In Miami, a longtime politician reemerges and an incumbent wins reelection

The race to represent one of Miami’s most diverse and working-class areas is going to a runoff, while the incumbent representing the city’s affluent coastal communities easily won reelection Tuesday.

In the race to fill the District 1 seat left open by outgoing Miami commissioner Wifredo “Willy” Gort, former state senator Alex Diaz de la Portilla and auto parts retailer Miguel Angel Gabela will go to a runoff election on Nov. 19. The two candidates received the most votes in a seven-person field, but neither received more than 50%, a requirement to win the election outright. In District 2, incumbent Ken Russell easily won reelection, capturing about 59% of the vote.

Tuesday’s results mark a step toward a comeback for a politician who has long sought reentry into public life and a shot at a commission seat for another candidate on his third try.

Diaz de la Portilla has lost three previous races at higher levels of government — two campaigns for seats in the Florida Legislature and a bid for Miami-Dade County Commission in 2018. Gabela has run for the District 1 seat twice before, coming within 200 votes of a victory in 2015.

Diaz de la Portilla won about 38 percent of the vote, about 2,300 votes. He held a roughly 1,100-vote lead over Gabela, who captured about 20 percent.

At an election night party held at Casa de los de Santa Marta de Ortigueira, an event hall near the north bank of the Miami River, Diaz de la Portilla, 55, thanked family members for their support and relished his first electoral win in years.

“It’s good to be back in politics, and it’s good to be in first place again,” he told the crowd.

Gabela, 55, watched the results post from his home. He told the Miami Herald he’s eager to face his opponent for the remainder of what could be an aggressive campaign between the two.

“It’s been a hell of a fight with all of us,” he said. “But all I want to do is defeat this guy.”

Over the past month, residents in two districts of the Magic City have cast votes by mail, during early voting and on Election Day to select two commissioners. More than 12,700 Miamians voted in this year’s city election, which is consequential to the future of the city — voters will select two of the five people that make up the City Commission, the board that sets the city’s property tax rate, runs the police department, and makes policy decisions on everything from parking rates to the use of electric scooters to whether city-owned land should be used for private development.


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District 1

A swath of Miami with working class neighborhoods, stretches of warehouses and riverfront land, all on the precipice of redevelopment, District 1 includes Allapattah, Grapeland Heights, the Health District around Jackson Memorial Hospital and a slice of Flagami near Blue Lagoon.

Around 8:45 p.m., Diaz de la Portilla arrived at his party to greet an audience of supporters that included some known names in local political circles — former state representative Manny Prieguez Jr., former Miami commissioner Marc Sarnoff, Coral Gables Vice Mayor Vince Lago and Miami Parking Authority CEO Art Noriega. Miami commissioners Manolo Reyes and Keon Hardemon arrived later to congratulate Diaz de la Portilla on his first-place finish.

Diaz de la Portilla has said he wants to bring collegiality and decorum back to a City Commission that has become tense and prone to argument in the past year. He touts relationships stemming from his days in the Legislature as positives that can help Miami secure funding for local projects, and espouses the idea of a local housing authority to manage affordable real estate development and pressuring developers to provide greater public benefits in exchange for expanded zoning rights..

Diaz de la Portilla said his experience in Tallahassee gave him an advantage in a crowded field that included several first-time candidates. Among them were Eleazar Meléndez, a 33-year-old political consultant, former journalist and City Hall staffer, and Horacio Stuart Aguirre, 69, a commercial real estate broker and chairman of the Miami River Commission. Meléndez won 17% of the vote, 208 votes behind Gabela.

Controversy has peppered Diaz de la Portilla’s political past, some of which reemerged through the campaign. The candidate insisted he’s the victim of attacks lobbed by his opponents, deep-pocketed special interests and the media. He took issue with a recent Herald profile of his candidacy, the issues he’s pushing and his past, calling it a “hit job” and “fiction.”

“The people saw through that. Your paper doesn’t have credibility in this community,” he told a reporter Tuesday night.

