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Last Thursday night, Laura Hill, a left-leaning activist who is challenging North Miami Councilwoman Mary Estime-Irvin in the city’s election next month, celebrated her newly minted endorsement from the Miami-Dade Democratic Party with a post on Facebook.
But the endorsement — which was approved by a majority vote of the party’s executive committee after a debate about whether to endorse one registered Democrat over another — only stuck for about 12 hours.
On Friday morning, Hill got a call from Miami-Dade Democratic Party Chair Steve Simeonidis, telling her the party was “pressing pause” on its endorsements of both Hill and Kassandra Timothe, a candidate for a different council seat in North Miami that is being vacated due to term limits.
That meant the party wouldn’t be publicizing its endorsements or helping out with phone banks, canvassing or mailers that can give candidates a needed boost in a low-budget campaign.
The reason for the decision, Simeonidis says, was strictly procedural. A member of the committee that oversaw the endorsements had lodged a complaint, pointing out that the committee failed to take a vote to initiate the candidate interview process. That violated party bylaws, Simeonidis said.
But not everyone in the party is buying that explanation. The move came amid intense pressure, not only from some party members, but also from higher places: U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat whose district includes North Miami, contacted Simeonidis on Friday morning to say that she, too, was unhappy with the endorsement of Hill over Estime-Irvin.
“Yeah, right,” Elizabeth Judd, a member of the Miami-Dade Democrats’ executive committee, said of the suggestion that procedural concerns had prompted the endorsement reversal. “That’s what you call a CYA,” she said, using an acronym for “cover your a--.”
A spokeswoman for Wilson declined to comment.
Simeonidis said in an interview that he understood Wilson’s concerns about the party endorsing one Democrat over another, and that, in most cases, it’s better to “focus on party-building.”
But he insisted that pressure from Wilson and others had nothing to do with the decision to pause the endorsements. “We don’t pause our process due to political pressure,” he said. “We pause it due to lack of proper procedure and following bylaws.”
Now, three weeks ahead of North Miami’s May 11 election, Simeonidis said the party may need to start the endorsement process from scratch. The first batch of mail ballots have already been sent out.
Hill, a paralegal who leads the local Democratic Party club in Northeast Miami-Dade, said that landing the party’s endorsement after completing a questionnaire and an interview “was actually one of the proudest moments of my life.”
But now, she said, “my entire process gets undermined because somebody makes a complaint. A lifetime of service to the party matters more than somebody making a call.”
Hill acknowledged that Wilson’s name came up in her conversation with Simeonidis about the party withdrawing its support, but she declined to elaborate on the discussion.
Estime-Irvin did not directly respond to a question about whether she contacted Wilson about the issue. But she said that she and Wilson speak “very frequently,” and suggested the local Democratic Party “would be wise to consult with her on issues within her district.”
“The party has never involved itself in our city and our elections,” Estime-Irvin, who was first elected in 2019, said in a text message. “Their initial choice to endorse in a race with multiple Democrats was divisive and wrong. I’m glad they saw fit to retract it.”
Estime-Irvin faces three challengers in the May election: Hill, former North Miami Councilman Jean Marcellus, and former city council candidate Wancito Francius.
Simeonidis said that, during the endorsement process, Estime-Irvin failed to fill out a questionnaire and didn’t show up for a scheduled interview. Estime-Irvin said she chose not to participate because she “did not think it was appropriate for them to be endorsing in the fashion that they were.”
“They would now seem to agree with me,” she said.
The scuffle has highlighted fissures within the party. In recent years, Miami-Dade Democrats have picked between registered Democrats in several nonpartisan municipal races, including in Coral Gables and North Miami Beach, a practice that was less common in the past. That has rankled some more moderate, longtime members.
“Why in the world would you go interfering and pitting one Democrat against another?” said Judd, the executive committee member. “The leadership of the Democratic Party right now is young. I happen to be one of these very senior people that have lived long enough to understand some things.”
In North Miami, two-thirds of the city’s registered voters are Democrats, though the municipal election is nonpartisan. Race and ethnicity have also played a role in the friction in the city, where about 60% of the city’s 63,000 residents are Black and many are Haitian American.
Judd blasted the executive committee’s vote to endorse Hill, who is white, over Estime-Irvin, who is Haitian American, in a district where residents are mostly Black. She said she had a similar concern about the party’s decision to endorse Timothe, who is Black, instead of Kevin Burns, a former North Miami mayor who is white, in a district where outgoing Councilwoman Carol Keys is white.
“Why would you endorse a Caucasian female? You better leave that alone,” Judd, who is African American, said of the party’s endorsement of Hill. “Each one of them has the right to run. It’s about the institution not interfering in between the candidates.”
But Robert Dempster, who was elected as the party’s Vice Chair of Outreach in December, said the party should err toward being more involved in municipal elections, not less, given that municipal government “has the most significant and immediate impact on people’s lives.”
Last week in an internal WhatsApp chat, members of the executive committee — the party’s governing body — debated the right approach. One member accused Dempster and Simeonidis of “creating divisions,” pointing to a mandatory loyalty oath members sign saying they won’t support “the opponent of any Democratic nominee” and won’t “oppose the election of any Democratic nominee.”
“As a Party we’re supposed to be Inclusive not separating. We can’t and will not Win any Election being separated,” the member wrote, according to screenshots obtained by the Herald.
In response, some members pointed out that the loyalty oath “doesn’t say anything about endorsing a Democrat over a Democrat.” And Dempster defended the party’s process in North Miami.
“I have faith in our membership [and] in my fellow Democrats to make the right decisions,” he said.