Miami-Dade County

In mayoral race, loyal donors asked to give again — to the enemy

Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, and Raquel Regalado, far right, debate live for the Miami-Dade mayor's race on Michael Putney and Glenna Milberg's “This Week in South Florida” at Channel 10 (WPLG) studios in Hollywood on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, left, and Raquel Regalado, far right, debate live for the Miami-Dade mayor's race on Michael Putney and Glenna Milberg's “This Week in South Florida” at Channel 10 (WPLG) studios in Hollywood on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2016.

A day after Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez was forced into a November runoff with challenger Raquel Regalado, one of the mayor’s top campaign donors got a phone call asking him to give even more.

But Gimenez wasn’t on the line Wednesday evening. Instead, this was a call from Regalado, predicting that the donor’s candidate was “going down” in the fall, and it was time to put dollars into her column, too.

“The theme of what she was saying was: ‘You have to take me seriously now,’ ” recalled one Gimenez donor, who asked to speak anonymously, given the sensitivity of interactions with the rival candidates. “And there’s certainly truth to that.”

Regalado’s aggressive push into the Gimenez side of the donor battleground captures the intense fight to replenish war chests drained by a primary that the mayor’s camp was confident would end Tuesday. Gimenez finished the primary with just under 48 percent of the vote, 16 points ahead of Regalado’s 32 percent, but still two points shy of the 50 percent needed to win the nonpartisan election outright.

People are going to cover their bases.

Raquel Regalado fund-raiser Esther Nuhfer

The surprise results have emboldened Regalado, a school board member, in her pitch to donors considered out-of-reach during the primary, while placing Gimenez in more of a defensive posture. Donors said the mayor this week expressed concern about them hedging their bets by giving to both sides. One contributor said Gimenez asked that he “be with me only” on the contribution front.

Fundraising has always been a clear advantage for Gimenez, a five-year incumbent who collected a record-breaking $4.5 million in donations, with significant help from developers, contractors and lobbyists doing business with Miami-Dade. And that edge is expected to continue in the two-month runoff campaign, with Gimenez able to tap his extensive set of donors for help to fend off Regalado’s effort to unseat him.

“There’s no issue with the mayor raising money,” said Rodney Barreto, a Gimenez donor and partner in a Coral Gables lobbying firm that represents the Miami Dolphins, Uber and other big players in local politics. “It’s not going to be a challenge at all. It’s easy to raise money for someone who is a professional, honest politician.”

During interviews this week, Gimenez blamed the runoff on a surprise showing by the only African-American candidate in the seven-person field. Retired teacher Frederick Bryant took 9 percent of the vote, denying Gimenez the lead in some black-majority precincts in Miami Gardens and Opa-locka.

There’s no issue with the mayor raising money.

Rodney Barreto, donor to Carlos Gimenez

While Gimenez out-raised Regalado four-to-one in the primary, his camp isn’t sure what the financial margin will be in the fall. Several people involved in the effort say Gimenez’s initial target is $2 million through September, while Regalado’s chief fundraiser said the challenger hopes to raise about half of that.

Both sides have cast Tuesday’s results as wins, with Regalado telling supporters in a fundraising email Thursday that the runoff demonstrated support “from thousands of residents who want to take county hall back from special interests.”

In its own fundraising appeal Friday, the Gimenez campaign declared Tuesday “a victory,” saying he won the major cities, including the Regalado stronghold of Miami, and across all demographic groups.

“We’re the ones that have the momentum,” said Jesse Manzano-Plaza, Gimenez’s campaign manager. “We’re going to build on that momentum to victory in November.”

As Regalado moves to expand her fundraising pool, Gimenez must tend to disgruntled donors questioning how a record-breaking amount of contributions didn’t deliver an outright win on Tuesday. Sources inside and outside of the campaign say some reliable donors have pushed back on being asked for more money this week, saying they wanted in-person briefings on how Gimenez’s team plans to win in November.

Gimenez told reporters Wednesday his campaign had about $100,000 left in the bank. That translates to roughly $35 spent for each of Gimenez’s 121,891 votes, compared to about $11 for the 81,952 votes Regalado received.

Part of donors’ frustration stemmed from the Gimenez camp telegraphing a sure win in the primary, saying internal polls had Gimenez just below 55 percent.

Chief fundraiser Brian Goldmeier didn’t prep for a second wave of solicitations as he made his final push for donations leading up to Tuesday’s vote. Six days before polls opened countywide, Goldmeier wrote donors that “I know you are going to miss all my fund-raising emails for Mayor Carlos Gimenez’ re-election” but that this would be his final ask. He invited recipients to gather at the Biltmore hotel “one last time to drop off a check.”

At the Gimenez Primary Night party, news of the mayor’s poor showing had Goldmeier in tears, according to a witness. He declined to comment.

Regalado can rely on her stable of donors: auto magnate Norman Braman, who has already given more than $140,000, and a string of developers with projects in Miami, where her father, Tomás Regalado, serves as mayor. They helped her raise nearly $1 million through August for Regalado’s campaign and two political committees. Braman said he’s happy to give more through November. “I think she has a good chance of winning it,” he said. “I think it will be close and competitive.”

The Miami factor looms large for some contractors, developers and lobbyists with both county and city business. While they could brush off Regalado’s entreaties during her long-shot primary run, several said privately that the high-profile runoff makes it harder to say no.

Both sides have 501c4 committees supporting them, and Regalado has acknowledged steering donors to the group if they want to keep their support confidential. The nonprofits evade disclosure rules for political committees in exchange for some limits on what kind of advertising they can fund. The 501c4 option is bound to be more crucial for Regalado as she tries to pull dollars from loyal Gimenez donors willing to offer only discreet support.

“People are going to cover their bases,” said Esther Nuhfer, Regalado’s professional fundraiser. “I’m calling every donor I know in Miami-Dade County — particularly Gimenez donors — saying, ‘Listen, you didn’t get on board. Now is your chance to get on board.’