Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco held a news conference Monday to confirm what many top backers already knew: He has abandoned his embattled bid for mayor.
“This year’s proven to be exceptionally challenging for me, my family and the community, forcing all of us to deal with distractions and political attacks that have no purpose but to cloud my service to the people of Miami Beach,” Grieco said.
He read a prepared statement flanked by his family and about 30 supporters in a public park around the corner from his South Beach home. The crowd cheered as he approached through a light rain.
Grieco will continue campaigning, however: He’s now running for a second term as commissioner, a race that already had four candidates in the running.
One candidate, attorney Joshua Levy, immediately suspended his campaign after Grieco’s announcement.
“When we launched our campaign earlier this year, I did so because the seat was open,” he wrote in an email to supporters. “I never intended to run against an incumbent.”
With Grieco out, former state Sen. Dan Gelber is the only mayoral candidate with name recognition and a formidable war chest. Two other candidates, marketing professional Daniel Kahn and cycling activist Kenneth Bereski, are still in the nonpartisan Nov. 7 race.
Last week, Grieco began calling supporters to let them know he would drop out of a competitive mayoral race against Gelber. Word spread quickly around the Beach over the weekend, with many wondering how this would impact an already-crowded race for his commission seat.
Grieco’s campaign was rocked in June by a series of Miami Herald articles outlining his connections to a political committee that raised money from well-heeled Beach interests. Developers, lobbyists and vendors with city contracts contributed to the group People for Better Leaders, which raised about $200,000.
At first, Grieco denied any association with the group, which is chaired by his friend Brian Abraham. Two separate handwriting analyses done by forensic document experts — one paid for by a donor to Gelber’s campaign and the other hired by the Herald — confirmed that Grieco’s handwriting appeared on a document filed by the committee.
After the revelation, Abraham acknowledged seeking legal counsel from Grieco and asking him to fill out paperwork. Abraham also announced he would close the committee and return donations. As of Monday, state records show the committee is closed, but contributions have not been returned. Grieco never publicly explained his actions.
In late June, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into the committee’s activities.
On Monday, Grieco appeared to reference the scandal in his statement.
“Any unintended errors in judgment in matters unrelated to my public service as an elected official have been manipulated by the very special interests I have long opposed as your elected representative,” he said.
Grieco called his withdrawal a “difficult decision,” but said he did not wish to subject his family to “an unrelenting mudslinging contest.”
He did not take questions.
Gelber and Grieco had engaged in a bitter back-and-forth and appeared neck-and-neck going into the summer. Now, Gelber’s path to City Hall looks clear, unless a well-known and well-funded challenger steps in or the remaining candidates — who are well behind Gelber’s $446,584 fundraising total — somehow catch up.
Grieco, a criminal defense attorney and former state prosecutor, originally ran to keep his commission seat. He launched his campaign for mayor in January after Mayor Philip Levine announced he would not seek a third term. Levine has been exploring a bid for governor and is expected to make a decision in the next few months.
Soon after, Gelber announced his run, setting the stage for a battle between a populist first-term commissioner and a former state lawmaker with virtually no experience in city politics but a recognizable surname. Gelber’s father, Seymour Gelber, was Beach mayor from 1991-97.
Now, the political enemies could both have seats on the commission come November.
Gelber said little in response to the news.
“Nothing changes for us as our campaign continues to work hard every day to earn the trust and support of Miami Beach residents,” he said in a statement.
Beach candidates can continue to shuffle around between commission seats until qualifying, which ends Sept. 8.
According to state election law, Grieco must inform donors of his new plans. They can ask for their money back or let him use their contributions for his commission reelection campaign. Through June, Grieco had raised $535,269.
Signs of Trouble
Rumors flew for at least two weeks that Grieco was planning to drop out.
Television station CBS4 asked both Grieco and Gelber to participate in a debate earlier in July, according to an email obtained by the Herald. The Gelber campaign accepted. But the debate never took place. A producer for CBS4, a Herald news partner, did not respond to a request for comment.
Other signs of turmoil included a loud argument between Grieco and his commission aide at City Hall that was overheard by other city staff.
The scandal also underscored deepening political tensions on the City Commission, where at least three of Grieco’s colleagues have cited the controversy surrounding the political committee while openly criticizing him.
In a June commission meeting, Commissioner Ricky Arriola questioned a hotel owner seeking a zoning variance about a $15,000 donation made to People for Better Leaders. Levine and Commissioner Joy Malakoff also expressed concerns about the donation. The item, which Grieco sponsored, was deferred.
Arriola donated $1,000 to Gelber’s campaign, and Malakoff endorsed him in February.
On Monday, Grieco emphasized that the Beach does not have a strong-mayor system and he would retain significant influence if he remains on the commission.
The commissioner’s presence adds a new wrinkle to a busy race for the Group II Beach commission seat. Depending on the amount of contributions he carries over and fundraising totals for July, he might be ahead in the money race.
Mark Samuelian, who lost a close 2015 commission race against John Elizabeth Alemán, raised $170,747 after announcing his candidacy for Grieco’s seat in May. Levy was the next biggest fundraiser at $76,077, before dropping out. Behind them are real estate agent Rafael Velasquez and Mohammed Islam.
Samuelian wasted no time hammering his new opponent.
“If even Michael Grieco knows he has so disgraced himself that he is unelectable as mayor, why would he believe he deserves to be reelected to the commission?” he wrote in a statement Monday afternoon. “The commission is not a consolation prize nor a place for him to rehabilitate his tattered reputation.”
Grieco supporters who showed up Monday said they’re standing by him.
“He doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” said Wendy Rugg, a Belle Isle resident and supporter since his first campaign in 2013. She cited his strong constituent service, open-door policy at City Hall and success in bringing the Air and Sea Show to Miami Beach.
Rugg, who said the PAC issue was a run-of-the-mill political tussle, said she’ll support Grieco for reelection.
After finishing his statement, Grieco and his family strolled north through the rain. Reporters trailing him asked for an interview.
“No comment,” he said.