Scandal-plagued Daphne Campbell loses state senate seat to Jason Pizzo

Daphne Campbell, Miami’s scandal-plagued and sole Haitian-American state legislator, is out in District 38 — and wealthy former prosecutor Jason Pizzo is in — after a tough primary battle open to all voters no matter the political affiliation.

Campbell was outflanked on the left in a district that leans so Democratic that Republicans didn’t bother putting up a challenger. Eight years of conservative-leaning votes on abortion, gay rights, school prayer and charter schools left her on the outs with Democrats. The Miami-Dade party recently sent her a letter highlighting her “questionable ethics” and asking that she answer for an illegal mailer sent to Republicans that urged a vote for Campbell in District 38.

The diverse northeast Miami-Dade district, which includes the largest Haitian population in the country, is now headed by Pizzo, who spent more than a million dollars of his own money on a campaign emphasizing public safety, climate change and a living wage for workers. Last election he came in second in a crowded six-way primary that Campbell narrowly won.

This time, with all the votes tallied late Tuesday, Pizzo walked away easily with nearly a 9-percent victory margin.

At his watch party at the Midway bar in Little Haiti, Pizzo was met with cheers, screams and hugs from a crowd of about 70. He told the enthusiastic group to “look left, look right,” at the diversity of the crowd of supporters.

“I’m running a race against someone who’s using race and socioeconomic status as a tool to divide,” he said. “We have rich and poor. We have a rainbow of everything.”

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Tranell Harris poses with Jason Pizzo and Martha Whisby-Wells after Pizzo won Florida state Senate District 38 in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, Aug. 28, 2018. Harris supports Pizzo because of his stance on preventing gun violence. Her son was gunned down in Allapattah at the age of 16. Emily Michot emichot@miamiherald.com

One of his loudest supporters, Tranell Harris, raised her drink and cheered. She met the new senator before he was officially running, when he was speaking at a forum in Overtown. She heard him speak with frustration about gun violence and the particularly sad story of a 16-year-old football player and honor student gunned down in Allapattah. He didn’t know Harris, the boy’s mother, was in the audience.

Since then, she said, “he’s been by my side every day.” Harris said Pizzo was the best candidate for changing laws to protect other mothers from experiencing the tragedy she did. After years of Senator Daphne Campbell, “it was time for a change.”

“They say he’s buying our community, but money don’t vote. People vote,” she said.

Daphne Campbell supporter Elenne Polycarpe waits for Campbell’s arrival at a watch party. Campbell lost the Florida Senate District 38 primary race in North Miami. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

Campbell swept into the watch party held at her North Miami campaign headquarters a little after 8 p.m. just as the music shut off. At first she agreed to speak to a reporter but then decided against it. Her campaign manager, Maxo Sinal, said the state senator attributed her loss to the “unfair” media.

“We were in a disadvantaged position because of what the media was reporting,” he said.

Frandzy Bruce Bernadin, Campbell’s 2016 campaign supervisor and a Haitian activist, said the election decision was a loss for the Haitian community she represented.

“I’m so sorry for the Haitian community,” he said. “It’s very painful because we don’t know when we’ll get that seat back.”

Campbell served eight years in the state Legislature, during which she racked up a string of investigations and ethics complaints, including the time she filed a bill to ban red light cameras shortly after the family minivan was hit with five red light tickets.

Miami Herald reporting showed the state senator claimed to reside at a string of addresses ever since her North Miami Beach home was excluded from House District 108, which she represented, in 2012. For three years, she was registered to vote at a property where her lease had expired, her former landlord told the Herald.

At her 60th birthday party and fundraiser, video she posted from the event shows a donor she carried a bill for handing over a Kate Spade purse stuffed with hundreds of dollars. Keeping more than $50 in cash is a misdemeanor for a politician. Campbell says the money-filled bag was a joke and she didn’t keep any of the money.

Daphne Campbell supporters wait for Campbell’s arrival at her watch party after it appeared she had lost the Florida Senate District 38 race in North Miami, on Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

After Hurricane Irma, she asked a lobbyist from Florida Power & Light to turn on the electricity in her home for her sick mom, but her mother died in 1996. An unnamed Campbell staffer told the Herald Campbell was using “mother” as a term of respect for an elderly woman she was staying with.

She’s in debt for tens of thousands of dollars, including to the IRS for unpaid taxes and hasn’t reported it on state financial disclosure forms — an apparent violation of the state constitution.

At a candidate forum this month, Campbell called police on a Herald reporter asking her questions about her record. She’s also called police on a RISE news reporter filming her walk to her car.

Equality Florida PAC said this primary race was their No. 1 priority in the state primary, due to Campbell’s history of voting against gay marriage and her controversial comment that “he gays have their rights and I have mine.”

“Jason Pizzo’s victory sends the clear signal that voters in Florida reject anti-LGBTQ extremism,” said Stratton Pollitzer, Equality Florida Action PAC Chair. “This was a line-in-the-sand race for our community and we couldn’t be happier to welcome Jason Pizzo, and the values he represents, to the Florida Capitol.”

In District 36 David Perez beat out Julian Santos. He’ll challenge State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. for the seat in the November race.