As two county commissioners readied their runs for county mayor in the fall of 2018, a big highway vote approached that they’d still be talking about in the final weeks of the 2020 election.
The question facing Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr. and Daniella Levine Cava was whether to change county land-use rules to extend the 836 toll expressway southwest into Kendall, a 13-mile route far enough west that it would cross the building boundary known as the Urban Development Boundary.
Residents in suburban neighborhoods around the proposed “Kendall Parkway” urged commissioners to vote “yes” as a way to ease the gridlock in communities miles from the pricey Metrorail and Metromover systems funded by countywide taxes.
Environmentalists condemned the plan as a boon for developers that would pave over wetlands and bring another clogged highway within miles of the Everglades, without helping traffic.
Bovo joined the nine-vote majority in passing the land-use changes need to clear the “Kendall Parkway” project on Sept. 27, 2018. Levine Cava cast one of the four “no” votes.
“In my mind, it would be just another excuse to build farther out,” Levine Cava told moderator Jim DeFede Oct. 18 during a CBS4 debate for the two-person mayoral runoff that concludes on Election Day, Nov. 3. “We had developers talking to me, anticipating the opportunity to build once that road was in place.”
Bovo disputed county studies showing the new expressway would only trim about six minutes off some Miami commutes from West Kendall, and said it was clear the residents needed relief from gridlock.
“The residents of that area are so desperate for some kind of relief that they were willing to support a toll road in their area,” he said on DeFede’s “Facing South Florida” show, noting he went to high school in that area and that the proposed expressway would have dedicated bus lanes. “Ultimately, there’s a future generation that wants these options in transit.”
Running to succeed the term-limited Mayor Carlos Gimenez, Bovo, 58, and Levine Cava, 65, have tried to define each other with six years of votes in which they have landed on opposite sides.
Levine Cava, who founded the nonprofit Catalyst Miami, won her South Miami-Dade District 8 seat in 2014. Three years earlier, Bovo, a former Florida representative, prevailed in a special election to take his District 13 seat representing the Hialeah area.
Alliances versus legislation passed
Measured by alliances, Bovo has had more success on the 13-seat board. Fellow board members elected him as chair in 2016, and he has twice won appointments to the high-profile transportation committee. Levine Cava hasn’t served as a chair for a major legislative committee.
On the measure of passing legislation, Levine Cava has the edge, according to an analysis by CivicPro. The Knight Foundation-supported app monitors public meetings and legislation across cities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and used data from Miami-Dade commission minutes to compare legislation introduced by the two candidates.
CivicPro compared legislation from 2011 on, and limited the analysis to ordinances and resolutions where Bovo or Levine Cava were listed as prime sponsors. Bovo sponsored 542 pieces of legislation in those nine years, and 53% passed. Levine Cava sponsored 641 and saw 71% of them passed.
“There’s a lot of activity from these two commissioners,” said Matt Haber, a former lawyer for the city of Miami who formed CivicPro with Jorge Damián de la Paz, head of an affordable housing initiative at the University of Miami. Both support Levine Cava in the mayoral race.
The sponsorship data is part of CivicPro’s repository of agendas and minutes across Miami-Dade, and the free app lets users set alerts for transportation, environment and other legislative topics for cities and counties. “CivicPro helps people keep up easily with the way elected officials vote across local governments,” de la Paz said.
With two commissioners running, their legislative records offer the most detailed fault lines between the rivals. Among the notable votes that saw them on opposite sides:
A mega-mall in Northwest Miami-Dade?
American Dream Miami, May 17, 2018
Developer Triple Five officially had one foe on the County Commission when the board voted 9-1 to approve the development proposal to bring America’s largest mall to vacant wetlands and fields in Northwest Miami-Dade. Levine Cava cast the lone “no” vote, with Bovo joining eight other commissioners to approve the proposed American Dream Miami retail theme park on May 17, 2018.
She cited traffic, excessive water use for the planned water park and lopsided concessions on development in exchange for mostly low-wage jobs. At the Miami Foundation forum, Bovo said the American Dream construction payroll for a project still in the permitting phase represents the kind of powerful economic development Miami-Dade needs even more during the coronavirus pandemic.
“You’d kill another 40,000 jobs that perhaps this mall would have been able to produce in our community,” said Bovo, a former hospital lobbyist and longtime consultant for the Hialeah Park Casino.
Levine Cava responded: “How about the jobs I’m going to create building the infrastructure for things we need, like transit and water and sewer and septic-to-sewer conversions. Instead of creating another mall when people are not going shopping in malls right now.”’
