Longtime state senator Gwen Margolis was the favorite to win Florida Senate District 38, with the name recognition and fundraising prowess as the longest-serving senator in Tallahassee.
Then came her comments at a June candidate forum.
Margolis referred to her opponents as “Three Haitians, some teacher and some lawyer” — and dropped out of the race amid widespread backlash a few days later, creating an opportunity for political newcomers in the redrawn district that stretches from Miami Beach to North Miami.
The political intrigue didn’t stop after Margolis left the race.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Bruce Kaplan, a former Miami-Dade commissioner, dropped off the ballot after it was discovered that he was a registered Republican until days before qualifying to run as a Democrat. Former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns and former Miami Beach Commissioner Michael Góngora jumped into the race after Margolis’ departure. Phillip Brutus, a former state representative, dropped his Democratic affiliation and will run as a no-party candidate.
Kaplan’s departure and Brutus’ switch leaves six Democrats on a crowded ballot for the August 30 primary: Burns, Góngora, lawyer Jason Pizzo, state representative Daphne Campbell, businessman Anis Blemur and teacher Don Festge.
The redrawn district is diverse, even by Miami standards. It roughly stretches from the MacArthur Causeway to the Broward County line and from the ocean to I-95.
“You have the wealthiest street in the United States and some of the poorest streets in the country,” Burns said of the district.
None of the candidates have markedly different policy positions except for Campbell, who has supported measures to make it harder to obtain an abortion in the state House.
Campbell is the only sitting politician in the race, but no one is a clear favorite.
All six Democrats are mounting serious efforts for the seat, obtaining endorsements and fundraising. Campbell leads the pack in campaign money from donors — she’s raised just over $41,000.
But the fundraising numbers have lagged behind loans the candidates have put into the race themselves. Pizzo has loaned $400,000 to his campaign to take a wide lead in the money race as of June 24. Every candidate expect Campbell has loaned at least $2,500 to their own campaign.
Michael Góngora was the last candidate to declare for the race. The former Miami Beach commissioner declared to run at the qualifying deadline and promptly loaned himself $50,000 to jump start his campaign.
“I was not planning on running a month ago,” Góngora said. “When Senator Margolis dropped out I took a hard look. We did not have a candidate with a knowledge of all the issues.”
Góngora, the only Hispanic candidate in the race, says the Miami Beach area and Hispanics will be his voter base in the six-way primary. At a recent breakfast meeting in Miami Beach, Góngora identified sea-level rise and confusing condominium statutes as two issues he will champion in Tallahassee.
“District 38 is a jewel,” Góngora said. “It has the highest amount of homeowner and condo associations in the state. I am a lifelong Democrat who has voted in every election.”
Góngora was referring to Pizzo, a former prosecutor who has not voted since 2008. Pizzo explained in further detail to the Miami Herald why he was unable to vote in the 2012 election.
Pizzo, an assistant state attorney at the time, said he was threatened after prosecuting a juvenile offender. Pizzo and his family became worried for their safety. His family flew to New Jersey to stay with relatives while Pizzo stayed in three separate hotel rooms for the next month and a half. Pizzo’s family relocated a day before the 2012 election.
“It was the most tramatic event of my life,” Pizzo said. “I've used as a rather tragic lesson for my kids, and how important it is to tackle gun issues.”
In the years after the incident, Pizzo says he moved frequently around Miami so voter records that indicate he missed 17 elections are inaccurate.
Pizzo believes his experience as a prosecutor is what makes him the best candidate for District 38. He helped to lead a unit that investigated cold cases throughout Miami.
“I would put my passion against anyone else,” Pizzo said.
Pizzo, who had no party affiliation while a prosecutor “to be completely impartial,” became a Democrat in April.
Don Festge is anything but impartial. The Miami-Dade Progressive Caucus member and teacher was inspired to run for office after being rebuffed from meeting with Republican Rep. Frank Artiles in Tallahassee. According to Festge, an Artiles staffer said the representative “doesn’t care about education.” (Artiles later issued a statement saying “the exchange, as portrayed, did not happen.”)
Festge believes his experience as a teacher is sorely needed in Tallahassee, saying “there are less than five teachers represented” in the state capitol.
“You have people who don’t have any idea on how the school system works,” Festge said.
While Festge is in his first race for office, former North Miami Mayor Kevin Burns has waged multiple campaigns. He believes his experience as a white mayor in a majority black community gives him the necessary base to win.
“I’m the only non-Haitian candidate that will get Haitian votes,” Burns said.
Burns highlights his tenure as North Miami mayor as the biggest reason why he is more qualified for office than his opponents. Additionally, Burns says he is the only candidate who explicitly opposes open-carry laws for gun owners and that he can be effective in Tallahassee even if Democrats are in the minority.
“We have Dems that stop bad things from happening,” Burns said.
The one Democrat in the race currently serving in Tallahassee, Daphne Campbell, did not respond to an interview request.
Anis Blemur is a Haitian-American businessman, and he believes his experience in accounting is what sets him apart from the other Democrats. Blemur is in his second run for elected office, as he lost to Democrat Oscar Branyon in the District 36 state Senate primary in 2014.
“There is a lack of leadership in the business community,” Blemur said. “When I tried to get contracts with the state no one could direct me. I can have an open dialogue and explain how to get contracts without jeopardizing my independence.”
Blemur specifically mentioned that gentrification must be carefully monitored. He also wants to take a strong stance on assault weapons, saying he “would forbid them” for 25 years.
The six-way primary will crown a winner on August 30, and the victor will take on former Democratic state rep. Phillip Brutus in the general election. Brutus filed as an independent to avoid contesting the primary.
No Republicans filed to run in the heavily Democratic district.