STRONG MAYOR BIG MONEY DRAW

Miami Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY JOEY FLECHAS jflechas@mi­ami­her­ald.com

More than $2 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions has been raised on both sides of Mi­ami’s ‘strong mayor’ bal­lot ques­tion over whether Fran­cis Suarez should get sub­stan­tially more power.

The price of pol­i­tics is high in the city of Mi­ami — even in an elec­tion with no one run­ning for of­fice in City Hall.

Moneyed in­ter­ests in real es­tate, ar­chi­tec­ture and con­struc­tion have poured more than $1 mil­lion into the cam­paign to make Mayor Fran­cis Suarez, the 41-year-old politi­cian in his first year as the city’s fig­ure­head, into a pow­er­ful “strong mayor” in charge of the mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment’s day-to-day op­er­a­tions. In that re­vamped role, Suarez would have top ad­min­is­tra­tive au­thor­ity over the city’s real es­tate deals and zon­ing ap­provals, and he would rec­om­mend bid­ders for city con­tracts.

This ex­pan­sion of power would im­me­di­ately take ef­fect if the ref­er­en­dum passes, ac­cord­ing to the bal­lot ques­tion. Suarez would be­come the city’s first strong mayor, and the sub­se­quent may­ors would have the same power, un­less the vot­ers changed the govern­ment sys­tem again through a ref­er­en­dum.

The po­lit­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion op­pos­ing the strong­mayor pro­posal has ben­e­fited from a smaller but sim­i­lar sta­ble of donors. A top Suarez foe, Mi­ami Com­mis­sioner Joe Carollo, is us­ing a po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tions group he con­trols to run at­tack ads say­ing Suarez would be­come a “dic­ta­tor-mayor.”

The group, called Mi­ami First, has since 2017 raised $284,603. Of that, about $93,000 came from donors work­ing in real es­tate, ar­chi­tec­ture and con­struc­tion. Af­ter much of the money was spent dur­ing the elec­tion that saw him re­turn to pub­lic of­fice in Novem­ber, Carollo has raised $73,000 since June 2018 as the strong mayor cam­paign ramped up. It is un­clear how much the group has spent be­cause re­cent cam­paign records have re­ported zero ex­pen­di­tures — even though tele­vi­sion ads and mail­ers

are at­trib­uted to them.

Mi­ami-Dade Mayor Car­los Gimenez has also raised and spent money to fund an op­po­si­tion cam­paign.

If vot­ers ap­prove the new govern­ment sys­tem, it would cre­ate a new dy­namic where Suarez’s donors could come to his ad­min­is­tra­tion seek­ing ap­provals or look­ing to bid on con­tracts. Peo­ple and com­pa­nies with busi­ness be­fore the city could fund the po­lit­i­cal cam­paign of the city’s chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Cam­paign records show Suarez and af­fil­i­ated po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees have raised at least $2.4 mil­lion for the ef­fort first to cir­cu­late pe­ti­tions and then to con­vince vot­ers to ex­pand his power. Suarez has con­trib­uted an­other $300,000 left­over from his 2017 may­oral cam­paign.

A pro­lific fundraiser, Suarez in­sisted if he were to be­come a strong mayor, his de­ci­sions would not be swayed by the donors who fill his war chest.

“Ev­ery sin­gle elected of­fi­cial gets cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions, and they are con­fronted at times with peo­ple that go be­fore them, as I was as a com­mis­sioner, by those very same peo­ple,” he said.

Suarez, a real es­tate lawyer who works on trans­ac­tions at Green­spoon Marder, has said he will con­tinue to work with the firm if he be­comes strong mayor. The mayor would su­per­vise bu­reau­crats who make zon­ing and real es­tate de­vel­op­ment de­ci­sions and rec­om­men­da­tions, a po­si­tion that could put him in con­flict with his pri­vate work as an at­tor­ney.

Suarez re­fused to dis­close his clients to the Mi­ami Her­ald, cit­ing his clients’ pri­vacy and say­ing he has not done le­gal work for clients on city-re­lated is­sues, and he will not ac­cept such clients in the fu­ture. The mayor ar­gued that be­cause he has no con­flicts to dis­close, his clien­tele is ir­rel­e­vant.

“As an ac­tive and prac­tic­ing at­tor­ney, I must con­tinue to re­spect and pro­tect my clients’ pri­vacy as pro­vided by their at­tor­ney-client priv­i­lege,” he said. “This is not a rea­son­able re­quest of any at­tor­ney with­out prior client con­sent and per­mis­sion. Again, my le­gal prac­tice is sep­a­rate and apart from my po­lit­i­cal en­deav­ors and are not rel­e­vant to the bal­lot ini­tia­tive.”

The largest in­di­vid­ual donor to the strong mayor cam­paign is Drive De­vel­op­ment LLC, a com­pany that builds con­tem­po­rary, cube-like homes in Co­conut Grove. The com­pany and af­fil­i­ates, which have lob­by­ists regis­tered with the city, gave $100,000 to the po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee that fi­nanced the pe­ti­tion drive to get the strong mayor ques­tion on the bal­lot, Mi­ami­ans for an In­de­pen­dent and Ac­count­able Mayor’s Ini­tia­tive. In re­cent years, Drive has con­trib­uted $23,500 to an­other Suarez po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee, Mi­ami’s Fu­ture, which funded his may­oral bid and trans­ferred $300,000 this year’s strong mayor ef­fort.

A sub­sidiary of Mi­amibased Nor­we­gian Cruise Line, Pride of Amer­ica Ship Hold­ing, LLC, gave $50,000 to Ac­count­able Mi­ami, a com­mit­tee that formed once the ref­er­en­dum was on the bal­lot. An af­fil­i­ate of Op­ti­mum De­vel­op­ment USA, headed by Ri­cardo Ta­bet, con­trib­uted $50,000 to the same com­mit­tee. Op­ti­mum is con­struct­ing a new of­fice build­ing in Co­conut Grove and owns a low-slung mo­tel near Brick­ell City Cen­tre that could be be re­de­vel­oped.

