Miami Dolphins kick off campaign for May 14 referendum on stadium re-make

The Miami Dolphins officially launched their political campaign Thursday to persuade voters to approve a tax-subsidized renovation of Sun Life Stadium — even though the effort might be all for nought.

The May 14 referendum will take place only if Florida lawmakers pass Dolphins-backed legislation increasing a state sales-tax subsidy and allowing Miami-Dade County to raise its hotel-tax rate — prospects still in doubt in the tax-averse Legislature.

But the Dolphins couldn’t wait until the lawmaking session ends May 3 — a mere 11 days before the referendum — to kick off their political push.

On Thursday, the Dolphins announced their effort would be headed by businessman and longtime fundraiser Jorge Arrizurieta and lawyer H.T. Smith, both seasoned campaigners who can appeal to two key Miami-Dade constituencies: Hispanics and blacks. Smith is black, and Arrizurieta is Hispanic.

At a news conference held at the National Football League’s “Youth Education Town” center in Liberty City, Smith emphasized the Dolphins’ and the league’s contributions to community programs. The NFL created the center at Gwen Cherry Park when Miami hosted the 29th Super Bowl in 1995.

“The reason why I’m here today is because every time the Super Bowl comes to Miami, the NFL YET center gets $500,000,” Smith said.

One of the conditions of the renovation deal negotiated by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is that the Dolphins bring at least four Super Bowls over the next 30 years to the Miami Gardens stadium. County commissioners on Wednesday approved putting the deal before voters, and scheduled the referendum.

As part of the agreement, the Dolphins will have to bear the election costs. Due to the county by Friday is a nonrefundable payment of $4,784,337.

The Dolphins began assembling a political team weeks ago, bringing in local and outside advisors. Phone calls to voters to drum up support have been going on for days. Dolphins spokesman Eric Jotkoff said the team registered its political action committee, named Friends of Miami First, on Thursday afternoon.

Smith and Arrizurieta, who will be compensated for their work, said it was too early to say how much the PAC plans to spend on the campaign, which will be a month-long dash. The Miami-Dade Elections Department will mail its first batch of absentee ballots, to overseas voters, on Tuesday, with domestic ballots first hitting the mail April 23. Two weeks of early voting would begin April 29.

Those dates mean voting will begin before the end of the legislative session, where the entire Dolphins deal could unravel. Though the legislation has received approval from all the Florida House and Senate committees it has faced, top Republican sources in the GOP-controlled state Capitol say the legislation is anywhere from “limping” to “dead.”

Another sign it’s in trouble: The chief opponent to the stadium plan, Miami auto magnate Norman Braman, said he’s focused on killing it in the Legislature instead of kick-starting a voter-persuasion campaign to rival the Dolphins’.

“Why spend all those resources and time when it might be a waste?” he said.

Braman said he has spoken with lawmakers and hired a Tallahassee lobbyist, Patrick Bell, and is “optimistic” the legislation will fail.

Since it was introduced, the language of the legislation has grown markedly different in the House and Senate versions — a problem because both chambers need to pass identical legislation before Gov. Rick Scott signs it. In its last House committee, the legislation fell a few votes short of being killed.

The Miami-Dade Republican and Democratic parties have criticized the plan, and many members of the county legislative delegation oppose it.

“It’s dead,” said one top Republican legislative leader who’s not from South Florida.

“It’s limping,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican.

But Hialeah Republican Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, the bill’s sponsor, said he’s feeling confident about the legislation’s chances. He said an overwhelming majority of representatives on the House appropriations committee — the legislation’s next stop — back the bill.

“I have 22 votes in favor out of 26 in the appropriations committee!!” Gonzalez said in a text message sent Thursday to a Miami Herald reporter. “And have plenty of time!!”

Braman, a billionaire civic activist who lead the charge against the public financing of the Miami Marlins ballpark and for the recall of former County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, has made his opposition in part about Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a wealthier billionaire. Dolphins CEO Mike Dee has attacked Braman for having received some tax incentives for economic and infrastructure development.

Braman acknowledged the Dolphins have hired top-notch lobbying talent. But, he added,

“This is a bad deal.”

Quite the contrary, argued the Dolphins campaign’s Smith, who said the deal “will sell itself,” in part because the public will contribute far less money than with the Marlins, and because the Dolphins will repay a portion of the funds in 30 years.

“Let’s just say it: This is not the Marlins deal,” Smith said, repeating what has become the team’s mantra.

Arrizurieta said Mayor Gimenez’s reputation as a vocal Marlins ballpark opponent will help voters trust the Dolphins agreement, as happened with a majority of county commissioners when they approved the plan 8-3 Wednesday.

“What took place yesterday sends a very strong message in Tallahassee,” Arrizurieta said.