Personal attacks dominate Miami congressional race between Mucarsel-Powell and Gimenez

Alex Daugherty
·7 min read

In Florida’s most competitive congressional race, the allegations are coming fast and they’re personal. Corrupt. Dangerous. Dead wrong for Miami.

But in ads posted by groups supporting Carlos Gimenez and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the multimillion-dollar fight for Florida’s 26th Congressional District, some of the fiercest attacks are not focused on the candidates themselves, or their records, but on their families.

Gimenez, the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County, is going after Mucarsel-Powell’s husband for his work with a publicly traded company that took — but then returned — federal Paycheck Protection Program money meant for small businesses at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and for his previous work for two Miami businessmen accused of money laundering by the Justice Department.

Mucarsel-Powell, the Democratic incumbent, has aimed at Gimenez’s sons, attacking one of them for his red light camera lobbying work and another for his previous job working at the company that built the pedestrian bridge at Florida International University that collapsed in 2018, killing six people.

And while both candidates say they want to talk about policy issues like the ongoing Obamacare lawsuit by Republicans that threatens to tank a program providing health insurance to about 100,000 people in the district and the composition of the Supreme Court, ads run by groups aligned with Mucarsel-Powell and Gimenez tell a different story. The gloves are off — and they were never really on.

Mucarsel-Powell greeted Gimenez’s candidacy in January, which he announced within hours of receiving an endorsement from President Trump, with a digital ad attacking “corrupt Carlos.” The pandemic — and Gimenez’s embrace of Trump and many of his policies — hasn’t changed that tactic.

“I think the most important thing in this race is to bring out the truth and the information for voters to understand who is trying to represent them in D.C.,” Mucarsel-Powell said.

Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign has accused Gimenez’s sons, C.J. Gimenez and Julio Gimenez, of benefiting from Gimenez’s mayoral position by “getting rich on tax dollars.” Her campaign has also contrasted her efforts to pass federal coronavirus relief legislation in Washington to Gimenez’s 2018 pay raise in Miami-Dade, even though the increase in salary happened nearly 18 months before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Miami-Dade has been the hardest-hit county in the state for cases of COVID-19.

“I haven’t been found guilty of anything,” Gimenez said in response to Mucarsel-Powell’s attacks. “Every single time, my name has been cleared. She better look in her own household.”

Gimenez’s allies have attacked Mucarsel-Powell’s husband, Robert Powell, repeating allegations that popped up in TV ads during Mucarsel-Powell’s 2018 campaign — when she ultimately defeated Republican incumbent Carlos Curbelo to flip the seat for Democrats — that Powell is connected to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. They point out that Powell took in nearly $700,000 in income in 2016 and 2017 from two subsidiaries with connections to Kolomoisky that are now connected to a federal money-laundering probe.

Ads have also criticized Powell’s current job as a lawyer for Fiesta Group, a publicly traded restaurant company that took and later returned Paycheck Protection Program money during the height of the pandemic.

There’s no evidence that Powell played a role in obtaining Paycheck Protection Program cash for Fiesta Group or has any connection to the alleged wrongdoing of his former bosses and Kolomoisky associates, Mordechai Korf and Uriel Laber.

Even so, the TV ads are played over and over in Florida’s 26th Congressional District, which is no stranger to shadiness among its members of Congress from both parties. Associates of former Republican Rep. David Rivera, who represented the district from 2010 to 2012, and Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, who represented the district from 2012 to 2014, were convicted of financing ringer primary candidates.

The attacks on family members continue despite clear differences between Gimenez and Mucarsel-Powell on most major federal policy issues. Gimenez said he supports the Trump administration’s lawsuit that would end Obamacare if successful, opposes most gun control legislation and opposes raising taxes on carbon emissions. Mucarsel-Powell wants to expand Obamacare with a public option, has co-sponsored gun control legislation and called for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord after Trump withdrew from it.

Gimenez has also said he wants to keep the Supreme Court at nine justices. Some Democrats now support expanding the court in light of Amy Coney Barrett’s impending appointment to the bench days before the presidential election. Democrats are worried that Barrett would support the dismantling of Obamacare.

“Efforts to pack the court are fundamentally un-American and will only result in political parties putting forth nominations while in power and discrediting the last pillar of stability in the United States,” Gimenez said in a statement.

In an interview, Mucarsel-Powell said she is not in favor of adding more justices to the Supreme Court — though she said she might consider the issue in the future if it helps people in her district keep their healthcare.

“I will look at all options available,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “I don’t support adding more justices to the Supreme Court. I don’t support that right now as it stands.”

Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell speaks during a press conference outside of the American Airlines Arena on “Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s clear power grab over elections oversight” on Saturday, September 5, 2020.
Congresswoman Debbie Mucarsel-Powell speaks during a press conference outside of the American Airlines Arena on “Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s clear power grab over elections oversight” on Saturday, September 5, 2020.

Gimenez has embraced Trump throughout his campaign, prompting attacks from Democrats saying that Gimenez is a bad fit for a district that supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by double digits in 2016.

Mucarsel-Powell joined the House Progressive Caucus shortly after taking office and hasn’t strayed from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s policy priorities, triggering criticisms from Republicans that she’s a rubber stamp for a liberal agenda.

Mucarsel-Powell has maintained a fundraising advantage throughout the race, and in recent days some election prognosticators have said Mucarsel-Powell is a slight favorite for reelection after rating the race as a toss-up throughout the summer. But the seat is still the most likely in Florida to change party hands in 2020 as President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden spent millions of dollars in the state in the campaign’s final days.

But the negative ads appear to be wearing on some voters.

Former Republican state Rep. J.C. Planas decided last week to support Mucarsel-Powell over Gimenez after seeing an anti-Mucarsel-Powell ad from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC backing Gimenez, that referenced Robert Powell’s work history.

At the end of the ad, the unnamed narrator says “our politicians have been too corrupt for too long” and included pictures of former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, former Homestead Mayor Steve Bateman and former state Sen. Al Gutman. Bateman and Gutman served prison time for corruption and Medicare fraud. Martinez, who was tried three times on conspiracy and extortion allegations, was eventually acquitted of one charge and had his other charges dropped.

“He’s not even alive to defend himself,” Planas said of Gutman, a Republican who died in 2019. “I have to draw the line on that.”

But Planas also criticized Mucarsel-Powell’s campaign for using Gimenez’s sons in advertising.

And Gimenez has argued that the negative ads on his behalf aren’t coming from his campaign, but instead coming from groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund that he has no control over.

Mucarsel-Powell made a similar argument after a TV ad attacking Gimenez financed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included footage of the FIU bridge collapse. Orlando and Gina Duran, whose 18-year-old daughter, Alexa Duran, was one of six victims in that disaster, say they want the DCCC to remove a five-second video clip of the bridge collapse from the ad.

“This is my problem: it is being used for political purposes,” said Orlando Duran, whose daughter was an FIU student, after sending a letter asking for the footage to be removed last week. “I don’t have anything in favor or against Carlos Gimenez. I don’t know what his agenda is nor do I care. Nor do I care about the position of the Democratic campaign. This is totally non-political. I want the video out of the ad.”

In an interview, Mucarsel-Powell said she would not have included the footage in any of her campaign ads that she controls.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that the families have to see that,” Mucarsel-Powell said. “I understand the pain they must feel. I would not have run those images.”

In one of the few instances of attacks in the race being tamped down, the DCCC ad is no longer running on TV.