Two candidates with wildly different political backgrounds are vying for a seat on the Miami Beach commission being vacated by Michael Grieco, who recently dropped a re-election bid before resigning and pleading to a criminal charge.
His withdrawal from this year’s municipal election shaped the race between real estate broker Rafael A. Velasquez and private investor Mark Samuelian, two former candidates for public office.
Election Day is Nov. 7. Early voting has already begun.
Velasquez, 44, is a Democratic activist who lost a state House bid in 2002. Back then, his campaign became mired in controversy after it was revealed by political opponents he’d twice voted illegally before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Velasquez has maintained that the county elections office mistakenly sent him a voter registration form after he moved to Miami from Germany. He filled it out thinking he was allowed to vote.
“I was excited about America being an immigrant country where residents can vote,” he said in a December 2016 video he made when he was running for chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party.
The scandal made him a poster child for critics of U.S. immigration policy, particularly among national conservative commentators. He was later convicted in federal court on two counts of making false statements on a naturalization application. He served three years probation.
His civil rights were restored in 2014. On Thursday, he characterized his candidacy as a “comeback story.”
“It was time for me to get involved and to show the world my voice cannot be silenced,” he said.
He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of the Florida Democratic Party and figured prominently in anti-Trump protests earlier this year, including one at Miami International Airport following the president’s executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries.
Velasquez, who has raised $46,488 as of the most recent campaign finance filing, believes that the city should reconsider how it funds stormwater drainage projects. He said he would rather see property taxes collected from special taxing districts pay for neighborhood projects, instead of increased stormwater fees backing bonds. He also wants to see the city incorporate more neighborhood input before beginning big anti-flooding construction projects.
Fostering more public trust in government is his top goal. To that end, Velasquez is proposing the creation of an independent inspector general in Miami Beach — a campaign promise he shares with his opponent, Samuelian, and mayoral candidate Dan Gelber. Velasquez also supports the idea of mass transit across Biscayne Bay connecting downtown Miami and South Beach, but he opposes a train on South Beach’s streets.
He has already voted yes on the ballot question regarding an increase to maximum square footage of buildings in the Town Center district of North Beach, and he has voted no on the referendum rolling back hours of alcohol sales on Ocean Drive, he said.
In sharing his votes, he took aim at his opponent’s noncommittal approach to the ballot questions.
“I believe this is the main difference between our campaigns. … I actually do take stances,” Velasquez said. “I clearly express whether I’m in favor or against an issue.”
Samuelian, 53, lost his campaign for City Commission in 2015 by just 77 votes after a close race with Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán. He became president of prominent civic activist group Miami Beach United, where he still serves as a board director.
His political activity prior to his first commission campaign has come under scrutiny during this election. In a recent email to voters, Velasquez criticized Samuelian for previously being registered as a Republican — in 2014, he changed his registration to no party affiliation.
“My response is that is in the past,” Samuelian told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “I was a registered Republican, but the party’s current views as it relates to climate change and social issues do not reflect my views now.”
Velasquez also criticized him for donating to Maverick PAC USA, a political action committee co-founded by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. He gave $1,800 to the PAC in 2013. The committee has supported conservative congressional candidates. Samuelian also gave $500 to Rudy Giuliani’s 2007 presidential campaign, according to federal campaign finance records.
Samuelian touted his long list of endorsements from Democratic institutions and politicians, which includes 10 current and former Beach commissioners. A private financial investor and retired partner at global business management consulting firm Accenture, he has invested $275,000 of his own wealth into his campaign, more than half of his total of $470,451.
He cites his industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech as he commended the city’s stormwater drainage program but said he worries about potential impacts to the environment. He also wants to prioritize permanent backup generators for pumps — lack of backup power led to flooding during a heavy thunderstorm earlier this year.
Samuelian also echoed the concerns of Middle Beach residents in single-family neighborhoods who question whether the city should be raising streets, which could swamp private property that will no longer be able to drain into the street.
“I’d like to deeply listen to our residents,” he said. “I believe that they have legitimate questions, and I believe those questions haven’t been completely answered.”
He says a team of experts and residents should be assembled to analyze the city’s anti-flooding plan.
Samuelian also says the city’s budget, which has grown by several million each year in the past few years, should be scrutinized more so that growth in spending is sustainable.
He declined to share his votes on both ballot questions, saying that as a commissioner he would embrace whatever the public decides. He thinks the commission should have made a decision on the Ocean Drive question, and he said he thinks increasing density in North Beach’s Town Center would be a good idea only if any increased traffic is mitigated and if the new development fits in the character of the neighborhood.