In a ‘blue wave’ year, Democrats may throw Florida’s only Haitian senator overboard

Jason Pizzo (left) won over Florida Sen. Daphne Campbell in the Aug. 28 primary for her Senate District 38 seat representing northeast Miami-Dade County.
Jason Pizzo (left) won over Florida Sen. Daphne Campbell in the Aug. 28 primary for her Senate District 38 seat representing northeast Miami-Dade County.

Daphne Campbell is a walking contradiction.

She is a self-described pro-life “progressive.” A simultaneously charmed and scandal-plagued politician. And in what Democrats hope will be a blue-wave election season, she just might be the first Florida lawmaker that her party throws out of office.

After eight years in the state Legislature, Miami’s only Haitian-American serving in the Florida Capitol is fighting to keep her seat in the Senate, where she represents a heavily Democratic and diverse northeast Miami-Dade district that includes the largest Haitian community in the U.S.

No Republicans lined up to challenge her reelection. But conservative positions on school prayer, abortion, gay rights and charter schools have placed her on the outs with Democratic standard-bearers and led to a challenge from the left in the Aug. 28 primary. With polling showing her well behind in a rare primary election open to all voters regardless of party affiliation, she is at risk of losing her seat to her seeming polar opposite within the party: a wealthy, buttoned-up former prosecutor named Jason Pizzo who has used his own money to significantly out-spend her.

The rare competitive primary is creating party divisions, highlighting ethnic politics and underscoring just how much baggage voters have tolerated in sending Campbell to the state House and Senate four times in eight years.

“She needs to do better,” said Marleine Bastien, a Campbell supporter and one of Miami’s most prominent Haitian-American activists. “But that doesn’t mean she needs to be taken out.”

Since before her 2010 election to the Florida House, Campbell has been embroiled in scandals involving financial turmoil and her family’s businesses. The state cut financial ties with her company temporarily in the mid-2000s after four people died at one of Campbell’s nursing homes. She was investigated by the Internal Revenue Service after clients said her nursing home management company had created bank accounts in their names and deposited Medicaid payments for questionable services, and by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office on Medicaid fraud suspicions during her term as a politician.

Campbell’s ex-husband was previously convicted of mortgage fraud and her son pleaded guilty last year to a Medicaid fraud charge brought years ago. Campbell herself has always denied wrongdoing and has never been charged with a crime.

But even in two comparatively quiet years in the state Senate — a seat she won with just 31 percent of the vote in 2016 thanks in part to a series of lucky breaks — she was still forced to defend a video she posted to Youtube showing her accepting a designer purse stuffed with cash from the pocket of a healthcare non-profit executive for whom she’d carried a bill in Tallahassee.

Campbell would not agree to be interviewed for this article. She responded to a Miami Herald reporter’s questions Thursday by calling the police.

Still, Campbell is campaigning as the “voice of the people.” She remains a rare representative for Miami’s Haitian community, which continues to embrace her, warts and all. And she’s stressing to voters that her reelection is crucial to their participation in Tallahassee.

“Miami-Dade has 2.2 million people, and a lot of African Americans, a lot of immigrants. We need to keep our own,” Campbell says in a video posted recently to her Facebook page.

Campbell’s stature in Miami’s Haitian community, numbering roughly 113,000 strong in Miami-Dade County, has helped her keep office for eight years. Bastien, who leads a non-profit dedicated to empowering Haitian women and families in South Florida, is among those who point out Campbell’s attention to “constituent services,” turning up at meetings, press conferences and gatherings on short notice.

Last year, when dozens of families at the Little Farm trailer park in El Portal were being displaced by a developer, Campbell fought to halt evictions until a relocation plan could be crafted. The previous year, when tenants stuck in Liberty City slums pleaded for help, she filed a bill to strengthen the state’s landlord-tenant laws.

Bastien said Campbell has been a crucial representative for Haitian-Americans at a time when immigrants of color are being villainized and are fighting to protect their legal status in the U.S.

“I spent over 30 years working as a registered nurse taking care of patients, helping them to be healthy,” Campbell wrote in a text message. “I do have a long, straight record of an outstanding, well-accomplished and proven-results public servant.”

Campbell rails on negative media coverage as “racist,” and says she’s the victim of fabricated controversies. But her personal problems have become political liabilities.

After a network of nursing homes that was apparently reaping $4.3 million a year ran into problems with the state, she co-sponsored a bill that would have eliminated a requirement that regulators report yearly on homes that get into trouble for violating state law and exempted ALF owners from reporting lawsuits against their facilities to state regulators. After her first reelection, Campbell immediately filed a bill to make red-light cameras illegal and then denied incontrovertible proof that her family minivan had racked up five red-light camera citations.

Those stumbles, among many, have earned her the ire of her own party. This week, the Miami-Dade Democratic Party sent her a letter detailing a laundry list of ethical lapses as they summoned Campbell to explain how her name ended up on a mailer advertising a slate of Republican candidates going out to Republican voters. Meanwhile, Florida Strong, a dark-money Democratic organization, put together a searing digital ad that uses Google searches to run through her recent scandals.

But it’s not just Campbell’s skeletons causing her problems.

At a time when Democrats believe they can end two decades of Republican rule in Tallahassee by taking control of the Senate, her votes to support school prayer, expand abortion restrictions and promote for-profit charter schools have only highlighted her tendency to side with Republicans on polarizing partisan issues.

