Miami Forever bond campaign fueled by anonymous money

City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado walks through the flooded streets in Shorecrest after a combination of rain and King Tide flooded the area, October 5, 2017.
City of Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado walks through the flooded streets in Shorecrest after a combination of rain and King Tide flooded the area, October 5, 2017. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

Starting Wednesday, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado will begin appearing on television screens around the city in a bilingual effort to convince voters to endorse his $400 million Miami Forever general obligation bond, about half of which will pay to brace the city against rising seas.

He says he has no clue who’s paying for the spots. And he’s perfectly OK with that.

The commercials, part of a planned $400,000 media blitz ahead of election day on Nov. 7, are paid for by the Seawall Coalition, a nonpartisan organization tied to a sea-rise advocacy group out of New York. The coalition was created as a social welfare 501c4 non-profit — so-called “dark money” entities allowed under the tax code to engage in politics without any legal obligation to disclose their donors.

How the organization spends its money on the campaign will be transparent since the coalition will operate through a political committee registered with the city clerk. But Matthew Eby, chairman of the Seawall Coalition, said there are no plans to lay out the list of contributors funding the campaign.

“We have donors from both sides of the aisle,” said Eby, who will say only that he has donated personally to the campaign. “We respect their privacy and we don’t want to have the appearance of speaking on their behalf.”

That means the politicians working with the campaign and the voters receiving the messages will be clueless as to who specifically is putting up the money. Eby, who was in Miami during the first week in October filming the king tides and putting material together, says the campaign is expected to include digital ads, mailers, a Regalado radio spot and possibly neighborhood canvassing, all funded through the Seawall Coalition.

Initially the group announced it would spend $200,000, but it has since doubled that number. The campaign also includes pieces with small business owners and homeowners

“I don’t know what’s their end-game,” said Regalado. “But I don’t feel uncomfortable because sea-level rise is a good cause.”

Like Regalado, Miami Commissioner and congressional candidate Ken Russell is unconcerned about the donors behind the Seawall Coalition and has not asked about their identity.

Russell says he met Eby as the First Street Foundation — a different sea-rise advocacy organization of which Eby is executive director came to Miami to explore a sea-rise educational effort. He encouraged Eby to help promote the city’s rudderless Miami Forever campaign. Russell said he told the group that if it wanted to raise awareness and address the problems posed by rising seas, the city would have far more resources to work with if the bond — based off a new property tax that needs voter authorization — were to pass Nov. 7.

“Who their specific donors are? As long as I’m comfortable with the way they’re carrying out their informational campaign and they don’t seem to have any ulterior motive beyond helping out our environment, I really see an altruistic movement here,” said Russell. “This is a group trying to accomplish good for the sake of good.”

In the past, Eby has worked with Jay Faison, a Republican clean-energy booster who launched the ClearPath Action Super PAC. Eby declined to say if Faison is one of the coalition’s donors, but said his marketing company, Anthro, does not currently have any work with the Super PAC.

In an interview, Eby said any suggestion that the Seawall Coalition is a shadowy dark money entity is off-base.

“We’re truly sea-level rise advocates,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for us to spend our money in the way we saw best possible to raise education around the urgency of sea rise and flooding, and the solutions that exist. The [general obligation] bond was the perfect intersection of those things. That’s why we stepped in.”