Downtown Miami

Building a Miami dynasty, one Sarnoff at a time

Teresa Sarnoff (center) sits between fellow candidates Ken Russell and Mike Roger Simpson, as she campaigns to claim the Miami Commission seat held by her term-limited husband Marc Sarnoff at a candidates forum at a Woman's Club of Coconut Grove.
Teresa Sarnoff (center) sits between fellow candidates Ken Russell and Mike Roger Simpson, as she campaigns to claim the Miami Commission seat held by her term-limited husband Marc Sarnoff at a candidates forum at a Woman's Club of Coconut Grove.

It’s early Tuesday evening and the heir apparent to Miami’s next would-be political dynasty is sitting stone-faced in the middle of a crowded field of candidates who, like her, covet her husband’s powerful city commission seat.

Teresa Sarnoff is waiting to introduce herself to voters at the Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove. But some of her eight opponents will try to introduce the Sarnoffs first, saying that Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff has engaged in “corruption” and that “special interests” rule at City Hall.

“A vote for another Sarnoff,” one says, “is just a vote for another Sarnoff.”

She has heard this all before, and sits unflinching. Dismissive allegations that Sarnoff the candidate is merely a proxy for Sarnoff the term-limited commissioner have been around since last summer, when word first spread that she would run for the seat that represents Downtown, Brickell and Coconut Grove. They are, she says, baseless allegations, at best.

“If they’re under the impression it can be handed down or inherited, it can’t,” Teresa Sarnoff said months ago of Miami’s District 2 commission seat.

Certainly, if Sarnoff is elected next month, she will have won after enduring months of criticism and widely distributed effigies, and after, she says, knocking on thousands of doors. “I work hard. I work tirelessly,” she says.

But victory won’t come without the virtue of her last name or a well-oiled political machine that raised nearly $900,000 from April 2013 to mid-September. In a race for an open seat, she is the de facto incumbent, running with all the trappings of an established politician despite having few of the credentials and little of the flash.

“She's not very charismatic as a campaigner,” says Sean Foreman, a political science professor from Barry University. “But she has the institutional factors working for her campaign. The name. The money.”

Where her husband rose to power in 2006 by beating a well-funded but weak incumbent, she is now the monied candidate, backed by the same real estate interests Marc Sarnoff criticized in his first campaign — some of which have recently sought his vote. And while she has inherited her husband’s many critics, she also benefits from the adoration of residents who remember the positive things Marc Sarnoff has done for them as commissioner.

“Her husband has been very responsive,” says Shirley Atlas, a regular Coconut Grove voter who will side with Sarnoff on Nov. 3. “Every time I have any problem with the city I call his office and by the end of the day my problem is solved. If somebody treats you well, you want to be loyal.”

Teresa Sarnoff, of course, is not her husband, though she sounds like him at times during candidates forums and sometimes has difficulties explaining how her positions differ from his. Where he is outspoken, she admits she is “reserved,” one reason she spent much of the last nine years in the background. She repeatedly declined to give the Miami Herald access to her campaign, saying she worried a reporter would look only for negative anecdotes.

Nathan Kurland, a Grove activist who was married to his wife four years ago by Teresa Sarnoff, a notary public, questions why she’s running for office given her past disinterest in the limelight.

“I like Teresa,” said Kurland, who helped Marc Sarnoff’s campaign early in his political career only to become frustrated with his politics. “I just don’t understand why she’s running for office other than extending Marc’s term.”

Sarnoff says she’s campaigning because she loves Miami and wants to protect it from candidates bent on moving the city backwards. She says those who contend she is beholden to her husband are being “sexist.”

“Women have had the right to vote and hold office for 100 years,” she said recently in a radio interview on Miami After Dark. “I am my own person. I was alive before I met Marc and we come from two different backgrounds.”

As voters may have learned from one of the slew of election mailers produced by her campaign, Teresa Sarnoff grew up the fourth of 10 daughters in a rural area in west New York. She says she worked in the family road construction business as a teenager, and moved to Coconut Grove after high school for a fresh start.

She took classes at the University of Miami but didn’t graduate. She said she met Marc Sarnoff when he considered buying the home where she lived with her first husband, got divorced in the late 90s, and re-married in 2002. Since then, she has mostly worked in his offices as a paralegal.

Kitty Harring, a Grove activist who has known the Sarnoffs for years and helped with past campaigns, believes Teresa Sarnoff has been a major part of her husband’s success, helping to organize canvasing ventures and calling for donations. Harring says Sarnoff’s critics underestimate her.

“Behind every great man is a great woman,” she says. “They have both been very good for Miami and I believe that people will support Teresa even more.”

Sarnoff says she kept a mostly low political profile all these years so as not to distract from her husband’s position. But a few years ago, she began to do more away from he husband. She took an administrative job for about 18 months at Cigarette Racing Team’s Opa-locka manufacturing hub.

“She went through everything from marketing to being right down on the floor with our production,” said owner Skip Braver. “Teresa’s not afraid to get her hands dirty.”

Last year, she became licensed as a real estate broker for Cervera Real Estate, though she said this summer she’s not been active. She began to appear more frequently at press conferences and events. She and two attorneys from Solowsky Allen, where Marc Sarnoff is of counsel, formed End Homelessness Now, a not-for-profit that raised $70,000 to help fund a polarizing, now-defunct outdoor mat program at Camillus House. After declaring her candidacy, she touted a relationship with the Rickia Isaac Foundation, a gun awareness organization with close ties to City Hall, as part of her platform.

The Sarnoffs say her work isn’t about the campaign. But critics and political opponents look at her credentials and see résumé padding.

“It’s one thing to be involved. It’s another thing to say you’re involved,” said Hector Roos, a consultant for candidate Rosy Palomino, who has criticized some of her opponents as “invented” candidates. Roos also believes, however, that some challengers have mistakenly spent far too much time and money bashing the Sarnoffs instead of focusing on the issues. “Honestly, people are done talking about Teresa Sarnoff.”

But are they really? Come November, voters may decide they want four more years.

Back at the Coconut Grove Woman’s Club, Sarnoff waits patiently for her turn to speak, and it finally comes. She will not distance herself from her name, or her husband.

“I’m Teresa Sarnoff,” she says. “And I’m proud of that.”

Teresa Sarnoff

Age: 60

Education: Took courses at the University of Miami but didn't graduate.

Born: Medina, NY

Residence: Coconut Grove