Across from the North Shore Branch Library, a large banner of Commissioner Ricky Arriola smiles out at residents casting their ballots at one of two early voting centers in Miami Beach.
The incumbent commissioner paid to hang it up outside a two-story building that he designated as his campaign headquarters, and his image looms large over Collins Avenue.
So, too, does his imposing presence in the race — as Arriola stares down regular assaults on his temperament and brand of governance from other candidates in the race.
The challengers for his Group V seat have spent much of their campaigns criticizing Arriola’s time in office, accusing him of pushing too much development in the city and bristling when residents complain. But they have also been forced to defend themselves from attacks launched by political committees spending big money to weaken their chances on Election Day.
Arriola points to his record of service in the city, accomplishments like spearheading the voter-approved $439 million general obligation bond program and shaping what he called the “North Beach Renaissance” through the city’s Town Center development plan.
His platform priorities include improving quality of life in the city, strengthening the local economy and addressing climate change.
“If you listen to my opposition, all they do is attack me as opposed to presenting their own plans,” Arriola, 51, said. “I am just staying on message, reminding voters of all of the accomplishments I’ve had over the last four years.”
He is the founder and CEO of Inktel Holdings Corp., a customer service company that has managed service for major brands such as Walmart, Goodyear Tires and Clorox. Arriola chairs the city’s Finance Committee and leads its budget effort. He considers Mayor Dan Gelber a key ally, and has said the two make up a “tag team” of governance.
Competing in the race to replace Arriola are three first-time candidates: Stephen Cohen, 41, a real estate broker and property owner; Raquel Pacheco, 44, the owner of a language translation and interpretation firm; and Jonathan Welsh, 38, a communications professional with a medical nonprofit.
Arriola has reported $223,564 in campaign contributions, including a $100,000 personal loan to his campaign. Cohen has reported about $86,000, about $78,000 of which he loaned himself.
Pacheco has raised close to $9,000. Welsh loaned his campaign $2,200 and reported total contributions of $6,160.
Cohen and Pacheco have been the target of attack ads paid for by political committees Empower Florida and Comite Politico, both based in Fort Lauderdale but with a shadowy leadership structure and financial backing. They have called the mail ads misleading and false, and Cohen said he planned to sue Comite Politico following the election.
The “dirty” ads are turning off voters from participating in the election, Pacheco said. The ads against her reference a 2015 lawsuit filed against Harmony Villa Condominiums, where she serves as president of the condo association. She was accused of “negligently” managing the condo building, which she denies. The case was dismissed in 2016, and Pacheco said she remains a member of the association’s board.
Cohen, who owns an RV park in Fort Lauderdale, was accused of being a “slumlord” for running a trailer park in 1994. He denied the charge and pointed out that he was in high school at the time.
“There’s an intimidation factor going on,” Pacheco said.
Added Cohen: “They’re all false. I think it’s disgusting.”
Welsh, who has branded himself the only “millennial” candidate running for office in Miami Beach, said the city’s marketing efforts would improve under his leadership. His platform focuses on engaging visitors on social media, beautifying rundown areas of the city, including alleyways, and bringing more tech jobs to the area.
“Thousands of people every day are taking photos of our city, and they’re posting them,” he said during a meeting of the Miami Herald Editorial Board in October. “And our best foot isn’t forward. ... We have to polish our brand.”
Pacheco, a resident of the Flamingo Park neighborhood in South Beach, said she feels the City Commission does not represent working-class residents where she lives. She wants to be their voice.
“My entire mission is to take back the city and to focus on residents’ issues,” she said.
Her goals include addressing climate change and the city’s environmental challenges, implementing a culture of “responsible development” and cultivating a stable workforce that lives in the city.
Pacheco is a veteran of the Army National Guard in Connecticut, where she was named Soldier of the Year in 1995 —a first for a woman in the state. When she was 22, she founded her small business while still enlisted in the National Guard.
She has criticized Arriola for being “aggressive” towards residents at commission meetings. In a meeting with the Miami Herald Editorial Board in October, Arriola said he enjoys a wide base of support but some meeting attendees badger him with harassing questions.
“There are folks who want to be belligerent, not respectful of the office, and I don’t tolerate that,” he said during the Editorial Board meeting. “I will be kind and compassionate one, two, three times. But once you cross the line, I’m just not built that way.”
He added: “I don’t suffer fools gladly.”
“I got elected to move the city forward and sometimes that means you’ve got to do things that are not popular. And I’m OK with not being liked by everybody. I will be respectful of them, so long as they’re respectful of me. But I have a wide and deep bench of support from all sectors.”
Pacheco contended that Arriola was “quick to implement plans without getting feedback from residents or the community.”
“He thinks he knows what’s best about the community and he just shoves it down their throats,” she said in an interview. “If he doesn’t like your opinion, he calls you a moron.”
Cohen said Arriola should comport himself in a way that is representative of the entire city, not just himself.
If elected, Cohen said he plans to use his real estate knowledge to help guide the city’s budgetary decisions with an eye toward the luxury condominium market. Following a boom in recent years, he said property values are decreasing and the city should have cut back on spending in anticipation of a downturn.
“I believe that very few people truly understand the real estate market,” he said.
On climate change and flood mitigation, Cohen said the city ought to reach out to state and federal partners for matching funds. He proposes installing a unified sea wall along the coast and refraining from one-size-fits-all solutions the city has favored, especially with road raising. He supports increased water retention to prevent flooding.
“Our city really needs to start taking it seriously,” he said. “I would go back and ask the state and federal for more money.”
Commissioners last year 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.
Arriola did not support the pause, likening it to a “game” of political appeasement. He would rather push the city’s resiliency plan forward without pausing to consult outside groups.
“Climate change, although it is upon us, is not really going to be a daily event for another 20 to 30 years,” he said during the Editorial Board meeting. “We’ll all be out of office. Some of us won’t even be here anymore. So you can play games with this, and some folks are playing games with this — which is look like you’re doing something ... and you’re probably out of office by the time it’s all said and done.”
Welsh agreed with Arriola’s act-now stance, arguing that the city’s plan to raise streets and pump water had been vetted by outside experts already. Interrupting progress threatens the plan’s effectiveness, he said.
“I don’t want to go underwater,” he said.
Cohen and Pacheco argued that the city has not done a good job communicating its flood mitigation plans to residents. The city has a website dedicated to climate change, mbrisingabove.com.
The general obligation bond, which Arriola helped spearhead, budgeted $10 million toward raising public sea walls and enhancing the walls with natural vegetation.
He said if reelected, he plans to push forward the city’s resiliency efforts, implement mass transit and improve the city’s commercial district with a focus on small, family-owned businesses.
“I have a track record,” Arriola said. “These folks don’t.”
The city is offering early voting at Miami Beach City Hall and North Shore Library. As of Wednesday, 1,521 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.