The fight over Uber and Lyft
Ride-hailing companies, May 3, 2016:
As summer approached in 2016, Uber passengers often took the front seat as a way for a rogue driver to avoid detection by county inspectors at Miami International Airport. The ride-hailing company and its smaller rival, Lyft, were flouting Miami-Dade’s taxi laws and selling seats in private cars to thousands of passengers a day. Meanwhile, they mounted a publicity and lobbying campaign to change Miami-Dade’s laws to legalize their services.
Bovo, then the commission’s transportation chair, sponsored the legislation. Levine Cava was one of two commissioners to vote against it, citing county rules and fees for the taxi industry that wouldn’t apply to Uber or Lyft.
In an Oct. 5 forum with the Miami Foundation, Bovo raised his Uber legislation as an example of “radicalism” on Levine Cava’s part. “Commissioner Cava voted against it. Because she doesn’t understand what the needs of our community are, that they want to be able to get work,” said Bovo, a former Florida representative. “And they don’t want government providing that work.”
“They came into town without any regulation, and flaunted it. they said there was no reason for them to follow any rules. That wasn’t fair, that wasn’t right for the hard-working taxi drives that paid their fair share,” Levine Cava responded. “But now [Uber and Lyft] are regulated, and that’s fine. I’m happy to use their services.”
The ‘sanctuary cities’ fight
Immigration detainers, Feb. 17, 2017: Only one piece of county legislation has the direct endorsement of President Donald Trump: the resolution to endorse Gimenez’s order on Jan. 26, 2017, requiring Miami-Dade jails to resume accepting 48-hour detention requests from immigration officers seeking inmates for possible deportation.
Miami-Dade had landed on a list of “sanctuary” jurisdictions under the Obama administration for a 2013 county policy requiring jails to reject most detention requests.
When Trump ordered federal agencies to pull funding from “sanctuary cities,” Gimenez changed county policy to comply with the new administration’s demands. That sparked a tweet hours later from the president, who called the move “Strong!” The change made Miami-Dade the only large jurisdiction to change its detainer police after Trump’s threat, sparking accusations of betrayal in an area where a majority of residents were born in another country.
Bovo’s parents moved to the United States from Cuba before he was born, and he grew up in Miami-Dade. Levine Cava moved to the Miami area from New York after law school.
When the Gimenez order came to the County Commission weeks later for approval, Bovo joined a coalition of fellow Republicans and Democrats to endorse it in a 9-3 vote. Levine Cava voted against it.
That was the first legislative trace of a divide over Trump that would become a theme in the officially nonpartisan 2020 mayoral race. Levine Cava, a Democrat, and Bovo, a Republican, both sent voters the same photo over the summer: an image of Bovo greeting the president on the tarmac of Miami International Airport. On Monday, Trump’s 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton, posted a tweet endorsing Levine Cava.
Miami-Dade Mayor drops sanctuary policy. Right decision. Strong! https://t.co/MtPvaDC4jM
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 26, 2017
New jail, July 21:
Bovo has the backing of Miami-Dade’s police unions, and is trying to cast Levine Cava as a candidate for “defunding the police” even though they’ve both consistently voted for county budgets with more dollars for law enforcement.
They did have disagreement on one topic tied to a massive spend on public safety: how to upgrade Miami-Dade’s aging jail system. The Gimenez administration has a $450 million plan to build new facilities, and pay off the debt using savings from staff attrition once the modern and more efficient facilities allow the Corrections Department to eliminate about 300 jobs from its payroll.
Advocacy groups, including Dream Defenders and Catalyst Miami, have organized against the plan, calling it short-sighted to spend so much expanding jail facilities instead of investing in social programs that could boost prosperity and bring down crime.
The Gimenez administration said a growing Miami-Dade will inevitably need more jail space, and that the money won’t be available without the payroll savings from the easier-to-manage facilities.
The issue came to a symbolic head when the Gimenez administration sent commissioners a report on the replacement plan on July 21.
Bovo joined the majority in voting to formally accept the report. Levine Cava was on the losing side of the 9-3 vote. She said she wanted Miami-Dade to look harder at reducing the number of beds and create a more affordable modernization plan.
“This is a huge price-tag we cannot afford,” she said. “We need to reduce our jail population safely.”
Bovo suggested opposing the plan was a radical position.
