The last time Rafael Velasquez ran for political office, he ended up broke and back behind the wheel of a taxi.
He makes his living selling multimillion-dollar properties but he lives paycheck to paycheck. Last year, his reported assets were thin and he was $80,000 in debt.
So what did he do once his fortunes turned and he earned his first commission in months?
Velasquez, still strapped with debt, injected $135,000 into a new run at the Miami Beach commission.
If he wins, he’ll be in charge of a $350 million budget — while battling American Express in court for defaulting on his credit cards. The bank wants about $20,000, according to court documents.
“Our president has filed bankruptcy six times,” he said. “I’m just a normal consumer. I’m dealing with my life the best I can.”
Velasquez, 46, runs his own real estate company out of his Alton Road apartment. With the mercurial nature of the luxury real estate market, especially in Miami, listing agents can go long periods of time between big-ticket buys.
And in the months after his failed City Commission run in 2017, a campaign tarnished by allegations that he exposed his penis to a mentor-turned-political rival, Velasquez sunk further into debt as he operated on a monthly deficit of $2,000.
At low points of his life, he has periodically turned to taxi driving to make up lost wages, he said. Around the time of the 2008 recession, he drove a taxi for about 3 years. He’s returned to the business two or three times since then, including after his loss in 2017.
He said he has also moonlighted as a substitute teacher at South Pointe Elementary School, Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH) and Miami Beach Senior High School.
A financial affidavit filed in Miami-Dade County court during Velasquez’s divorce from his wife in September 2018 showed the extent of his troubles. His assets were just $3,250 and his monthly expenses were double that, according to court documents the Miami Herald obtained as part of a background check into Miami Beach commission candidates.
Then came a twist of fate. A little over two weeks later, on Sept. 28, a luxury condo penthouse in the same building where he lives, 400 Alton Rd., sold for $4.9 million. And he received a $198,000 commission as the listing agent.
“It saved me,” he said. “It’s a gift from God.”
He loaned his campaign most of that money between April and June 2019. He said he probably won’t use a significant portion of it during the race, but he said the inflated war chest ideally would make him appear more legitimate and attract new donors. He plans to spend at least $5,000 on an upcoming campaign event featuring musical acts and art demonstrations, but said he doesn’t foresee organizing another event of that size in the next month.
And he can transfer all of his money back to his personal bank account whenever he wants. He has already refunded himself $20,000, according to financial disclosure forms. In total, he has spent $25,243 on the campaign.
Ronald Meyer, an elections attorney based in Tallahassee, said money candidates loan to their campaigns does not have to be spent during the election cycle — or at all. And unlike individual contributions, there is no limit on the amount of money a candidate can loan his or her own campaign.
“The law gives a candidate the right to repay in whole or in part any of the money that he has contributed to his own campaign,” Meyer said.
There are typically two schools of thought when a candidate loans himself money, Meyer said. Either the candidate wants to appear prepared to spend vast amounts of money to win an election or to scare off other candidates who are perhaps unwilling to spend as much.
The loan boosted Velasquez’s fundraising numbers to first place among candidates running in Group IV of the commission race. But of the $149,779 in his war chest, only about $15,000 came from donors other than himself, according to financial records.
Velasquez is running against former commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Miami Beach planning board member Michael Barrineau and Steven Meiner, a lawyer with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
For comparison, Rosen Gonzalez, who has the advantage of having served in public office, has raised about $124,500 from donors, according to financial reports.
Barrineau reported $57,830 in contributions, including about $19,000 he personally loaned his campaign.
Meiner reported $20,911, including $2,000 in personal loans.
“I wanted to show my community what I’m willing to put into this, and to basically put everything into it,” Velasquez said. “I hope as I mentioned earlier that people would feel encouraged to give me more donations and make my campaign even stronger.”
Velasquez believes his financial troubles have taught him how to spend more judiciously, and he wants to bring that experience to the dais and work with tax dollars.
“Maybe my personal life finances have given me the excuse to go through difficult times and budget correctly,” he said. “We can’t just be wasting money in the government.”
He is not the only candidate in the race to have a questionable financial history, as he is quick to point out. Barrineau, a real estate broker who lived and worked in Texas before relocating to Miami Beach, has openly discussed the civil judgments made against him while in the real estate business.
He was handed down a $901,107 judgment in 2012 in Dallas County. A year earlier, he was dealt a $624,810 judgment in Tarrant County, according to court records.
In an August email to supporters, Barrineau detailed how the 2008 recession shuttered his real estate business in Texas. Foreclosures of his company’s home sites “resulted in large civil judgment liens against me personally,” he said.
He said he had a “front row” to the recession, but did not file for bankruptcy.
“My opponents no doubt will try to seize this and turn it into a political vulnerability,” he said. “But I know supporters like you won’t allow that to happen because so many families, unfortunately, lived through the same pains of what followed after the housing market plummeted and the Great Recession started.”