With cameos by Al Gore, Nicolas Maduro, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Donald Trump, the 2020 primary for Miami-Dade mayor nears an end this weekend as candidates try to cast their rivals as a mixture of corrupt, extreme and out-of-step with voters picking a new mayor for the first time in nine years.
“Two-thirds of my mail is garbage,” said Barbara Walters, a Democrat who lives in Kendall and picks up her mail from a Coral Gables post office. “I get at least three or four mailers a day... Initially, I kind of glanced over them. Now they’re just repetition. I just toss them.”
The four leading candidates for mayor — county commissioners Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr., Daniella Levine Cava, Xavier Suarez and former county mayor Alex Penelas — have spent a record $9 million in the contest to pick a successor to outgoing incumbent Carlos Gimenez.
That’s meant more money than ever for mailers, text messages, broadcast commercials and online ads targeting rivals.
After voting for himself for the first time in 16 years, Penelas told reporters summoned to the Miami Lakes Community Center that Bovo should return all contributions solicited by a fired fundraiser who had also reportedly earned money from a consulting agreement with a Venezuelan oil company.
“Is he using money from the Nicolas Maduro regime to attack me in this campaign? It’s very a simple question,” Penelas said.
Fundraising reports for the candidates itemize contributions. The top contributors to Bovo, a commissioner representing the Hialeah area, are the political committee run by outgoing Florida Speaker of the House José Oliva and Herzog Rail, the maintenance contractor for Tri-Rail, the tax-funded commuter service where Bovo was chairman until June.
There’s no evidence of any Venezuelan money, and Bovo fired longtime fund-raiser Esther Nuhfer in late May after news broke of her being paid from a $50 million consulting contract between Venezuela’s PDVSA and former congressman David Rivera, a longtime Bovo friend.
For Jeffery Mitchell, head of the county transit union backing Penelas and a campaign veteran, the 2020 race had been a bit milder than he expected, but the closing days have started to meet his expectations.
“It hasn’t gotten as nasty as I expected it would. But it’s starting to get there,” he said. “I’m ready for the fall.”
Penelas on Maduro
A Bovo lawyer on Monday sent Penelas a letter demanding he halt campaign mailers without “an iota of evidence” for “defamatory” insinuations of a link with Maduro cash or any sort of probe into the matter.
Ninety minutes after Penelas left the Miami Lakes campaign stop, Bovo and two Cuban-born allies pointed to his history of condemning dictators and Bovo’s heritage — the son of a Bay of Pigs veteran — as proof of an underhanded attack from a fellow Cuban-American.
“To accuse Commissioner Bovo of having something to do with a communist country, when his father almost gave his life ....,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said at a press conference with Bovo at the West Miami voting site. Added Manolo Reyes, a Miami commissioner: “That’s below low.”
Outside the West Miami Community Center, Bovo called on Penelas to return the $300,000 he’s received directly from Miami healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez, who backed the Obama administration’s relaxing of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. “He was one of the architects of taking Obama to Cuba to bend the knee to the Castro regime,” Bovo said.
The primary is Tuesday, Aug. 18
The non-partisan Aug. 18 primary for mayor is largely a fight to avoid anything below second place, because the top two vote-getters will likely face each other in a November run-off election. (That can only be avoided if one candidate receives more than 50% of the primary vote in the six-person contest.)
While Bovo campaign signs brand him the “conservative county mayoral candidate,” Levine Cava has been hitching her run on support from Democratic voters. Her campaign mailers feature the same scene as Bovo’s: the two-term commissioner — Bovo — shaking the president’s hand at Miami International Airport in January.
“Steve Bovo has cast himself with Trump, the most corrupt President in American history,” reads the mailer from Our Democracy, Levine Cava’s political committee.
If the fight between second and third place is close, every vote could play a factor in who gets to compete in November. First-time contenders Monique Nicole Barley and Ludmilla Domond are the only Black candidates on the ballot, and both said they’re campaigning to give a louder voice to the county’s Black residents.
In 2016, it was a little-known Black candidate, retired teacher Frederick Bryant, whose 9% share prevented Gimenez from crossing the 50% threshold on Primary Day.
“I think I spent about $3,000 of my own money,” Bryant said Friday, recalling a campaign that blindsided the Gimenez organization. “I touched a lot of hearts and souls. The message was real.”
While the $11.9 million in reported spending from the 2020 candidates marks a record — Gimenez and challenger Raquel Regalado raised about $6 million combined for the 2016 mayoral primary — it leaves out the millions being spent on attack ads by third-party groups.
True progressives and Levine Cava
Levine Cava, who represents parts of south Miami-Dade, blamed Penelas backers for a stream of mailers from True Progressives LLC that suggested the former social worker and reliable liberal vote on the commission was “not progressive” and opposed social services in the county.
“The whole first 14 mailers were lies about my entire life’s work,” Levine Cava said at a campaign stop at the South Dade Regional Library early-voting site. “It was a sinister and cynical attempt to depress the momentum in my campaign.”
Levine Cava, in office since 2014, and Penelas, out of office since 2004, the year he also lost a bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, are both vying for Democratic support.