“The majority of the board has discarded the crazy talk from the extremes that want to cast Miami-Dade as someplace else — maybe Seattle,” Bovo said. “All we’re doing today is accepting a report.”
When a revised report came back to the commission in October with revised location possibilities, Levine Cava joined in the unanimous vote to accept it.
Police oversight after George Floyd death
Police review panel, July 8
With the mayoral race underway, a wave of protests and demonstrations swept through Miami-Dade after the May 25 killing of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis.
The activism helped revive a failed legislative push from 2018 to revive Miami-Dade’s dormant civilian review panel for police, a board that lost its funding in 2009 when former police director Carlos Alvarez was mayor. Legislation bringing back the panel, with subpoena power that stopped short of being able to require testimony from police officers, passed on an 8-5 vote that had Levine Cava in the majority and Bovo in the minority.
Her victory was short-lived, since Gimenez vetoed the legislation sponsored by Barbara Jordan, one of five commissioners who have endorsed Levine Cava.
On Aug. 31, the commission approved watered-down legislation shielding county employees and elected officials from the board’s subpoenas. Gimenez let the ordinance become law. Bovo joined the same four commissioners to vote against it.
“I think it will be a huge boon to communities that do lack trust in our police, and will help to restore trust,” Levine Cava said during an Oct. 19 debate on WLRN’s Sundial program. Bovo responded: “I”ll work to make sure it’s implemented and working in the best way possible. What I hope is that we don’t allow it to turn into some sort of political apparatus just to justify itself.”
Endorsing the Paris Climate Accord: June 20, 2017
When Trump pulled the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the County Commission passed a symbolic resolution endorsing the global action plan against the sea-level rise threatening South Florida. Levine Cava, who has been endorsed by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups was the prime sponsor of the legislation. Bovo was on the losing end of the 7-2 vote.
Miami-Dade’s transgender debate
Expanding the human rights law, Dec. 2, 2014
In her 2014 campaign to oust conservative commissioner Lynda Bell, Levine Cava pledged to help pass legislation protecting people from discrimination based on gender identity. The ordinance had languished until then, and the 8-3 vote passing the revised human-rights ordinance was one of Levine Cava’s first wins after taking the District 8 seat weeks before.
“I’m ready to support this if we take the component that I think is offensive and violates other people’s rights, which is the bathrooms, the locker rooms, the dressing rooms,” Bovo said, asking for changes the majority didn’t accept. “If we take that out, I’m with you. Because we’re not going to go back to the Stone Age and discriminate against anyone.”
Levine Cava spoke next. The former social worker and lawyer working in Miami-Dade’s child-protection division, said anyone who endangered someone in a bathroom should be dealt with as a criminal. Otherwise, it wasn’t right to deny people the right to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.
“This ordinance isn’t asking for special rights,” she said. “It’s asking for equal rights.”
Higher water fees, Sept. 17, 2020
Bovo has tried to cast himself as the anti-tax candidate, and points to his opposition to yearly budget legislation that sets the county water rates and other fees. Proposed by Gimenez and needed to pay for upgrades and anti-pollution efforts, according to financial forecasts, the legislation routinely draws the closest votes in annual budget meetings.
The final budget meeting for the two candidates was no exception, with Bovo joining each of the commissioners who have endorsed him (Jose “Pepe” Diaz, Rebeca Sosa, Javier Souto and Xavier Suarez) to vote against the fee legislation and Levine Cava as part of the 8-5 majority to approve them.
“She has voted to raise fees,” he said last week. “I haven’t.”
South Miami-Dade transit, Aug. 30, 2018:
In 2018, Miami-Dade commissioners had a controversial decision to make on transit: hold out for a $1 billion Metrorail system for South Miami-Dade that consultants and the administration said the county couldn’t afford, or approve a $300 million rapid-transit bus system that could be built quickly.
Bovo sided with the majority on a transportation board that includes the entire commission, and backed approving the new bus line. Levine Cava, citing fierce opposition from mayors in her district, voted “no.” The county selected a contractor in September to build the 20-mile system on the county busway, and service could start as early as 2022.
“If we wait for rail, well my son will be 25 years old before rail gets here,” Bovo, a father of five, including a 10-year-old, said at an Oct. 7 forum sponsored by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.
Levine Cava, a grandmother of two, said the county was wrong not to consider a cheaper, shorter extension of street-level rail south, since a 2002 sales-tax referendum included a southern Metrorail line as a big selling point. “That train was promised,” she said. “It could have been delivered, at least halfway.”