Daniella Levine Cava has been on the losing side of some of the most controversial votes by the Miami-Dade County Commission, and that’s helped define the former social worker as a top liberal voice of the 13-member board.
Now her best-funded opponent is Gus Barreiro, a Republican former member of the Florida Legislature, giving voters of District 8 another chance to shift the ideological bent of their seat on the nonpartisan county board.
Levine Cava, who unseated conservative Lynda Bell in 2014 to win her first four-year term, was one of three commissioners to vote against county jails detaining immigration offenders for the Trump administration; one of two against extending a major highway closer to the Everglades; and the only commissioner to vote against allowing construction of the nation’s largest mall on undeveloped wetlands.
“When I ran for the first time in 2014, I did it because of a commitment to the community,” Levine Cava told the Miami Herald Editorial Board. “This was a way to bump up my service, by putting into action ... some of my beliefs and my ideology, really, to serve the community better. ... The people are too often left out of the conversation.”
Barreiro, who served in the Florida Legislature between 1998 and 2006, supports the proposed American Dream Miami mega-mall in Northwest Miami-Dade. The developer of the project is his top campaign backer.
He sides with Levine Cava on her opposition to expanding the 836 expressway into West Kendall, saying he wants Miami-Dade to focus on reducing tolls rather than creating more highways that motorists have to pay to use. “All we’re doing is taxing cars,” said Barreiro, 59.
Barreiro also said he supports the majority of the existing commission on the divisive 2017 vote to detain suspected immigration offenders. The vote backed Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision days after Donald Trump became president to resume accepting requests by immigration authorities to extend detentions of people who are booked in Miami-Dade jails on unrelated local charges while being sought for deportation. The extra 48 hours are to give immigration officers more time to take the person into federal custody.
“I’m not in favor of sanctuary cities,” Barreiro told the Editorial Board. An immigrant from Cuba, Barreiro pulled out his original green card and said he opposed the Trump administration’s policy of separating families who cross the border illegally. But he also endorsed Miami-Dade jails honoring requests by federal authorities to hold people who are arrested on unrelated charges. “I support that,” he said.
Levine Cava, 62, bucked most of the commission on that high-profile immigration vote. Trump had threatened to cut federal funds to governments that don’t cooperate on immigration. So far, Miami-Dade hasn’t seen a windfall in federal dollars, and “sanctuary cities” that defied the president haven’t lost money from Washington, either. “The county shouldn’t be serving as a federal immigration enforcer. That is chilling,” Levine Cava said. “I feel that my position has been vindicated, and I stand by it.”
One of her most unpopular commission moves may have been an ordinance fellow board members passed in 2016, but not before complaining about the new rules. The Levine Cava-sponsored law requires candidates for local office to disclose when they’re raising money for a political committee. Before the ordinance passed, linking committee donations to a candidate required either a donor or a beneficiary to reveal the connection.
The other challenger in the District 8 race, Johnathan Burke, hasn’t run for office before. The 33-year-old said he’s campaigning in part to energize South Dade voters and present an example of civic engagement for the kind of race that typically draws anemic interest from voters.
“I tell people I’ve already won,” Burke said. “I’ve had young people say, ‘Hey, because you’re on the ballot, I’m going to go vote.’ ”
Burke has a string of arrests on his record through 2010, including felony larceny, battery on a pregnant victim, and drug possession. Court records don’t show convictions.
“I was blessed enough to have people who believed in me, and offered me a second chance,” said the father of four school-age children. “Actually a second and third chance. ... Maybe people who have gotten in trouble will see me and say, ‘Hey, he did it. Maybe we can, too.’ ”
Burke said he works as a researcher, and his financial disclosure form lists $60,000 in income from a firm in Montgomery, Alabama, called Tarella. It does not appear to have a working website or phone.
An heir to a wealthy family from New York and the wife of a physician, Levine Cava is the wealthiest of the 13 commissioners, with a net worth topping $8 million, according to financial disclosure forms. When she ran in 2014, Levine Cava quit her job as head of Catalyst Miami, a social-services charity in Miami. An attorney, she had once run the guardian program for children at Miami’s Legal Services.
Barreiro listed $55,000 in income from his county job as a community-relations liaison for the Children’s Trust, a board and agency that oversees a special Miami-Dade property tax dedicated to youth services. He’s on leave from his post while campaigning. He used to work for Florida’s juvenile services agency, but was fired in 2009 over allegations he viewed adult pornography on a state laptop.
Barreiro blamed it on retribution from colleagues upset over his criticism of the agency’s failings. While in the Legislature, Barreiro sponsored a law that banned harsh discipline tactics at state-funded boot camps that were exposed by the death of teenager Martin Lee Anderson. In 2000, Barreiro filed for bankruptcy protection, which he said was tied to the failure of a golf store he and a partner once owned.
A district of about 215,000 people south of Miami, District 8 includes the cities of Cutler Bay, Homestead and Palmetto Bay. It’s also one of the fastest growing of the 13 districts, with a 34 percent increase in population since 2000. That’s second only to the adjoining District 9, another South Dade area. (Odd-numbered districts have elections during presidential years, and even-numbered districts follow two years later.)
The growth in a district divided by U.S. 1 helped make traffic a top controversy during Levine Cava’s first term. She faced ire for opposing a proposed bridge over a canal in Palmetto Bay, saying the traffic-relief measure would cause too much neighborhood disruption. Both Barreiro and Burke said they would support the bridge. Both also agree with Levine Cava that Miami-Dade should extend Metrorail south, rather than pursue a less costly option of rapid-transit express buses with group boarding and advance ticket sales.
Because there are three candidates in the District 8 contest, the election could extend into November. To win the nonpartisan primary outright, a candidate must receive more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, the top two finishers face off in a runoff on Election Day. Term limit rules enacted in 2012 require Levine Cava to leave after four years if she wins again in 2018.
Barreiro would be the second member of his family to serve on the County Commission this year, and also the second to run for a commission seat. His half brother, Bruno Barreiro, gave up his District 5 seat in March to run for Congress. Gus Barreiro filed to run in District 8 the day his sister-in-law, Zoraida Barreiro, lost a special election to fill her husband’s seat.
Levine Cava campaigned for Eileen Higgins, a fellow Democrat and the Barreiro opponent who won the District 5 seat. It was the most partisan contest in recent memory for a commission seat, with the Democratic Party ramping up the support it had offered Levine Cava in her 2014 race against Bell, a local anti-abortion activist.
In District 8, Democrats represent 39 percent of the electorate over 29 percent for Republicans. People who claim no party affiliation make up most of the rest. Democratic leadership is backing Levine Cava again, said her campaign manager, Christian Ulvert. “It’s one of their top races,” he said.
Barreiro said Miami-Dade should push back on partisan meddling in nonpartisan local races. “Traffic doesn’t have an R or a D next to its name,” he said. “The minute things get partisan, everyone goes to their corners.”
Levine Cava also downplays the role her party plays in debates on a commission that was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats before the Higgins win pushed the GOP into the minority. “I have found very few issues that fall along partisan lines,” she said. “Almost none.”
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal contributed to this report.