Bovo is the only Republican office holder in the race. He expects to consolidate Republican support, though Penelas hopes to cut into that vote with his base in GOP-friendly Hialeah, where Mayor Carlos Hernández endorsed him.
The partisan dynamics help Trump loom even larger in a county that votes Democrat for president but has had a Republican mayor since former police director Carlos Alvarez succeeded a term-limited Penelas (barred by the county charter from serving more than two terms in a row).
Pedro Diaz, a political consultant working voting stations for judicial candidates, said he’s been surprised at how many voters ask about a candidate’s allegiance to the president.
“The amount of people who ask, ‘Is he with Trump, or not?’ — man, oh man,” Diaz said.
Trump and GOP resistance to mail ballots
After weeks of Trump’s warning of mail-in ballot fraud nationwide, Miami-Dade is seeing Republicans lose their traditional edge in ballots cast by mail. For the 2016 August primary, Republicans cast 46% of the mail-in ballots and Democrats cast 38%.
The final day for early voting is Sunday, and then in-person voting starts at hundreds of precincts across the county on Tuesday.
Through Thursday, the mail ballot advantage had flipped, with 49% submitted by Democrats and 30% by Republicans. While Republicans have a slight edge in early voting, it still leaves Democrats well ahead, with 48% of all votes cast so far and the GOP with 33%.
Levine Cava’s campaign has tried to portray Penelas as a disloyal Democrat, citing a rift with former party nominee Al Gore who called the then-mayor “treacherous” over an alleged lack of support during the 2000 presidential campaign.
— Doug Hanks (@doug_hanks) August 10, 2020
A committee called Defender La Justicia made similar attacks in a website, alexpenelastruth.com, and voters have received a stream of text messages promoting the website.
Levine Cava repeated her stance Thursday that she has nothing to do with La Justicia’s efforts, though money from the group has ties to her election donations. In July, Levine Cava’s Our Democracy gave $35,000 to New Leadership Florida, a committee run by her campaign manager, Christian Ulvert. That group gave $35,000 to People Powered Politics, which gave $25,000 to Defender La Justicia.
“I have had nothing to do personally with what they produced,” she said. “I get them like everybody else.”
Citizens for Ethical and Effective Leadership is a committee led by Zavier Garcia, a former Miami Springs mayor and a partner at David R. Custin and Associates, the Miami firm running Bovo’s campaign.
About 70% of the $1.6 million the committee raised in 2020 came from two sources: Bovo’s political committee, A Better Miami-Dade, and Conservative Principles for Florida, a committee run by Oliva, a Miami-Dade resident and the outgoing speaker. Oliva’s committee gave the group more than $900,000.
The Citizens group has spent big in the primary challenge Oliva is backing against Florida’s next designated speaker, Daniel Anthony Perez, a fellow Republican representing a district that includes parts of Doral. The Citizens mailers in the county mayoral race have attacked Bovo’s rival, and Penelas in particular.
A recent mailer includes a photo of Penelas kneeling during a Miami Shores rally held after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It knocks him for supporting a civilian police review board proposed by “political ally Commissioner Barbara Jordan,” who is one of four Black commissioners on the 13-seat board.
The mailer says that “as part of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Jordan sponsored legislation that would hurt county police. Jordan won passage of the review-board bill over the opposition of Bovo and other Republicans on the board, but Gimenez vetoed it in July.
Melba Pearson, a candidate for Miami-Dade state attorney, called the mailer an example of trying touch racist nerves among voters.
“This is clearly a dog whistle,” she said during a recent get-out-the-vote event in Miami, where she wore a Black Lives Matter mask. “Oh, look, we have a commissioner who actually supports equality for all residents.”
Oliva did not respond to an interview request about his role supporting Bovo’s campaign. Bovo said he hadn’t seen the mailer, but said support for Jordan’s legislation from Penelas, Levine Cava and Suarez put them at odds with a public that backs police.
One of his most recent campaign mailers includes a photo of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with a warning that Miami-Dade “can’t afford to become another....Portland.”
Xavier Suarez low on campaign cash
The final spending reports ahead of Primary Day came out Friday, and they showed a spending binge by Penelas in the last two weeks of the contest. The candidate’s campaign and Bold Vision political committee spent $1.4 million between Aug. 1 and Aug. 13, according to the reports — about 25% of the $5.1 million raised.
With Friday’s report, the Penelas cash-on-hand figure plunged from $1.6 million to less than $500,000 — sharply reducing a war chest that appeared banked for a November runoff. He’s still got the most money in the bank, compared to about $320,000 for Levine Cava and almost $115,000 for Bovo.
Suarez is almost out of money, with only $11,000 remaining. The former Miami mayor (and father of the city’s current mayor, Francis Suarez) has not been holding public events at early-voting sites and is relying on a well-known name and ad buys featuring him and his son to snag a slot in the runoff.
On Friday, he outlined non-campaigning plans. “I am prepping for some minor surgery,” he wrote in a text message, “and getting my law practice in order, and catching up on three books.”