Miami Beach

As dark money swirls, Miami Beach candidates focus on rising seas and transportation

Kristen Rosen Gonzalez
Kristen Rosen Gonzalez

Dark money has infiltrated the commission race in Miami Beach, and one candidate in particular has been a prime target.

Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who is running to retake a seat on the dais after resigning to run for Congress in 2018, has labeled her “shady” opponent a “beneficiary” of the mail attacks because she believes his campaign is associated with the political committee leading the assault.

It’s a charge that Michael Barrineau, a prime contender in the Group IV race, denies. But the negative ads coming from a political committee based in Tampa — and Rosen Gonzalez’s responses — have shrouded the issues-oriented campaigns all four candidates have led.

“Who’s the beneficiary of this shady PAC?” Rosen Gonzalez asks in her latest campaign ad. “Shady ‘Mike B.’ ”

Rosen Gonzalez, 46, a Miami Dade College speech professor, blamed Barrineau’s political consultant, Christian Ulvert, for having ties with the group. He has denied being paid by the group or working for it.

Barrineau, 61, a real estate broker, said he found it curious that Rosen Gonzalez, who has attacked her opponents, is complaining about negative press.

“Name calling and all of that is just not how I have lived my life, and I’m not going to change now because I want to be a public servant,” Barrineau said. “I’m going to continue to set the highest standard for myself.”

On social media, residents have complained about the presence of untraceable money attacking candidates competing for three commission seats up for grabs this election cycle. They have been receiving rounds of negative campaign fliers in the mail from shadowy political committees with murky financial backing.

“Does dark money have a place in our local politics?” asked Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, on Facebook. “And why are they targeting this one candidate?”

Political committees have attacked candidates in all three commission races this cycle, but Rosen Gonzalez has been a frequent target. The ads feature sensationalist, tabloid-style pull quotes — ”Caught Red Handed,” “Deadbeat,” “Slumlord” — and can mislead voters by relying on outdated information and using unappealing photo editing.

One particularly striking — and misleading — ad superimposes red dye on Rosen Gonzalez’s hand and features a large red hand print on its cover. The ad, from the Tampa-based Our Future Now PC, claimed Rosen Gonzalez had broken an ethics law after being accused of lobbying city staff. But she was cleared of the ethics complaint in June.

The attacks have come early and often — and Rosen Gonzalez has modified her campaign platform to include ending the influence of political committees “infiltrating” local elections.

“Stand with me against bullying, pandering, manipulating and dark PAC money in our local elections!” she wrote in a Facebook post. “The dirty phone calls from my opponents are punching below the belt. If they punch me below the belt, they’ll do the same to you.”

For the most part, candidates for the commission seat have largely acted cordially with each other in staking out their platform positions and communicating their positions with voters. While Rosen Gonzalez has sent out negative campaign ads about her opponents, she has seemingly refrained from attacks during public speeches or interviews.

The city is offering early voting at Miami Beach City Hall and North Shore Library. As of Monday, 1,126 voters had cast ballots since early voting began on Oct. 21. Residents can vote early until Nov. 3.

Election Day is Nov. 5 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at designated precincts listed on voter information cards. If no candidate earns more than 50 percent of votes, runoff elections will be held Nov. 19, with early voting available Nov. 16 and 17. The deadline to request vote-by-mail ballots for the runoff is on Nov. 9.

In addition to choosing three commissioners, voters will also decide on six ballot questions, including a possible pay raise for commissioners and the mayor.

Michael Barrineau, Group 4 City of Miami Beach

The four candidates are Rosen Gonzalez; Barrineau; Rafael Velasquez, a 46-year-old real estate broker; and Steven Meiner, a 48-year-old attorney for the Securities and Exchange Commission. Rosen Gonzalez and Barrineau are the leading fundraisers in the race.

Barrineau is a first-time candidate, but he serves on the city’s Planning Board and previously served as president of the South of Fifth Neighborhood Association. Barrineau reported $68,105, including $30,466 in loans and personal in-kind contributions.

Rosen Gonzalez, who has the advantage of having served in public office from 2015 until her resignation in 2018, has raised about $149,195 from donors, according to financial filings.

Meiner, a first-time candidate with little history in the city’s politics, has focused his campaign on transparency, fiscal responsibility and accessibility. He has raised $27,696, including $2,000 in a personal loan.

Steven Meiner, Group 4. Courtesy of the Steven Meiner campaign

Velasquez, a longtime Democratic activist, is a known player among residents because of his high-profile defamation lawsuit filed against Rosen Gonzalez after she accused Velasquez of exposing his penis to her while on the campaign trail in October 2017. He has denied the allegation. The two had been political allies, and Rosen Gonzalez had helped Velasquez run for the city commission in 2017. He lost the election.

