Democratic candidate Rafael Velasquez’s Miami Beach commission candidacy was shaken Monday by accusations of sexual harassment from two women, including a sitting commissioner who said Velasquez recently exposed himself to her in her car.
Velasquez came under immediate pressure from the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party to drop out eight days before the Nov. 7 city election. But he denied the allegations against him and appeared intent on remaining in the race, despite the detailed accounts offered by Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez and local publicist Frances Alban, who said Velasquez groped her four months ago and then sent her a text message saying she “felt good.”
“If these allegations are true, it would be appropriate for him to withdraw,” Party Chairman Juan Cuba told the Miami Herald. Cuba had already decided to suspend digital ads and mailed fliers the party had bought to campaign on Velasquez’s behalf.
Velasquez is the second candidate for the Group 2 commission seat mired in political scandal. Former incumbent Michael Grieco ended his reelection bid in late September after state prosecutors investigated a campaign-finance violation. Last week, Grieco pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of accepting a campaign donation made in another person’s name. He is barred from holding public office for up to a year.
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Rosen Gonzalez, a Democratic candidate for Congress who until a few days ago was working to get Velasquez elected to the commission, disclosed to Politico Florida that Velasquez pulled out his penis in her car after the two had dinner on Oct. 18. She had endorsed him in the Group 2 race, and urged the party, labor unions, donors and voters to support him.
“I’ve had his sign on my lawn. I even told my daughter to vote for him,” she told the Miami Herald.
“This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do, because I stuck my neck out on the line for this guy with the party, asking them to support this guy, who’s now exposed himself to me in my car,” said Rosen Gonzalez, one of nine Democrats seeking retiring Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen seat in 2018. “I would love for my campaign to avoid this kind of scandal. But I have a choice: Do I allow this man to get elected, and have power, and whip his member out with an intern or with another woman?”
In a Facebook post Monday, Velasquez, 44, who goes by “Rafa,” called Rosen Gonzalez’s accusation “an insane attack by someone I considered to be a friend.”
“I would never, ever, in a million years behave in a way the commissioner describes it,” he wrote.
Rosen Gonzalez said Velasquez showed up at her house after knocking on voters’ doors. Instead of eating in — “I just didn’t want him at my house,” she said — she suggested dinner at Café Avanti, a haunt for local politicians.
Over a two-course meal, Rosen Gonzalez said, she ordered two glasses of wine. He ordered two mojitos.
“He started to kind of grab my hand and say he thought we were soul mates,” said Rosen Gonzalez, a 44-year-old divorced mother of three. “He was saying some delusional stuff, saying, ‘I’m going to win this and now become governor.’”
Rosen Gonzalez told Velasquez, who is married and has two children, to stay focused on the race. But when she drove him to his car, back at her place, “He started to get really abusive, to say, ‘I know you want it.’ And then he exposed himself” and asked her to touch his crotch, she said.
“I screamed, ‘Put it away!’” she said. “And then once I processed what happened, I just thought, ‘What am I supposed to do? I put so much of my political capital into this.’ Why did not one speak up about Bill Cosby, or why did women allow Harvey Weinstein to get away with it? Because you just want to move along with the process.”
But a conversation with a friend Friday changed her mind: “I was telling her, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting this guy elected after what he’s done. It’s disgusting.’ And she said, ‘Well, just don’t.’”
“I can never get that image out of my head,” Rosen Gonzalez said. “I’m stuck with it. He had no right to do that to me. It makes me feel like I did something wrong — when I didn’t.”
Rosen Gonzalez’s account was met with knowing responses of support from other women, including Alban, who has owned a public-relations firm for a decade.
Alban said she and Velasquez, whom she’s known for about seven years, attended a June 8 meeting at the North Beach Youth Center. As they posed for a photograph, Alban said, Velasquez grabbed her butt.
“My immediate reaction was it must have been an accident,” said Alban, who is smiling in the photo.
Alban left early and texted Velasquez later to ask if she’d missed anything, according to text messages she shared with the Herald. He said no — and asked if they could meet “one-on-one.”
“You looked sexy tonight,” Velasquez wrote, inserting a purple devil emoji.
“Why, thank you!” Alban responded.
“Very feminine... and waiting for your photographer to shoot ...you felt good too.”
Another devil emoji.
“The devil emoji is very appropriate,” Alban responded.
