Elections

Miami’s strong-mayor referendum is a multimillion-dollar fight

The price of politics is high in the city of Miami — even in an election with no one running for office in City Hall.

Moneyed interests in real estate, architecture and construction have poured more than $1 million into the campaign to make Mayor Francis Suarez, the 41-year-old politician in his first year as the city’s figurehead, into a powerful “strong mayor” in charge of the municipal government’s day-to-day operations. In that revamped role, Suarez would have top administrative authority over the city’s real estate deals and zoning approvals, and he would recommend bidders for city contracts.

This expansion of power would immediately take effect if the referendum passes, according to the ballot question. Suarez would become the city’s first strong mayor, and the subsequent mayors would have the same power, unless the voters changed the government system again through a referendum.

The political organization opposing the strong-mayor proposal has benefited from a smaller but similar stable of donors. A top Suarez foe, Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, is using a political communications group he controls to run attack ads saying Suarez would become a “dictator-mayor.”

The group, called Miami First, has since 2017 raised $284,603. Of that, about $93,000 came from donors working in real estate, architecture and construction. After much of the money was spent during the election that saw him return to public office in November, Carollo has raised $73,000 since June 2018 as the strong mayor campaign ramped up. It is unclear how much the group has spent because recent campaign records have reported zero expenditures — even though television ads and mailers are attributed to them.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has also raised and spent money to fund an opposition campaign.

If voters approve the new government system, it would create a new dynamic where Suarez’s donors could come to his administration seeking approvals or looking to bid on contracts. People and companies with business before the city could fund the political campaign of the city’s chief executive.

Campaign records show Suarez and affiliated political committees have raised at least $2.4 million for the effort first to circulate petitions and then to convince voters to expand his power. Suarez has contributed another $300,000 leftover from his 2017 mayoral campaign.

A prolific fundraiser, Suarez insisted if he were to become a strong mayor, his decisions would not be swayed by the donors who fill his war chest.

“Every single elected official gets campaign contributions, and they are confronted at times with people that go before them, as I was as a commissioner, by those very same people,” he said.

Suarez, a real estate lawyer who works on transactions at Greenspoon Marder, has said he will continue to work with the firm if he becomes strong mayor. The mayor would supervise bureaucrats who make zoning and real estate development decisions and recommendations, a position that could put him in conflict with his private work as an attorney.

Suarez refused to disclose his clients to the Miami Herald, citing his clients’ privacy and saying he has not done legal work for clients on city-related issues, and he will not accept such clients in the future. The mayor argued that because he has no conflicts to disclose, his clientele is irrelevant.

“As an active and practicing attorney, I must continue to respect and protect my clients’ privacy as provided by their attorney-client privilege,” he said. “This is not a reasonable request of any attorney without prior client consent and permission. Again, my legal practice is separate and apart from my political endeavors and are not relevant to the ballot initiative.”

The largest individual donor to the strong mayor campaign is Drive Development LLC, a company that builds contemporary, cube-like homes in Coconut Grove. The company and affiliates, which have lobbyists registered with the city, gave $100,000 to the political committee that financed the petition drive to get the strong mayor question on the ballot, Miamians for an Independent and Accountable Mayor’s Initiative. In recent years, Drive has contributed $23,500 to another Suarez political committee, Miami’s Future, which funded his mayoral bid and transferred $300,000 this year’s strong mayor effort.

A subsidiary of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line, Pride of America Ship Holding, LLC, gave $50,000 to Accountable Miami, a committee that formed once the referendum was on the ballot. An affiliate of Optimum Development USA, headed by Ricardo Tabet, contributed $50,000 to the same committee. Optimum is constructing a new office building in Coconut Grove and owns a low-slung motel near Brickell City Centre that could be be redeveloped.

The Accountable Miami committee, which appeared to rebrand the campaign with a message that de-emphasized power and focused more on accountability, also received a $25,000 check from a statewide Republican committee. The Responsible Leadership Committee is group is tied to a web of GOP committees with involvement in state and local races across Florida. Suarez is a registered Republican; the office of mayor is nonpartisan.

Michael Wohl, a principal at Pinnacle Housing Group, gave $25,000 to Accountable Miami. Pinnacle, a developer affiliated with a company that was subject to a federal criminal probe of inflated construction expenses on affordable-housing contracts, was recently recommended to receive $3.7 million in county low-interest loans for a Homestead affordable housing project. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a strong mayor himself, recommended Pinnacle — a top Gimenez donor.

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Gimenez

Gimenez has come out strongly against Suarez’s proposed strong-mayor plan, funding negative ads through his political committee Miami-Dade Residents First. After two years of fundraising inactivity, Gimenez has raised $67,500 since late August and spent about $6,600 on mailed ads asking voters to reject the strong mayor proposal, according to the most recent campaign report. His recent donors include a real estate company that wants to build a racetrack on leased county land near the Opa-locka airport, Trilogy Real Estate, and a County Hall lobbyist, Felix Lasarte.

Two other political committees affiliated with county commissioners Jean Monestime and Jose “Pepe” Diaz also gave to Gimenez’s committee.

Carollo’s group, Miami First, was first active in his 2017 commission campaign. The committee has raised $73,000 since June 2018, with $28,000 coming from real estate-related entities. One $25,000 check came from a nonprofit group called Miami-Dade Partnership for Prosperity, Inc. The group is a 501(c)(4), a type of nonprofit entity that is reserved for influencing public policy and does not have to disclose its donors. The same nonprofit served as a conduit for supporters of Raquel Regalado in 2016, then a candidate for Miami-Dade mayor, to keep its donations secret.

The money in Miami First’s account has paid for mailers and commercials on Spanish-language television blasting Suarez, calling the strong-mayor measure an overreach and asking voters to reject the plan. The fact the ads tell people to vote no appears to violate election law, according to an attorney who specializes in election law, because Miami First is an “electioneering communications organization,” a legal designation that allows the group only to explain an issue, but not take a position for or against it.

Elections lawyer J.C. Planas has filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission. Carollo said his television ads have followed the rules, and though there may be one mailer Planas may wish to challenge, Carollo can defend it.

“That’s minute,” he said, adding that he might file complaints about some of the pro-strong mayor advertisements.

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Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo, during a city commission meeting on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Roberto Koltun Miami Herald file photo

The Miami First ads question Suarez’s intentions with a raise he would be entitled to if the referendum passes. Suarez, his wife and two young children recently moved into a new $1.4 million home in Coconut Grove. The attack ad shows aerial and interior images of Suarezes’ old and new homes, stating the mayor would use the raise to pay the mortgage.

The ads angered Suarez, who said they “completely crossed the line.”

“People are disgusted by that kind of politics,” he said.

Gimenez’s committee has also sent mailers with photos of the new Suarez home.

Suarez has maintained he would not accept a raise, and he insisted the question of his home purchase was a non-issue.

“If I didn’t have the money to buy the house, I wouldn’t have bought the house,” he said.

Another political committee sprang up in recent weeks to send mailers supporting the strong-mayor initiative. A group called Progressives for Change was registered by Christian Ulvert, a Democratic political operative and spokesman for the committee that financed the ballot petition, Progressives for Change. The committee has not yet filed campaign finance reports showing donors.

Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.
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