Marlins, Dolphins, unions bankrolled anti-Braman campaign in Miami-Dade Commission races

The incumbent Miami-Dade commissioners who defeated challengers backed by Norman Braman in last week’s election had powerful friends of their own battling the wealthy Miami auto magnate.

While Braman aired attack ads against Commissioners Bruno Barreiro, Audrey Edmonson, Barbara Jordan and Dennis Moss, a maze of political committees campaigned against Braman — bankrolled in part by unions, the Miami Dolphins and the Miami Marlins.

Braman, who engineered last year’s recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez, targeted the four commissioners up for reelection who voted for the new $634 million Marlins ballpark in Little Havana. Braman generally opposes using public money for sports facilities; the Dolphins have their eye on a roof for Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.

The anti-Braman effort wasn’t limited to ads. A union group funded in part by the Dolphins and Marlins staged two protests at Braman’s auto dealerships and one near his Indian Creek home, and tried to link him to an ongoing absentee-ballot fraud investigation, though there is no evidence to back that up.

The most visible portion of the campaign: a television ad featuring Braman as a puppet master pulling the strings of the candidates he supported: Luis Garcia, Alison Austin, Shirley Gibson and Alice Pena. Garcia narrowly secured a runoff against Barreiro; Austin failed to make a runoff against Edmonson; and Gibson and Pena lost to Jordan and Moss, respectively.

“Shame on Norman Braman for trying to hijack democracy, trying to buy the election, trying to put his cronies in office, trying to bully the commission,” the ad said.

The ad was paid for by Miami Dade Citizens for Real Reform, a committee whose biggest donors, according to campaign finance reports, were the Marlins, Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, the Dolphins and a separate, Dolphins-backed committee in Tallahassee, Job Growth for South Florida.

The Tallahassee committee’s funding — $99,900 over about 11 days — came from three contributions from the Dolphins, a corporation registered to Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and a corporation tied to Ross and his business associate, developer Jorge Pérez. The committee is registered to Matt Allen, the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Pérez’s company, The Related Group.

It’s not the first time either team or its officials has contributed to campaigns. The Marlins, for example, gave money to the committee defending Alvarez against the Braman-driven recall.

The teams, their owners, the Tallahassee committee and the corporation registered to Ross contributed $149,500 to Miami Dade Citizens for Real Reform and to two other local electioneering communications organizations (ECOs) with do-gooder names: Respect the Voters Choice and Government for the People.

The latter two ECOs also received $10,000 from IBEW PAC Voluntary Fund, a Washington D.C.-based political action committee for an electrical workers’ union. Respect the Voters Choice received $5,000 from Transparency in Government, an ECO linked to Commissioner Barreiro, who was benefitting from the anti-Braman campaign, and $1,000 from ImagineMiami PAC, run by Commissioner Xavier Suarez, who supported incumbents Jordan and Moss.

The committees targeted African-American voters, expenditures show. Either directly or through consultants, the ECOs paid for radio spots, robocalls, phone banks, volunteers knocking on doors and visits to churches “to educate the voters on what’s going on,” said Willis Howard, a consultant paid $5,000 by Miami Dade Citizens for Real Reform and $2,000 by Government for the People.

Howard said the effort was geared at painting Braman as a billionaire outsider whom candidates might be beholden to if elected.

“Those folks need to be held accountable to the citizens that live in their particular districts — we don’t need to check with a billionaire first,” he said. “If we knew him and he was in our community, then we might feel a little bit better about his efforts.”

The three ECOs paid $15,000 to Workers Just Like Us, the political arm of South Florida Jobs with Justice, the nonprofit that held the anti-Braman demonstrations and tried to tie him to voter fraud.

Fred Frost, governmental affairs director for South Florida Jobs with Justice, said he urged the Marlins to join the campaign against Braman’s slate.

“I went to the Marlins, and I wrote a letter to David Samson, and I said, ‘Hey, we’re going after this guy,’ ” said Frost, the former president of the South Florida AFL-CIO, which backed the building of the new ballpark because it created construction jobs for some union workers.

The Marlins declined to comment for this article, as did the Dolphins.

In a post-election message, Braman repeated his campaign mantra: that his goal was to provide voters with new candidates. The committees, the statement said, “were established by Norman Braman for the purpose of providing four Miami-Dade communities with a choice of either reelecting their incumbent commissioners or replacing them.”

“The people have now spoken through the ballot box,” the statement said. “Both organizations and Mr. Braman, of course, will abide by the electorate’s decisions and congratulate the winners.”

South Florida Jobs with Justice asked Miami-Dade Elections Supervisor Penelope Townsley to investigate Braman’s ECO, Change Miami-Dade Now, which aired radio and television spots against the incumbents — the “pack of four,” according to the ads. The ads featured a telephone number for voters to call if they wanted to vote by mail.

Those calls didn’t go to the elections department but to Change Miami-Dade Now — a legal practice. An answering service hired by the group assisted voters in requesting absentee ballots, said Ben Kuehne, the group’s attorney. Those requests went to the elections department.

The group, Kuehne said, “never touched a single ballot, never helped a voter fill out a single ballot, never took any envelopes containing ballots, never licked envelopes containing ballots, did nothing with ballots whatsoever.”

Frost said union workers opposed Braman’s fight against the Marlins stadium but were mostly concerned that he was backing candidates in districts where the majority of voters are minorities.

He added that he didn’t think the group would get involved in the two pending runoffs for incumbents.

“We knew that somebody with the most money wins 90 percent of the time, and we wanted to fight back against him,” Frost said. “I think our job is done, as far as trying to negate Mr. Braman’s millions of dollars.”