How the Gimenez administration halted talks for early voting at the Heat’s AA Arena

Douglas Hanks
·10 min read

The Miami Heat’s push to bring voting to the AmericanAirlines Arena was going so well with the county’s Elections Department that it was on a draft list of polling places and in the computer system as downtown Miami’s designated early-voting site.

The next day the county’s elections supervisor received a text from her boss, Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

“Ned to talk about this,” Gimenez wrote Elections Supervisor Christina White on Aug. 29, forwarding an article about the NBA’s plan to channel demands for social justice into a voting drive by turning arenas into polling places. The text, sent at 7:05 a.m. that Saturday, included a typo, omitting an ‘e’ from the word “need.” Days later, the pending agreement with the Heat for an early-voting site was dead and Miami-Dade announced it would use a much smaller space at the nearby Frost Science Museum.

The Sept. 4 decision on the AA Arena’s offer brought a blistering response from the Heat, with team executives saying they were baffled that Miami-Dade had changed its mind on an agreement that appeared all but done.

“To say we are disappointed is an understatement,” the Heat said in its statement. “But to the extent that forces involved in making this decision think this will quiet our voice on the importance of voting, they should know we will not be deterred.”

Documents released Friday in the midst of an open-records lawsuit detail the backstory behind the scuffle between Gimenez — a Republican candidate for Congress — and the Heat over the team’s offer to use one of the county’s best-known buildings for two weeks of early voting under way now.

The correspondence shows elections administrators were on the brink of signing a deal to accept the Heat’s offer and open up its home court arena to early voting for the November election. An agreement was drafted to restrict how the Heat could refer to playing host for early-voting, including a ban on advertising anything political while voting was underway.

But the email communication to close the deal ended the Monday morning after Gimenez’s Saturday text to White.

An Aug. 29, 2020 text message between Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Christina White, the county’s Elections Supervisor and an Gimenez appointee, days before the county turned down the Miami Heat’s offer to bring early voting to the AmericanAirlines Arena.
An Aug. 29, 2020 text message between Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Christina White, the county’s Elections Supervisor and an Gimenez appointee, days before the county turned down the Miami Heat’s offer to bring early voting to the AmericanAirlines Arena.

“Hello again,” the Heat’s representative, Nicholas Martinez, wrote White that Monday morning, on Aug. 31. He asked about the agreement both sides had discussed signing and noted “time is of the essence.”

There was no record of White writing him back.

After the Herald published Gimenez’s text and email correspondence showing the Election Department’s plans to use the arena for early voting, the mayor’s congressional opponent called the records proof of voter suppression and “taking another page from Donald Trump’s playbook.”

“Just last night we learned Carlos Gimenez abused his power as mayor to suppress voter participation,” said Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, the freshman Democrat in Florida’s 26th Congressional district. Gimenez is the Republican nominee for the seat. “He was suppressing the vote... To ensure a fair process, he must recuse himself from all election processes immediately.”

There was no comment from Gimenez or his office, or from the Elections Department. During a Sunday appearance on WPLG’s “Facing South Florida,” Gimenez said it was “ridiculous” to suggest not using the arena amounted to vote suppression amid record turnout for in-person early voting.

In September, election administrators cited logistics to explain the decision to go with the Frost site, including a Metromover station that’s next to the museum entrance and easy access from ground-level parking to the voting site.

Gimenez issued a statement Sept. 4 saying he “fully supports” the choice of the Elections Department to go with Frost, “based on its accessibility and experience with early voting” since the museum’s old site in Coconut Grove was a long-time polling location. Another issue cited was long-term voter habits, since the return of the regular NBA fall season would overlap with future general elections.

On Friday, a top Gimenez aide raised a new concern for the county: politics. Jennifer Moon, the deputy mayor who oversees the Elections Department, said the administration had concerns the arena could remain an “apolitical” site.

Would the AmericanAirlines Arena be ‘apolitical’?

“Polling places are supposed to be apolitical,” Moon said. “That was part of the discussion. Would it be an apolitical site?... I think we couldn’t conclude it would be completely apolitical. We don’t have control over the entire building.”

At the time, the arena had a large “Black Lives Matter” sign facing Biscayne Boulevard, and NBA players had been active in the racial-justice protests that followed George Floyd’s May 25 death at the hands of Minneapolis police, including by sitting out games.

The “Black Lives Matter” banner hanging outside the AmericanAirlines Arena on Sept. 5, 2020, the day after Miami-Dade rejected the Miami Heat’s offer to use the arena as an early-voting site. A county deputy mayor later said the decision was based in part on concerns the facility wouldn’t be an “apolitical” voting site.
The “Black Lives Matter” banner hanging outside the AmericanAirlines Arena on Sept. 5, 2020, the day after Miami-Dade rejected the Miami Heat’s offer to use the arena as an early-voting site. A county deputy mayor later said the decision was based in part on concerns the facility wouldn’t be an “apolitical” voting site.