On Election Day, several of Diaz de la Portilla’s opponents, including Gabela, complained that the candidate had improperly entered a voting precinct in Flagami at the Residential Plaza at Blue Lagoon, an assisted living facility. A spokeswoman for the the Miami-Dade County elections department, Suzy Trutie, said Diaz de la Portilla entered the lobby of the building when a poll deputy got up to use the restroom. Upon returning, the poll deputy asked Diaz de la Portilla to move back outside, beyond two orange cones set up to the mark the 150-foot boundary that candidates and campaigners are not supposed to cross.

“Lies, more lies,” Diaz de la Portilla said. “That never happened.”

Trutie said her department stands by the account provided to the Herald.

“I stand by what my poll deputy and the staff at the precinct said,” she said.

Gabela’s previous campaigns have focused on public safety and policing, which remain a priority for the candidate this year. Speaking outside the Flagami precinct, he said he holds an advantage after multiple campaigns and getting to know the district’s voters, who form a base of support for the local businessman and former planning board member.

Miguel Gabela

Diaz de la Portilla “doesn’t have the ‘organic voter,’” Gabela said, with a nod to Diaz de la Portilla’s lead in fundraising over the other six candidates. “He has the voters he has to buy.”

Gabela’s campaign manager is Steve Marin, a bigwig in city politics and a consultant for the team behind the effort to redevelop Melreese golf course into a $1 billion commercial complex that would host Inter Miami, an upcoming Major League Soccer team co-owned by David Beckham.

The District 1 commissioner could be a key vote on the future of the proposal. Gabela has said his vote would not be swayed by his relationship with Marin.

Turnout was unusually high compared to previous elections. More than 3,600 ballots were cast by mail alone — surpassing the total amount of ballots cast in Gort’s 2015 reelection. All told, 6,411 votes were cast in the District 1 election — a 78% increase from 2015. About 19% of the district’s registered voters participated in the election, up from 12.4% in 2015.

District 2

Russell, the incumbent District 2 commissioner, handily defeated real estate broker Jim Fried, real estate agent Javier González and businesswoman Rosy Palomino in Tuesday’s election. He won 59.6% of the vote.

“It’s been a tough campaign and I’m so thankful to receive the support of the voters,” Russell said in a text message. “I look forward to four more years of finishing what we started.”

Miami’s second district includes the city’s waterfront communities from Coconut Grove to Morningside, including downtown and Brickell. The district is home to some of Miami-Dade County’s most valuable real estate, some of which is also among the most vulnerable to rising seas amid climate change. The city’s dense urban core is also the county’s financial center, home to a burgeoning residential population and a concentration of the area’s homeless. The lack of affordable housing is a key challenge facing District 2.

Russell had a large fundraising lead in the race with a $1 million war chest fueled in part by money left over from a congressional campaign that he launched in the middle of his first term in office, then abandoned.

The 46-year-old former paddleboard salesman shocked Miami’s politics establishment four years ago when he won election despite being heavily outspent by well-funded and well-known opponents. In 2015, he described one opponent’s roughly $1 million fundraising total as “obscene.” He funneled $150,000 of that into Meléndez’s Distrct 1 campaign — Meléndez once served as Russell’s chief of staff.

Turnout in District 2 decreased compared to 2015. A total of 6,332 of the district’s voters participated in the election, a turnout of about 11 percent.

Supporters of candidates camped outside the voting precinct at the Allapattah Branch Library in Miami on Tuesday, as voters chose from seven candidates running for the Miami City Commission in District 1. Pedro Portal pportal@miamiherald.com

Results with all precincts reporting

District 1

Horacio S. Aguirre: 11%; 678 votes

Alex Diaz de la Portilla: 39%; 2,471 votes

Miguel “Angel” Gabela: 21%; 1,328 votes

Verania “Betty” Hermida: 4%; 255 votes

Yanny Hidalgo: 3%; 187 votes

Eleazar Meléndez: 18%; 1,124 votes

Francisco “Frank” Pichel: 5%; 330 votes

District 2

Jim Fried: 15.3%; 962 votes

Javier Gonzalez: 11.5%; 723 votes

Rosa Maria “Rosy” Palomino: 13.6%; 3,756 votes

Ken Russell: 59.6%; 6,296 votes

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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.