Norman Braman’s money gives challengers better shot at Miami-Dade Commission seats

Newly released campaign finance reports show long-entrenched Miami-Dade commissioners in auto magnate Norman Braman’s crosshairs are facing unprecedented fundraising pressure, and County Mayor Carlos Gimenez enjoys an enormous financial edge over chief rival Joe Martinez for the August election.

The four incumbent commissioners up for reelection — Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan and Dennis Moss — still enjoy large fundraising leads. But that money is being countered by Braman’s two political groups: an electioneering communications organization called Change for Miami-Dade Now, and a political action committee called Vote For a New Miami-Dade. The two fundraising tools created by the billionaire businessman so far have collected a combined $440,000.

Though the groups must follow different rules than campaigns — an ECO is not allowed to endorse a candidate, for example, but it can attack one — both groups can do something campaigns cannot: solicit unlimited donations.

“We’re trying to even the playing field,” said Braman, who hopes his spending will draw a larger turnout than typical for the traditionally slow August primary, and who has promised more ads are on the way. Braman believes the larger the turnout, the better the chance of unseating an incumbent. “We’re not throwing away money, what we’re trying to do is get people to come out and vote,” he said.

Braman also has donated $6,000 or so in individual, $500 contributions from himself and his companies to his slate of challengers: state Rep. Luis Garcia against Barreiro, Belafonte Tacolcy Center Chief Executive Alison Austin against Edmonson, Miami Gardens Mayor Shirley Gibson against Jordan, and former Dade County Farm Bureau President Alice Pena against Moss.

Despite Braman’s support, Austin has been outraised by another Edmonson challenger, attorney Keon Hardemon, who has taken in $25,437.

Still, the new fundraising balance of power was evident last weekend when Braman began airing ads urging voters to “say no to the pack of four” during the Sunday morning local news programs on WFOR-CBS 4 and WPLG-ABC 10. A version of the spot is also running on Spanish-language radio.

After engineering last year’s successful recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez, Braman is targeting the four commissioners up for reelection who voted for the Miami Marlins’ $634 million Little Havana stadium — a fact that is duly noted in the ads.

The spot also ties the four incumbents to a property-tax rate increase two years ago that helped lead to Alvarez’s downfall. Once-powerful Commissioner Natacha Seijas was also recalled from office.

With the exception of Hardemon, other candidates who are also challenging the incumbents — without Braman’s support — raised far less in the quarter that ended June 30. Those candidates are: Wade Jones against Jordan; Michael Jackson Joseph, Eddie Lewis and Nadia Pierre against Edmonson; Calixto Garcia (no relation to Luis Garcia) and Carlos E. Muñoz Fontanills against Barreiro; and Darrin McGillis against Moss.

Another Moss challenger, Loretta Riley, has yet to file a report, according to the county elections website, though it was due last Friday.

If no one wins more than 50 percent of the vote in the Aug. 14 primary, a runoff would be held between the top two vote-getters on Nov. 6.

Garcia, who has collected $72,240 to Barreiro’s $170,755, said it’s difficult for a challenger to keep up with incumbents who often collect money from deep-pocketed lobbyists and developers.

“By Norman creating whatever movement he has against these people, it gives us a chance to be recognized,” Garcia said.

Barreiro said he has no qualms with Braman’s fundraising, as long as it’s used to promote discussion of county issues. “It’s legal,” he said.

Edmonson, who has raised $188,730 to Austin’s $17,043, said with Braman’s bankroll, the playing field isn’t fair at all. “He’s spending a lot of money to make sure the people do what he wants them to do. He’s gone too far,” she said.

Countered Austin: “Optimally, if I had it my own way, I’d love to be able to raise $200,000’’ without Braman’s help. But that’s not likely to happen for a challenger, she said.

In other races Jordan has gathered $184,364 to Gibson’s $20,960, and Moss’s $125,231 trumps Pena’s $12,250.

Braman is not involved in a fifth commission race to replace Martinez, the commission chairman who is running for mayor.

In that open-seat contest, former state Rep. Juan Carlos Zapata has raised $175,548 — almost three times as much as the $60,445 collected by Manny Machado, a Miami-Dade police detective on leave while he runs for office. A third candidate, Javier Muñoz, has raised $3,330.

No contest has drawn more attention — or dollars — than the mayor’s race.

In Miami-Dade, mayoral candidates usually need to raise at least $1 million to be competitive. In 2004, Alvarez, who raised about $1.5 million, defeated former Commissioner Jimmy Morales, whose fundraising surpassed $2 million. Last year, Gimenez raked in about $1 million, compared to about $1.6 million collected by former Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina.

Gimenez is nearing the $1-million mark this year, raising $968,939. Fundraising totals for Martinez, who entered the race in January, lag far behind, at $254,338.

But with political committees of their own, the two candidates actually have far larger campaign war chests.

Get It Done, an ECO linked to Martinez, has raised more than $386,000 — $115,200 of that in the last quarter. And since his election last year, Gimenez’s ECO, Common Sense Now, has raised $1.3 million.

Five other candidates vying for the mayoral post — Edna Diaz, Gary Delano Johnson, Farid Khavari, Helen Barbary Williams and Denny Wood — each have raised less than $10,000, and, in some cases, less than $1,000.

The other countywide race on the ballot, for Miami-Dade property appraiser, shows incumbent Pedro Garcia trailing his only challenger, state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. Lopez-Cantera, a term-limited Miami Republican who has Braman’s support, has raked in $148,775 — more than twice as much as Garcia’s $71,720.

A previous version of this story misstated that Miami-Dade District 9 candidate Alice Pena was President of the Dade County Farm Bureau.