Miami Beach

In Democratic leaning district, GOP hopeful sees race as a ‘referendum on integrity’

In the race for Florida House District 113, Republican Jonathan Parker, left, who has never held elected office, faces Democrat Michael Grieco, right, a former Miami Beach commissioner who served probation after pleading no contest to criminal charges of campaign finance violations in 2017.
In the race for Florida House District 113, Republican Jonathan Parker, left, who has never held elected office, faces Democrat Michael Grieco, right, a former Miami Beach commissioner who served probation after pleading no contest to criminal charges of campaign finance violations in 2017.

Residents of the Florida House district that served as the backdrop for the opening sequence of the 1980s TV show Miami Vice have for the last six years been represented by a Democrat with a reputation as a watchdog of public institutions — a welcome change from the preceding representative, who resigned under a Secret Service investigation for stalker-like text messages to a federal prosecutor.

This election cycle, though, the incumbent is stepping aside. And the Democratic-leaning voters of District 113, which covers Miami Beach, parts of Downtown Miami, Little Havana and North Bay Village, will have to ask themselves if they’re ready for the return of some prime time entertainment.

The Democratic candidate, Michael Grieco, is a former Miami Beach commissioner with a loyal following, a knack for retail politics and a checkered past — having abandoned a campaign for mayor and resigned his elected office after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor criminal charge of violating Florida’s campaign finance laws in 2017. Grieco served six months of probation, which ended in May.

The Republican hopeful, Jonathan Parker, is an also-ran of local politics with no skeletons in his closet, and no significant civic achievements. Parker’s most public acts have ended not with a bang but a whimper, finishing fourth in a 2015 contest for Miami Beach commissioner and losing a bid for the Florida House of Representatives by a 30 percent margin the following year.

It’s been a decade since the district’s voters last elected a Republican to Tallahassee. But Parker hopes Grieco’s ethical lapses will be a great equalizer.

“This is a referendum on integrity, transparency and ethics,” Parker said. “It’s about the right guy, and hopefully it’s not about the guy who just got off probation.”

Despite their disparate political track records, the candidates share some similarities. Both men are criminal defense attorneys and longtime residents of Miami Beach. Both say they want to bring more tax dollars from Tallahassee back to their South Florida district. And both say they are concerned about district traffic and the environment, from rising sea levels to algae blooms and red tide.

There are, of course, substantive policy differences.

Grieco, 43, wants to boost state spending on Florida’s public schools, including teacher pay raises. He favors gun control and supports the minimum wage ordinance in the district’s biggest city, Miami Beach.

Parker, 56, says Florida residents should have the option to use vouchers to send their children to private schools, wants to reduce the size of government and generally opposes minimum wage laws.

Both say they will represent the interests of all constituents if elected.

“I’m planning on running through the finish line on this election and winning by a significant margin, which will afford me the flexibility to be as independent as I choose to be when it comes to representing all of my constituents, regardless of party,” Grieco said.

Parker said he knows he’s running against a candidate with a higher profile and longer track record in politics. But, he said of Grieco, “the name recognition may be more from the bad things he’s done than the good things.”

Jonathan Parker, a Republican candidate for Florida Representative who has not held elected office before, campaigns for House District 113. “This is a referendum on integrity, transparency and ethics,” Parker says.

Like Parker, Grieco says South Florida gets a raw deal on the return of tax dollars the region sends to Tallahassee, and he aims to increase the appropriations for Miami Beach and Miami.

“Our district in particular generates some of the most significant tourist taxes in the entire state, and sales taxes,” Grieco said. “When you’re sending up that kind of money and you’re not getting any of it back, or you’re getting so little it feels like you’re not getting anything back, you really feel neglected.”

Though he would be in the minority political party in Tallahassee, Grieco said he is friendly with many Republican state legislators and has worked with them in the past.

However, Grieco concedes that as a Democrat he would need some other pieces to fall into place in order for his agenda to succeed, namely the election of a Democratic governor.

“Having a Democratic governor is an essential piece of the puzzle,” he said. “It’s not where I’ve attached all my hopes and dreams as a legislator … but it’s an essential part.”

Parker said sending a Republican to Tallahassee to represent District 113 would be more effective.

“They keep sending people to Tallahassee who are part of the minority and as a result ... nothing is going to get done and nothing is going to get brought back to the district,” he said.

Parker acknowledges that being a member of the majority party is only “halfway to the goal post,” he said. “The rest comes from being a fine, upstanding guy who can negotiate well and get things done.”

On education, Parker said he supports “school choice,” but not just among public schools.

“People should be able to get some sort of a voucher or a tax credit for paying for whether it’s a private school or not,” he said. “I think competition’s good for everybody.”

Grieco proudly calls himself a product of public schools and said they need more funding, not less.

“Public education is woefully underfunded when it comes to per-pupil spending and when it comes to teacher pay,” he said “The budget just isn’t focused on education for whatever reason, and we need to change that conversation.”

On gun control, Grieco said he stands firmly against the National Rifle Association.

“It’s not because I’m anti-gun,” said the former state prosecutor. “I have a concealed weapons permit. I’m former law enforcement, but I also believe in sensible gun control and I don’t support the NRA’s approach to pretty much saying ‘No’ to everything.”

Parker said he supports the comprehensive bill passed by the state Legislature this year that raises the age to purchase a gun, bans bump stocks and allows police, with court approval, to bar a person deemed dangerous due to mental illness from owning guns for up to a year.

“I totally support the changes that were instituted after Parkland,” he said. “Automatic weapons are already banned, and certainly nobody needs any bump stocks.” But he expressed concern over what constitutes a mental health issue, calling it a “slippery slope.”