She’s opposed by Miami-Dade’s massive teachers union. Her opposition to gay marriage and support of a bathroom gender bill (she was once endorsed by the Christian Family Coalition) has earned her the ire of gay rights activists in her district, which includes Miami Beach.

“From an LGBTQ issues standpoint, she’s been absolutely awful,” said Tony Lima, executive director of gay-rights organization SAVE.

Meanwhile, Campbell’s campaign is backed by sources that are anathema to Democrats: Big Sugar, Florida Power & Light and a political committee chaired by conservative former state Sen. Frank Artiles, who was ousted from the Florida Senate after a racially tinged tirade. In its letter to Campbell on Tuesday, the local Democratic Party pointed out that when she won her seat in the Senate two years ago, she celebrated with Republican Party Chairman Nelson Diaz and David Rivera, a Republican former congressman and one of the few Miami politicians whose scandals may rival Campbell’s.

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Daphne Campbell and former Congressman David Rivera were all smiles during a post-election victory party at MOCA Cafe & Lounge in North Miami two years ago.

Campbell does have the backing of the Senate’s leadership, although minority leader Audrey Gibson offered a lukewarm take on her reelection campaign.

“Her constituents will be the final judge of whether they believe she’s represented them in the fashion in which they all find acceptable,” said Gibson, declining to further discuss her support for Campbell.

Pizzo, meanwhile, has secured the backing of some of the state’s bigger unions and an array of local politicians. His own internal polling put him up double-digits on Campbell in late July, albeit with about half the electorate still undecided.

Though the race is open to voters of all party affiliations, Pizzo is appealing to Democrats to reject Campbell’s politics.

“The Democratic Party should take a real hard look, reassess their candidates, vet their candidates and not give them a pass just because they happen to register as a Democrat,” said Pizzo, who says he registered without party affiliation until the spring of 2016 in order to avoid conflicts when he was a Miami-Dade prosecutor.

Democrats should “take a real hard look at what their candidates are voting on, saying and absolutely doing. If we took an examination of our values, [Campbell] wouldn’t qualify as a Democrat,” he said.

Throwing more than $1 million of his own money into his two Senate campaigns, Pizzo has blasted away at Campbell over her personal stumbles. In one mail piece that highlights a Miami Herald investigation into whether Campbell was living outside her House and Senate districts the past six years, he says Campbell is “disgracing a community where she doesn’t even live.” Campbell has responded with a digital video that heavily features the address where she lists her voter’s registration and claims (inaccurately) that Pizzo lives in Coral Gables.

“I’m running against an unconvicted felon,” Pizzo, who lives in North Miami Beach’s Eastern Shores, told the Herald.

Pizzo portrays himself as something of a white knight: a former Miami-Dade prosecutor who once oversaw a cold-case operation and has made regular appearances at support groups for the mothers of murdered children in the black community. He counters Campbell’s barbs that he has no record by saying his service was spent at shooting investigations and quietly in homes with grieving families.

And while it remains to be seen if he can turn Campbell’s voters against her, he’s certainly attracted disenchanted Campbell supporters.

Her former campaign manager, Nacivre Charles, is working for Pizzo. Charles recently sued Campbell over $18,500 in disputed bills from her 2016 campaign, and told the Miami Herald that she was lying about living in her district when she was a state representative.

Rachel Tourgeman, who once sang Campbell’s praises in a video that keeps finding its way onto Campbell’s Facebook page, is now disenchanted with Campbell and is a close friend of Pizzo’s. Her fiance, Alan Silber, told the Herald that the senator milked the couple for cash by crying poor while claiming she’d help him get his medical license in Florida by filing a bill.

Pizzo has his own baggage, although it’s more the garden variety. Just two years ago, when he ran unsuccessfully against Campbell in a crowded field, he was heavily invested in Big Tobacco, oil and energy, including a $726,000 stake in Nextera Energy, FPL’s parent company. Pizzo sold the investments, and says he made a conscious decision to divest of any potential conflicts before running again.

Then there’s the optics: Even supporters acknowledge the awkwardness of backing a wealthy white man to unseat a poor Haitian American woman.

“I’m uncomfortable in principle voting for a white man over a woman of color who represents the Haitian community,” said Sagiv Edelman, an attorney and Democrat who lives in North Miami. “At the same time, I’m troubled by a lot of her social conservative views, but even more concerned with the constant parade of smoke that surrounds her.”

Campbell has hoped to play up those tensions. Her campaign distributed mail pieces telling voters to ask Pizzo how many black men he put away when he was a prosecutor. In an interview with Rise News that Campbell’s campaign recorded and published, she asked rhetorically how Pizzo can “represent people of color” and called him racist for “attacking a black woman.”

“She should be ashamed,” Pizzo responded. “She’s taken advantage and taken for granted the votes she’s gotten from Haitian-Americans.”

Campbell has so far benefited in her career from low-budget campaigns and a little luck. She was an underdog in her 2016 Senate campaign, but heavy favorite Gwen Margolis stumbled badly and bowed out after dismissively referring to her opponents as “Haitians” during a local Democratic meeting. That left Campbell to run against five lesser-knowns who split the ballot, letting her sneak into office with less than one-third of the vote in the primary.

But this contest is different. Campbell’s former supporters are jumping ship to Pizzo’s campaign, leaving her to plug leaks.

And Pizzo says he’ll do everything he can to make sure she sinks: “Somebody’s got to call her on her bulls---.”

This report has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Marleine Bastien’s name.