Commissioner Francis Suarez flush with contributions, even before he announces for Miami mayor

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez has yet to say if he’ll run for mayor.

His campaign finance reports may speak louder than words.

Suarez raised more than $460,000 for his political committee in the last three months of 2012, a report released Friday shows. The only official candidate raising money, Mayor Tomás Regalado, collected about $91,000 in contributions over the same quarter.

The election is Nov. 5.

The early fundraising efforts signal what city observers have been speculating about for months: that Suarez, the charismatic, 35-year-old son of former Miami mayor and current County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, could pose a serious threat to Regalado.

“The good news for Francis is that he’s going to have the resources,” Florida International University professor Dario Moreno said. “There are enough political and business types that Regalado has angered. They are going to be able to raise money [for Suarez].”

Suarez has been raising cash through an “electioneering communications organization” he chairs called The Future is Now. He opened the account in February to raise money for his strong-mayor initiative, which failed to find support on the City Commission, he said. The political communications organization can be used to fund campaign mailers and advertisements for Suarez and other candidates. But under state law, the communications cannot “expressly advocate” the election or defeat of a candidate.

Suarez does not have an official campaign account because he has not filed the paperwork to run for mayor. He would have to resign his commission seat to run. Regalado, meanwhile, has been soliciting traditional campaign contributions, which are limited to $500 per individual. Political committees like Suarez’s are not subject to caps. Raquel Regalado, the mayor’s daughter and campaign manager, called Suarez’s fundraising methods “disingenuous.”

“There’s a reason you have to say you are a candidate before you can raise money,” Raquel Regalado said. “Some people gave to [Suarez’s political organization] because he said the purpose was to raise money for the strong-mayor initiative. They didn’t know he was running for mayor.”

Suarez said he has been “open” with his donors about his potential candidacy.

His campaign manager — his cousin, Steve Suarez — called the criticism from the Regalado camp “ironic coming from a group of people who have been found guilty of multiple ethics violations regarding campaign finance.”

Last year, the mayor paid $1,000 in fines for not declaring his Coral Way home on financial disclosure forms. He also came under scrutiny for receiving $8,000 in campaign contributions from the Dominican Republic in 2009.

Suarez said he plans to make a final decision and an announcement regarding his candidacy “over the next few days.” If he files, he will have to give up his commission seat, though the remaining commissioners could vote to keep him on the dais until the voters choose a permanent replacement.

Some observers say Suarez’s candidacy is the worst-kept secret at City Hall. But Suarez insists he has some details to work out.

“This is a big endeavor,” he said. “It is not something you do haphazardly.”

Suarez has not been coy about his fundraising efforts. Since February, his political organization has taken in about $615,000. He has held 10 fundraisers, he said, including a December event with former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.

“We’ve definitely been engaged in a substantial fundraising effort,” he said, noting that his father has also played a role.

In the most recent fundraising quarter, Suarez’s organization received $10,000 contributions each from powerhouse lobbyist Ron Book, the Brickell law firm Lydecker Diaz where Diaz is a senior partner, Magic City Casino and a company held by Jackson Health System Chief Executive Carlos Migoya.

A subsidiary of Miami-based infrastructure, engineering and construction firm MasTec gave $25,000. And Midtown Opportunities, a development company that owns parcels in Miami’s Midtown neighborhood, shelled out $50,000. (Suarez chairs the Midtown Community Redevelopment Agency, a semi-autonomous body tasked with using special tax dollars to revitalize the neighborhood.)

Suarez noted that the bulk of contributions to his political organization came from the business community. “That’s indicative of their confidence in me and the fact that they want to see the city move in a different direction,” he said.

He declined to comment on his vision for the future should he throw his hat into the ring.

Spending by Suarez’s political committee has topped $90,000 on polling, advertising, consulting services and contributions to other political organizations, records show.

Regalado’s main expense so far: $27,000 for a mailer sending season’s greetings to all Miami residents.

So far, the mayor has been able to raise about $160,000, records show. His campaign contributions come from a wide variety of individuals and businesses, and include $7,000 from auto magnate Norman Braman, his wife and 12 Braman companies.

Raquel Regalado said her father’s campaign is finalizing the paperwork to open a political communications organization of its own.

Regalado said he plans to be “very active” with his campaigning and fundraising efforts. “I love to campaign and luckily, my daughter loves to campaign, too,” he said.

Moreno, the FIU professor, said Regalado remains popular in Little Havana and Flagami, where Miami’s mayoral races are often won. But a solid war chest will be an important asset to Suarez. “Now the question is, can [Suarez] put together a campaign?” Moreno said. “Can he put together a message that compels people to make a change?”

Besides Regaldo, two other candidates have filed to run for mayor: Williams Armbrister and Jeffrey Anthony Benjamin. Armbrister hasn’t begun fundraising, according to city election records. Benjamin has amassed less than $1,000.