This election cycle, he made some noise on the Beach after loaning his campaign $135,000 despite being in debt and the target of a lawsuit for unpaid credit card bills. His campaign has since refunded about $90,000 of the loan back to Velasquez’s personal coffer. He has raised about $16,000 from donors.

Rafael Velasquez, Group 4. City of Miami Beach

Velasquez is running a campaign almost entirely motivated by maintaining Miami Beach’s status as an entertainment hub, and protecting his reputation amid allegations from Rosen Gonzalez.

The political committee attacking Rosen Gonzalez, Our Future Now PC, is registered to a Tampa law firm. Chairman Luciano Prida said his firm handled administrative responsibilities for the political committee but said he could not comment on the force behind its political attacks. The group’s biggest contributor is Tallahassee-based political committee Stand Up For Justice, which donated $300,000 in 2018.

Barrineau said he supported transparency in politics and spoke against the large amounts of money “chasing” candidates.

“PACs ought not be able to be secret,” he said. “Having said that, I have no association of any kind whatsoever with any PAC in my campaign. If you look at the stuff that I’ve sent out, I’ve kept it positive and have told my story.”

On the issues, Barrineau and Rosen Gonzalez agree more than not. Their ideas include resolving perennial gridlock with mass-transit solutions, possibly through a railway connecting Miami Beach to the mainland, and mitigating flooding from rising tides with community feedback and the pollution of Biscayne Bay in mind.

“Right now, there are so many thousands of hotel rooms and units being built and there are no corresponding traffic or infrastructure solutions,” she said during a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Oct. 7.

She has taken a stand against the “deterioration” of the local environment and water quality. She said the city’s projects to tackle flooding have so far been a “disaster,” pointing to dramatic street raising and a lack of injection wells for drainage pumps to push water underground instead of directly into the bay.

“We need better research,” she said in an interview. “We need innovative ideas.”

Commissioners last year, in a move backed by then-Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez, voted to temporarily pause part of the city’s $500 million mitigation plan amid resident complaints about street raising. Expert opinions sought by city leaders have supported street raising, but with improved communication with the public.

“I initiated the pause,” she said. “We have to mitigate, but we have to do it smartly.”

Barrineau said the city’s initial flood-mitigation plan was “bold,” and that he wishes to build upon it with input from residents. He supported “stepping back for a moment” and assessing the successes and failures of the plan.

“I like to say we got the ship pointed in the right direction back in 2013-2014,” he said during the Editorial Board meeting, referring to the raising of streets and implementing drainage pumps. “I think it was bold and innovative and proactive to get the ball rolling in the right direction, but I think we have to learn from those experiences and make it better.”

He said drainage pumps need back-up generators and added filtration, and the city needed to “harmonize” its changes with private property owners affected by new pumps or raised roads.

Barrineau said he wants to increase the police department’s visibility on Ocean Drive and bolster the force’s ranks. He advocates for cracking down on even petty crimes. Rosen Gonzalez said crime issues can be mitigated through a “comprehensive” approach that includes attracting major conventions to the city to offset more rowdy visitors.

But while Rosen Gonzalez has marketed herself as an activist-turned-politician constantly at odds with overdevelopment, Barrineau said that sort of us-versus-them stance is not realistic. Growth through private development is necessary to a thriving city, but he said a balance between resident and business interests is key to the city’s success.

“I think private property owners have the right to do things, and I think we want folks to invest in our community,” Barrineau said during an interview. “I think we ought to use a surgical approach and follow our process, and it ought to be a collaborative decision.”

Velasquez has pushed for quality-of-life improvements such as recreational classes for children, while pitching himself as an anti-corruption candidate hoping to keep Rosen Gonzalez from serving again as commissioner. He, like his opponents, said he wants to “fight sea-level rise on all possible fronts.”

He is a supporter of community policing, but he said he does not want a “police state” that would cause an “unwelcome” atmosphere on the Beach.

Meiner supports increasing police visibility, staffing and consistent enforcement of laws, while expanding shelter access for the homeless community.

“I’ve actually had officers tell me that they’re frustrated sometimes because they want to enforce the laws and they’re not given the direction that they feel they need to do that,” he told the Editorial Board.

He has advocated for resident-centered and cost-effective resiliency efforts to combat rising seas, with a focus on green spaces and monitoring the pollution of Biscayne Bay.

He said the raising of roads needed to be done with a “tailored approach,” not with universal standards.

“We definitely have to be proactive,” he said.

Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.