Imaginary people are writing to voters and political attack ads are mailing themselves in a special election to claim a Miami-area state House seat.
With election day one month away, some voters in Florida’s House District 114 received letters this week trashing Democrat Javier Fernandez for donating money to the Republican Party and working for a law firm that once represented a manufacturer of semiautomatic rifles. The letters were authored under different names and made to appear as if they were written by Democratic voters.
“Fernandez is the exact type of person who does not share our values, our conviction, nor our willingness to do what is in the best interest of our families,” someone named Francine Gomez-Levine wrote in a letter obtained by the Miami Herald.
Except, while it’s true that Fernandez gave money to the Republican Party of Florida in 2016 and worked for Akerman Senterfitt in Miami six years ago while one of the firm’s Tampa attorneys was representing Hogan Manufacturing, it’s doubtful that Gomez-Levine exists. A woman who answered the phone at The David William Condominium in Coral Gables, where the author said she lived in unit 4203, said no one by the name of Gomez-Levine lived in the building.
“The unit you mention doesn’t exist,” she said.
Two other letters provided to the Miami Herald by the Fernandez campaign were authored by people with hyphenated names and addresses that don’t show up in public records searches. It’s not known how many letters were received by voters.
The underhanded campaign tactics are the just the latest in the bare-knuckle contest to claim the seat of ousted Democrat Daisy Baez, who resigned last year after admitting that she never lived in the district and lied on her voter registration. Fernandez and Republican Andrew Vargas have been attacked repeatedly by third parties. In this case, the anti-Fernandez letters were all written in support of independent candidate Liz de las Cuevas.
“I know Mr. Fernandez. He asked me about that. I have no idea” where it’s coming from, de las Cuevas said. “I would never send anything like that.”
Donna Di Giacomo, a Coral Gables resident who received one of the letters, said two of her friends who live in the district also received letters. The district includes Flagami, Coral Gables, West Miami, Pinecrest and Cutler Bay.
“It’d be interesting to me, in an era of so much misinformation, who is behind all this,” Di Giacomo said.
According to Di Giacomo, the letter she received came in an envelope without a return address, but contained a disclaimer on the back side of the paper attributing the correspondence to a political committee called People for a Progressive Florida. That same committee has spent the last two months ripping Fernandez with attack ads and email blasts made to appear as if they’re coming from other Democrats.
And yet, as of March 1, People for a Progressive Florida had yet to disclose any revenue or expenses to the Florida Division of Elections. Jonathan Paul, chairman for the political committee, did not return voice messages left with phone numbers listed on the committee’s state filings.
Vargas has denied any involvement with the political committee. But the Fernandez campaign blames their Republican opponent.
“Throughout my personal life and professional career, I have earned a reputation for honesty and transparency that we have carried into this campaign,” Fernandez said in a statement released through a campaign spokeswoman. “It is ironic that my opponent's campaign, which seemingly prides itself on similar virtues, is receiving the continuous help from an organization that attacks my ethics while it flagrantly files false reports in order to hide the sources of its funding.”
Fernandez himself was accused in January of improperly reporting expenses. His campaign told POLITICO Florida the allegations were “baseless.”
Vargas has also been blasted by the Florida Democratic Party and a political committee that shares a treasurer with Fernandez’s campaign. He has been attacked over his law firm’s specialization in “assignment of benefits” cases, which the insurance industry blames for spiking premiums. The party has also accused him of “helping companies steal pay from workers” due to his representation of several firms sued two years ago in a federal overtime case that was ultimately settled.
“The only thing I’ve seen in the last several weeks of this election are the negative digital ads against me,” Vargas said. “My law firm has helped a lot of people in the state of Florida when they’ve had issues with their insurance carriers. We’re one of the most reputable law firms in the business.”
The election is scheduled for May 1. The contest will decide who will hold a seat that will be up for election again in six months — before the person who holds it can participate in a single legislative session. Since the district was redrawn, the only two people elected to represent it, Baez and Republican Erik Fresen, have both pleaded guilty to criminal charges.