. After Univision began pursuing a story on the $30,961 tuition payment, Zapata returned the money to Miami-Dade.

Zapata’s district is the only one without a city, and it relies on Miami-Dade for municipal services. Zapata pushed the Gimenez administration for more police in his district, championed an extension of Wi-Fi to area parks, took the lead in the ongoing fight by Florida International University to expand onto adjoining county property, and touted an economic-development plan for the western area that he said would end its traditional role as a bedroom community for Miami.

Planas called Zapata “one of the finest public servants to have ever served the county.”

Zapata’s campaign and a political committee backing him had about $190,000 to spend in the race, according to filing reports. His term expires in November.

If Zapata had dropped out well before the June 21 filing deadline, there might have been a scramble by elected officials to pursue the open seat. One of Zapata’s oldest foes, Rep. Frank Artiles, was considering a challenge, and the commission seat may have been appealing to other state lawmakers challenged by redistricting or term limits. Artiles said he’s happy to be running for the state Senate this year, and praised the new results in District 11.

“I think West Kendall is in better hands, and better leadership, with Joe Martinez,” said Artiles, who lost twice to Zapata in House races before term limits forced Zapata to give up the seat that Artiles now holds. “You got more results out of Joe Martinez.”