“It’s a hard thing to quantify,” he said, “because, OK, some guy is having trouble with his marriage and goes to get counseling and all of a sudden it’s, ‘Oh my God, you went to see a psychiatrist and you can’t have a gun.’ That’s a bad idea.”

When it comes to healthcare, the candidates take divergent paths to improving access and costs. Parker wants doctors and hospitals to disclose the prices of medical care to consumers beforehand — a practice currently limited to certain procedures, such as MRIs and blood tests.

“One of the primary problems we have is that nobody knows what anything costs,” he said, “and most people don’t have any skin in the game in terms of what they’re paying their providers and everything is kept a secret in terms of what they’re paying. And that’s why we have such high prices.”

Former Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Grieco announces in July 2017 that he is dropping his bid for mayor after facing misdemeanor criminal charges of violating Florida’s campaign finance laws. He is now running as a Democrat for State Representative in Florida House District 113: “I will not be distracted by old news from the past.” Emily Michot

Grieco, who is endorsed by the Florida Medical Association, the powerful lobbying group that represents the interests of doctors in Tallahassee, said he “strongly supports” expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the public health insurance program for low-income and disabled Floridians, to include childless adults, as proposed under the Affordable Care Act.

Parker says the health law, also known as Obamacare, has been disastrous for him. He earns too much to qualify for financial aid to help pay his premiums and out-of-pocket costs, which means he must pay full freight for plans on the individual market. But then, Grieco doesn’t qualify for subsidies, either, and says he supports the law.

If the contest were based solely on who could raise the most campaign cash, Grieco would win handily.

He has brought in $121,000 in contributions since May and loaned his campaign an additional $53,000, but spent much of it in the three-way Democratic primary that he won in August. Grieco had about $22,000 cash on hand as of Sept. 14, according to the most recent fund raising data from the Florida Division of Elections.

Parker, who has loaned his campaign $75,000 and donated $17,500 more, was in better financial shape than Grieco during the most recent reporting period, state records show. He was unopposed in the Republican primary, and still had about $71,000 cash for the same period.

But Grieco, who reports a net worth of $362,000, has been the more prolific fundraiser — a talent that Parker is quick to criticize.

“We’re giving him credibility because he’s such a wonderful fundraiser, but in reality that’s what he was on probation for in the first place,“ he said.

Parker, whose self-reported net worth is $5.7 million, said his own campaign is “probably 98 percent self-financed. So that’s a really big deal.” He accepts campaign contributions but said he doesn’t “actively pursue” them.

“It’s not easy to raise money,” he said.

Grieco and Parker are vying for the seat held since 2012 by Florida Rep. David Richardson, who was defeated in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 27th Congressional District by Donna Shalala. Democratic state Rep. Richard Steinberg, who preceded Richardson, resigned the seat in 2012 while under investigation by the Secret Service for using a disguised Yahoo! account with the screen name “itsjustme24680” to send suggestive text messages to a female assistant U.S. Attorney, calling her “sexxxy mama” and asking about her infant son.

Richardson was unopposed in 2012 and 2014 and handily defeated Parker in 2016 — a track record that should signal success for Grieco. But Grieco, a former state prosecutor, lacks incumbency and carries personal baggage.

Last year, Grieco dropped out of the race for Beach mayor, resigned his commission seat and pleaded no-contest to a misdemeanor charge of violating Florida’s campaign-finance laws by lying about setting up a secret committee to raise campaign money. The Miami Herald, through handwriting analysis, established that Grieco had set up the committee. Additionally, donors to the committee told investigators that Grieco had asked them for money, often personally accepting their checks.

He struck a plea bargain with prosecutors to settle the criminal charges. He was sentenced to one year of probation, and agreed not to run for public office for six months.

In May, Grieco announced his candidacy for the state Legislature.

He said most voters don’t dwell on his legal and ethical problems. During what he described as an exhaustive canvassing of the district leading up to the August primary, Grieco said his campaign-finance scandal hardly ever came up.

Still, Grieco may face censure and discipline in the future. The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics in July found probable cause that Grieco violated the “Truth in Government” provision of the county’s Citizen’s Bill of Rights along with Miami Beach’s campaign finance reform ordinance. He also may be subject to disciplinary action from the Florida Bar, which licenses lawyers.

Grieco would not discuss actions pending against him. In an email, he said that, “Any lingering issues are civil in nature, and there has never been any finding or admission of intentional wrongdoing.”

Asked about his trustworthiness as a candidate given the charges against him, Grieco said in an email that, “I will not be distracted by old news from the past.”

But Parker believes Grieco’s past is a key distinction between the candidates.

“He has a track record of poor judgment,” Parker said. “It’s really going to be up to voters to decide whether you want somebody who’s willing to work hard and has the experience to do the job right or if you’re going to go with somebody who consistently displays poor judgment.”

Parker says his experience as a small business owner further qualifies him to go to Tallahassee and pursue an agenda to “reduce the size of government.” He currently owns a UPS store on Alton Road and said he also owned a GNC store on Southwest Eighth Street in Little Havana for about eight years.

He said business owners in that part of the district have been “virtually forgotten,” in part because of roadwork that never seems to end.

“Flagler Street has been closed for almost two years and almost every business is closed along there,” he said. “So that’s a big deal.”

Grieco said Little Havana is akin to a second home where he would like to open a district office where constituents can reach him.

“It’s not a foreign land to me,” he said of Little Havana, where he won every precinct in the primary. He even claims a small measure of celebrity among the neighborhood’s anti-Castro faithful, stemming from his opposition to a 2016 proposal by fellow Miami Beach commissioners that the city host a Cuban consulate.

“When I knock on doors in Little Havana,” he said, “to this day, people say, ‘Hey you’re El Rubio. You’re the guy from Miami Beach who stood up for us against the Cuban consulate.’ ”