The Ac­count­able Mi­ami com­mit­tee, which ap­peared to re­brand the cam­paign with a mes­sage that de-em­pha­sized power and fo­cused more on ac­count­abil­ity, also re­ceived a $25,000 check from a statewide Repub­li­can com­mit­tee. The Re­spon­si­ble Lead­er­ship Com­mit­tee is group is tied to a web of GOP com­mit­tees with in­volve­ment in state and lo­cal races across Florida. Suarez is a regis­tered Repub­li­can; the of­fice of mayor is non­par­ti­san.

Michael Wohl, a prin­ci­pal at Pin­na­cle Hous­ing Group, gave $25,000 to Ac­count­able Mi­ami. Pin­na­cle, a de­vel­oper af­fil­i­ated with a com­pany that was sub­ject to a fed­eral crim­i­nal probe of in­flated con­struc­tion ex­penses on af­ford­able-hous­ing con­tracts, was re­cently rec­om­mended to re­ceive $3.7 mil­lion in county low-in­ter­est loans for a Home­stead af­ford­able hous­ing project. Mi­amiDade Mayor Car­los Gimenez, a strong mayor him­self, rec­om­mended Pin­na­cle — a top Gimenez donor.

Gimenez has come out strongly against Suarez’s pro­posed strong-mayor plan, fund­ing neg­a­tive ads through his po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee Mi­ami-Dade Res­i­dents First. Af­ter two years of fundrais­ing in­ac­tiv­ity, Gimenez has raised $67,500 since late Au­gust and spent about $6,600 on mailed ads ask­ing vot­ers to re­ject the strong mayor pro­posal, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent cam­paign re­port. His re­cent donors in­clude a real es­tate com­pany that wants to build a race­track on leased county land near the Opa-locka air­port, Tril­ogy Real Es­tate, and a County Hall lob­by­ist, Felix Lasarte.

Two other po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tees af­fil­i­ated with county com­mis­sion­ers Jean Mon­es­time and Jose “Pepe” Diaz also gave to Gimenez’s com­mit­tee.

Carollo’s group, Mi­ami First, was first ac­tive in his 2017 com­mis­sion cam­paign. The com­mit­tee has raised $73,000 since June 2018, with $28,000 com­ing from real es­tate-re­lated en­ti­ties. One $25,000 check came from a non­profit group called Mi­amiDade Part­ner­ship for Pros­per­ity, Inc. The group is a 501(c)(4), a type of non­profit en­tity that is re­served for in­flu­enc­ing pub­lic pol­icy and does not have to dis­close its donors. The same non­profit served as a con­duit for sup­port­ers of Raquel Re­gal­ado in 2016, then a can­di­date for Mi­ami-Dade mayor, to keep its do­na­tions se­cret.

The money in Mi­ami First’s ac­count has paid for mail­ers and com­mer­cials on Span­ish-lan­guage tele­vi­sion blast­ing Suarez, call­ing the strong-mayor mea­sure an over­reach and ask­ing vot­ers to re­ject the plan. The fact the ads tell peo­ple to vote no ap­pears to vi­o­late elec­tion law, ac­cord­ing to an at­tor­ney who spe­cial­izes in elec­tion law, be­cause Mi­ami First is an “elec­tion­eer­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions or­ga­ni­za­tion,” a le­gal des­ig­na­tion that al­lows the group only to ex­plain an is­sue, but not take a po­si­tion for or against it.

Elec­tions lawyer J.C. Planas has filed a com­plaint with the Florida Elec­tions Com­mis­sion. Carollo said his tele­vi­sion ads have fol­lowed the rules, and though there may be one mailer Planas may wish to chal­lenge, Carollo can de­fend it.

“That’s minute,” he said, adding that he might file com­plaints about some of the pro-strong mayor ad­ver­tise­ments.

The Mi­ami First ads ques­tion Suarez’s in­ten­tions with a raise he would be en­ti­tled to if the ref­er­en­dum passes. Suarez, his wife and two young chil­dren re­cently moved into a new $1.4 mil­lion home in Co­conut Grove. The at­tack ad shows aerial and in­te­rior im­ages of Suarezes’ old and new homes, stat­ing the mayor would use the raise to pay the mort­gage.

The ads an­gered Suarez, who said they “com­pletely crossed the line.”

“Peo­ple are dis­gusted by that kind of pol­i­tics,” he said.

Gimenez’s com­mit­tee has also sent mail­ers with pho­tos of the new Suarez home.

Suarez has main­tained he would not ac­cept a raise, and he in­sisted the ques­tion of his home pur­chase was a non-is­sue.

“If I didn’t have the money to buy the house, I wouldn’t have bought the house,” he said.

An­other po­lit­i­cal com­mit­tee sprang up in re­cent weeks to send mail­ers sup­port­ing the strong­mayor ini­tia­tive. A group called Pro­gres­sives for Change was regis­tered by Chris­tian Ulvert, a Demo­cratic po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive and spokesman for the com­mit­tee that fi­nanced the bal­lot pe­ti­tion, Pro­gres­sives for Change. The com­mit­tee has not yet filed cam­paign fi­nance re­ports show­ing donors.

Com­mis­sioner Joe Carollo

Mayor Fran­cis Suarez

Mayor Car­los Gimenez

ROBERTO KOLTUN rkoltun@mi­ami­her­ald.com

Mayor Fran­cis Suarez speaks to the com­mis­sion dur­ing a meet­ing in May.

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