After spending six years in the Florida Legislature representing Miami Beach and nearly winning the Democratic nomination to represent the city in Congress, David Richardson wants to serve his constituents in a more direct way.
So he’s running for the City Commission.
But his primary opponent feels Richardson is too much of a politician to hold this particular political office. Adrian Gonzalez, the owner of David’s Cafe Cafecito in Miami Beach, said he worries that the former state representative views the City Commission gig as a “consolation prize” to his larger ambitions.
“We need people that care and are all in,” said Gonzalez, 45, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Commission in 2017.
Richardson, 60, said he’s here to stay — and he feels he is more qualified than the rest of the field and better positioned to find state money for the city’s underfunded plans.
He said Gonzalez raised a fair question.
“For me, I don’t feel that way because there are so many important issues that need to be addressed in Miami Beach,” said Richardson, a retired forensic auditor and accountant.
The Group VI race is one of three commission elections that will be decided on Nov. 5. The four candidates are Richardson; Gonzalez; Mohammed Rafiqul Islam, a 59-year-old landlord; and Blake Young, 48, the owner of a sales contracting firm.
The seat was left open by first-term Commissioner John Elizabeth Alemán, who announced in February she would not seek reelection to spend more time with her family.
The city is offering early voting at Miami Beach City Hall and North Shore Library. As of Tuesday, 1,321 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.
Young, who is running a donation-free race, considers public safety, water quality and rational government spending among his platform pillars. He is the president of the Regatta at Indian Creek Condominium Association. He has spent about $3,000 on his campaign and said he’d be “livid” if he went over $5,000.
Big money is “ruining” politics, Young said. So he wanted to take a stand. Instead of sending campaign mailings or going on TV, he spent five months knocking on doors.
“I did more than spend my money,” he said. “I spent my time.”
If elected, he said he would crack down on speeding along Indian Creek Drive and Alton Road, and property crimes and thefts more broadly. He is considering proposing a “super speeder law” to increase penalties for serious offenders. His campaign’s emphasis on curbing crime on the Beach was motivated by concerns he heard from knocking on residents’ doors, he said.
Reports of property crimes and violent crimes have steadily decreased in Miami Beach in recent years, according to data collected by the FBI, but Young said residents remain concerned about safety in the city.
While Richardson boasts experience in Washington, D.C., and Tallahassee, Young said he excels at solving the problems of the little guy.
He said running against a candidate as polished as Richardson has served as a good learning experience for him, but he wasn’t always as excited about facing off with him.
“You gulp a little bit when you hear that, but what better way to start your political career?” he said.
Islam, who has not raised any money, said his engineering background could help in improving the city’s sea walls. He has spent about $3,400 on his campaign. He is pushing for more accountability in the city’s spending, more urgent flood mitigation and better training for police officers.
He has pushed for better city services, especially in permitting and code enforcement.
“We need a one-stop service,” he said. “We need to reform this.”
Gonzalez, who is running a pro-small business campaign, proposes the City Commission offer financial incentives to “mom and pop businesses” struggling to pay ever-increasing rents. Admittedly his own family business — which has operated in some form, first on Collins Avenue and now on Alton Road, since the 1970s — would stand to benefit from such a proposal.
Gonzalez offered to recuse himself from any official discussions about assisting his restaurant if the commission were to consider the idea.
“We also deserve some consideration,” he said. “Many storefronts are disappearing.”
While Gonzalez has used the popular restaurant to paint himself as the most pro-business candidate in the commission race, his company’s not-so-distant history of worker protests and a federal labor investigation have served as fodder for a political committee attacking Gonzalez in mailboxes across Miami Beach.
Following the closure of David’s Cafe II on Lincoln Road in 2012, former employees staged protests accusing management of withholding pay.
Gonzalez said in an interview that the employees were owed about $40,000 covering a four-month pay period, but management sorted out the issue. He called it a blip in an otherwise lauded history as Miami Beach’s spot for empanadas, pastellitos and cafecito.
“When everything was said and done, they were made whole,” he said.
Gonzalez is pushing for mass transit options, including possibly a railway connecting Miami Beach to Miami, and a development plan that balances the interests of developers and residents. He supports investing in solutions to defend the city against rising seas.
He said the main difference between him and Richardson is that he views a seat on the commission as his final aspiration, not as a stepping stone to something greater.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m just a person that wants to serve my community.”
Because of his deep ties to the city, Gonzalez has referred to himself as “the definition of Miami Beach.”
Richardson has small-business experience, too. While living in Washington, D.C., he started a forensic auditing and accounting firm that specialized in working for clients seeking government contracts.
He started as a junior accountant working for the Pentagon, and later as a forensic accountant with the Department of Defense. He opened the DC firm after working for Ernst & Young.
Richardson cut his teeth politically in Tallahassee, where he worked in a Republican-controlled Legislature. He earned headlines at the time for investigating harsh conditions at state prisons. He was elected in 2012 and served three two-year terms, becoming the first openly gay legislator in Florida history.
He then ran for former Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s seat in Florida’s 27th congressional district. He lost to Rep. Donna Shalala by 4.5 percentage points in the Democratic primary. Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who is running for City Commission in Group IV, came in third place during the primary. Shalala won close to 32 percent of the vote compared to Richardson’s 27.5 percent and Rosen Gonzalez’s 17 percent.
“No one else is going to have that kind of experience,” he said. “I think my work in Tallahassee was benefited by that experience, looking at an $84 billion budget, finding stuff in the budget that got tucked away and that nobody looked at.”
His latest campaign marks his fifth.
And so far, he has out-raised his opponents. Richardson has raised $157,787 to Gonzalez’s $70,875, using his contributions to mail out campaign ads to residents at a fast clip. Richardson’s contributions include $25,000 in loaned cash.
He is pushing improvements to crime prevention that do not create a sense of exclusion in the city, fiscal responsibility to maintain balanced budgets and resilience to tackle sea-level rise.
He draws on a three-decade career as a forensic auditor exposing corporate corruption and financial misconduct, and feels he is uniquely qualified to trim fat from Miami Beach’s payroll and prepare the city for impending financial and environmental hardships.
Richardson is the only candidate running in Group VI to have served in political office. Branding himself the “budget guy” who will bring a keen eye to the city’s finances, he has pushed for trimming fat from the city’s payroll through zero-based budgeting.
“I want to go to all departments and say, ‘Here’s a clean piece of paper. Here’s a pencil. Let’s start from the bottom up,’” he told the Miami Herald Editorial Board on Oct. 8. “We’re not going to take the budget that you had last year and add 5 percent to it.”
On flood mitigation, he said he was eager to hear from city consultant Jacobs Engineering about recommendations to combat the rising seas surrounding the island city. He said tackling climate change was an immediate concern, because it is vital to prove to the mortgage and insurance industry that the city is committed to the issue.
If the city failed in marketing its plans to prevent flooding, that could lead to big hikes in homeowner’s insurance and mortgage and insurance rates, he said.
“Rates are determined based on risk,” he said. “We have to communicate in very clear terms ... that we are taking the issue seriously.”
He supports light rail across Biscayne Bay, but would prefer it include a “loop” system that would run deeper into the Beach side, possibly extending to the Miami Beach Convention Center. He cautioned against a transit option that would “dump” people off once they cross over into Miami Beach.
“I think there’s a lot of really good work for me to do in Miami Beach,” he said.