Velasquez continued, calling Alban “very sexy and classy... very intriguing” and suggesting a lunch meeting the next day. Alban, 39, said she was busy and steered the conversation to a business conference the following week.
“Would love to see you now,” Velasquez wrote, sometime after 10:41 p.m.
Asked about the incident Monday, Velasquez denied any wrongdoing toward Alban.
“I always respected Frances and never groped her,” he told the Herald. “I complimented her.”
Alban said she regrets not confronting Velasquez in June, though she said she texted him Monday to let him know she was going public with her story.
“This is the reason I never came out before: I felt like maybe it wasn’t sufficient enough to say anything. But it made me feel uncomfortable. I know it’s not right. When I saw Kristen’s story, I thought, OK,” Alban said. “I regret my reaction, and I know that I’m in P.R. and used to being extremely accommodating. I saw him as someone of power, of influence. He seemed like a threat to me. I didn’t want to muddy the waters with him.”
A third woman, Roxanna Ayers, contacted Rosen Gonzalez on Monday to recount her own experience with Velasquez. He didn’t touch her, Ayers told the Herald, but did make inappropriate comments repeatedly when the two ran together on a slate of potential Democratic delegates backing Hillary Clinton in the presidential election.
“We were never alone, but we would be in these situations where he would make comments to me on my appearance, saying, ‘Oh, you look sexy today,’” Ayers said. “Just inappropriate.”
Ayers said she met Velasquez for lunch in the late summer of 2016 to discuss ways to help Clinton’s campaign.
“He kept commenting on my appearance and just being very pervy. I kept trying to steer it back to the reason why I was there,” she said. “At the end of the lunch, when we were waiting for the check to arrive, he very aggressively reaches over and pinches my cheek and says, ‘You’re so adorable, you should come work for my campaign.’ To have a man do that to me like I was a 10-year-old girl. I couldn’t believe it.”
“I complimented her,” Velasquez said of Ayers’ account. “Nothing else.”
He told the Miami New Times on Monday that he might have made improper comments in the past but hasn’t acted on them.
“I mean, I might have been drunk once and said some things, but nothing else,” Velasquez said. “There was an incident at a birthday party where I had too much to drink and made some comments, but I didn’t do anything.”
In his Facebook post, Velasquez blamed his commission opponent, Mark Samuelian, a political independent, for orchestrating a “vile political play” with the accusations — though Rosen Gonzalez said she doesn’t want Samuelian on the commission.
“In his do-anything quest for power, it’s clear Mark Samuelian has gotten to her too, and convinced her it’s in her best interest to smear me with a vile and disgusting accusation,” Velasquez wrote.
Samuelian’s campaign dismissed Velasquez’s claim.
“Mr. Velasquez’s effort to deflect responsibility by bringing his opponent into this is ludicrous and speaks more to his flawed character,” spokesman Christian Ulvert said.
Velasquez is known for his brash, loud style on the campaign trail, sometimes erupting in shouts and bringing himself to tears as he asks voters for their support in public forums. Last Tuesday, his campaign appeared to plagiarize five sentences from a campaign email sent a day earlier by Democratic mayoral candidate Dan Gelber.
“Sure. Same information,” Velasquez said about using Gelber’s sentences. “I used his message to draft my email.”
Velasquez has craved the spotlight as a Democratic activist; in late January, he shouted into a megaphone and riled up a crowd of protesters at a demonstration outside Miami International Airport after President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries.
In February, Velasquez crashed a lecture by Sen. Marco Rubio at Florida International University with an oversized blank check made out to Rubio that read “protect Affordable Care Act, Social Security and the environment.”
“That’s silly,” Rubio retorted, pointing to the prop.
Last year, in a rambling video message to local Democrats as he campaigned to be elected local party chair, Velasquez sobbed as he explained the circumstances surrounding a high-profile blemish on his record: He voted illegally twice before he became a U.S. citizen.
The voting-fraud allegations surfaced during his 2002 campaign for Florida House. Federal court records show he was later convicted on two counts of making false statements on a naturalization application. He served three years probation and had his civil rights restored in 2014.
He said the situation was an honest mistake that snowballed into a political persecution following his protests against the Iraq War, and he’s described his current commission bid as a “comeback story.”
His Facebook page features several video ads, including one in which Velasquez is strolling down a sidewalk while holding hands with his wife and their two little girls in matching sundresses.
“While the issues may change, my values will never change,” he says in the video. “If you know my values, you will know who I am.”