With Dems’ support, Eleazar Meléndez runs to represent Miami’s District 1

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles of candidates for the Miami City Commission District 1. All of the candidates’ profiles will run in print and online at miamiherald.com.

Eleazar Meléndez, a relatively recent arrival in Miami’s District 1, is campaigning to win a second stint at City Hall — though his first wasn’t as a commissioner.

Meléndez, 33, served as Commissioner Ken Russell’s chief of staff from 2015 to 2017. He’s worked for the Democratic Party and as a political consultant since, and now he’s campaigning to represent a district he’s called home since March 2018.

The first-time candidate, born and raised in Puerto Rico, sees his youth and recent move into the district as assets more than liabilities. He counters any criticism of his newness to the district by comparing his candidacy to the political rise of immigrants who move to the United States, a narrative that he said should resonate with families in the diverse District 1.

“For [critics] to use that kind of message here, it’s disappointing,” he said.

Meléndez, who worked as a journalist before entering the political arena, is one of seven candidates vying to fill the District 1 seat on the City Commission. Commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, who holds the seat, is term-limited this year. Vote-by-mail ballots are scheduled to be sent to voters beginning this week. Election Day is Nov. 5.

He has framed his campaign as a shift away from politics as usual. He said he wants to push the private sector to innovate when they seek permits. An example: As the city continues to allow electric scooters under a pilot program around downtown and Coconut Grove, why can’t a vendor dream up a solution for older residents — say, like an electric wheelchair?

“What if we made them self-driving?” he said. “A true, last-mile solution.”

Meléndez is familiar with Miami’s political establishment, though some in the establishment are not too fond of him. As Russell’s chief of staff, Meléndez played a role in a 2016 clash between Russell and City Attorney Victoria Méndez over land-use approvals in Coconut Grove. At the time, Russell accused Méndez of helping a developer avoid public scrutiny over a lot-splitting proposal, and then withholding her emails when he requested them. Russell unsuccessfully moved to fire the city attorney.

Meléndez faced criticism for going around Méndez and requesting her emails directly from the city’s information staff and asking that office to keep Méndez in the dark. The request prompted an administrator to question whether Meléndez’s request was ethical.

The candidate acknowledged his mixed reputation at City Hall. He said he can be demanding while maintaining professionalism.

“I know some administrators don’t like me,” Meléndez said. “I never yelled at anyone. I never insulted anyone. I just expect more than mediocrity.”

He is now benefiting from support from his former boss, including a $150,000 infusion into a political committee named after one of Meléndez’s campaign slogans: Vision with Action. Russell contributed the sum from his re-election political committee, Turn the Page, which has raised $485,000 this year. Last year, Russell transferred $100,000 from his abandoned congressional campaign to Turn the Page

Although the race is nonpartisan, Meléndez is receiving explicit support from the Democratic Party, including an endorsement from Miami-Dade Democrats as well as Russell’s backing — the commissioner is chairman of a statewide initiative to get Democrats elected in municipal governments. Local party officials noted that Meléndez’s election and Russell’s re-election would give the Democrats a 3-2 majority on the Miami commission. Commissioner Keon Hardemon is the other Democrat on the commission.

“In the midst of a climate and housing affordability crises it is more important than ever to support candidates that will champion the values of the people and not special interest groups,” wrote Steve Simeonidis, Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman.

Meléndez said he appreciated the support but downplayed the role of partisan politics in the race, insisting that his party doesn’t matter when voters get to know him.

“The reality is the issues that are important are nonpartisan issues,” he said.

Among the issues: code enforcement. Meléndez said the city needs to be tougher on violators while maintaining leniency for homeowners for whom bringing their properties up to code would be a hardship. Yet overall, Meléndez says City Hall needs to be stricter about enforcing city code — echoing Commissioner Joe Carollo, who’s stirred up controversy over his intense scrutiny of the city’s code enforcement department.

“I agree with Commissioner Carollo that code enforcement is not doing enough in the city of Miami,” he said.

Real estate development pressures are growing in District 1, which stretches from the Health District through Allapattah and Grapeland Heights to the north section of Flagami. Meléndez wants to declare a state of emergency in Miami to allow the government to take swifter action to address the housing affordability crisis. He said he’d favor looking at zoning laws and requiring developers to build affordable housing, particularly if they’re seeking more rights to build larger developments. He also supports a new impact fee on certain vacant properties, with revenue steered into an affordable housing trust fund.

“This neighborhood is going to be different in the next 10 years,” Meléndez said. “The question is: Who is it going to change for?”

The western border of the district might change drastically under a proposal to transform Melreese golf course, Miami’s only city-owned golf course, into a sprawling office park, mall, hotel and soccer stadium complex to serve as the venue for home games played by Inter Miami, the Major League Soccer team co-owned by David Beckham, local businessman Jorge Mas and other investors.

A vote on the no-bid 99-year lease is scheduled for Oct. 24, the last commission meeting before the election. It could come back though, and the new commissioner could have a chance to vote on it.

Meléndez said he believes the city should follow through on negotiating a lease because 60 percent of voters endorsed the no-bid process in 2018. He said he believes the city could benefit from the project, if the terms are appropriate. He did not comment on the terms that have been offered by the Miami Freedom Park team, saying he wants to see a document negotiated with city administrators.

“I hear a lot of people say it’s a bad deal — what deal? There’s no deal in front of us,” Meléndez said.

Joey Flechas covers government and public affairs in the city of Miami for the Herald, from votes at City Hall to neighborhood news. He won a Sunshine State award for revealing a Miami Beach political candidate’s ties to an illegal campaign donation. He graduated from the University of Florida.