Moon said the Black Lives Matter sign wasn’t a factor, but that there was concern about whether Elections could count on a lack of political messages at a massive building with a jumbo electronic billboard.

On Sunday, a Heat spokeswoman said the banner seemed to be a concern of the county’s. Elections administrators wrote up an agreement barring advertising or political messaging at the arena in the days leading up to the talks falling through. Lorrie-Ann Diaz, head of business communications for the team’s front office, said the banner wasn’t raised directly by Elections administrators but that the message appeared to be on their minds.

“Not specifically, although it fell under our conversation about ‘advertising,’” she said. “But it was implied.”

During his Sunday television appearance, Gimenez also raised the issue of the arena being a political site. “If there were concerns about it becoming political, I think yesterday’s narrative from my opponent just proved our point,” he said. “That it was becoming way too political...An early-voting site shouldn’t be political.”

The draft agreement county lawyers had drawn up for the Heat addressed concerns about inappropriate messaging on the building. “The HEAT Group may not have any advertisements on the Property marketing any product, supporting any political position, or seeking any act by the voters participating in the Election,” read the document.

A firestorm over Miami-Dade’s rejecting the Heat voting offer

The emails requested by the Miami Herald in September were released Friday after writer and activist Grant Stern sued the county over a similar request for records related to the AA Arena decision.

Represented by the National Election Defense Coalition, the Stern suit against the Elections Department described the Sept. 8 request as an effort to discover why the county rejected the Heat’s arena offer for the “less suitable” Frost site. The suit claimed Elections was illegally withholding public records that could shed light on the question.

Minutes before a scheduled 4 p.m. hearing in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, the Elections Department released the records related to the Herald’s own Sept. 8 request. The agency also turned over records to Stern on Friday.

A draft version of early voting sites circulated by Miami-Dade’s Elections Department on Aug. 28, 2020, included the AmericanAirlines Arena. The administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez ended up rejecting the Miami Heat’s offer to use the facility for early voting. Instead, the county used the nearby Frost Science museum.
A draft version of early voting sites circulated by Miami-Dade’s Elections Department on Aug. 28, 2020, included the AmericanAirlines Arena. The administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez ended up rejecting the Miami Heat’s offer to use the facility for early voting. Instead, the county used the nearby Frost Science museum.

The two candidates running to replace Gimenez as mayor took opposing views on the arena controversy. Mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava, a Democrat and Mucarsel-Powell ally, joined the congresswoman at the event at the early voting site at the Westchester library. “It would have been a terrific space. It brings with it the enthusiasm and momentum of a great team,” she told reporters. “And our mayor suppressed it. I’m so disappointed.”

The arena sits in the heart of a commission district that is 63% Democratic. It’s also miles from the 26th Congressional District, though early-voting sites are open to all Miami-Dade voters. Also at the Westchester library, mayoral candidate Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr. said the problem comes when a potential polling places become political “by hanging — by basically making itself political, it’s problematic.”

He said the arena’s “Black Lives Matter” sign, which is still hanging, should be considered a political message. “It’s become a political statement, hasn’t it?” said Bovo, a Republican in the non-partisan mayoral race. “If you had a banner that was hanging that said ‘All Lives Matter’ or ‘Blue Lives Matter,” it makes it political. These places are supposed to be agnostic.”

Marty Keane, a Miami lawyer, went to vote at the Frost Museum on Sunday with his wife and he said the two were impressed at the efficiency of the staff in moving voters through the process, and disappointed by cramped quarters.

“To me, the greatest disappointment is there was social distancing going on in there,” he said. “You just couldn’t.”

On the way home, Keane said they walked past the arena and imaged voting inside. “They could have used the concourse alone and had ten times the space,” he said. “It seemed like a no-brainer.”

In June, the Elections Department was hunting for a replacement for the agency’s normal downtown polling place, the Arsht Center. The Center’s parking lots were tied up from nearby highway construction, and elections administrators were shopping for new sites. Two options were Arsht and Frost, and Frost had some issues.

A July 9 email from Miriam Rivero, the county’s early voting manager, said the ground-floor 1,200-square-foot space offered by the museum wouldn’t accommodate the normal number of voting machines deployed to the Arsht. “If we are only going to use 1,200 sq feet, we would need to scale back the quantity of equipment assigned,” Rivero wrote White.

Meanwhile, emails show the Heat eager to offer its spacious 21,000-seat arena for early voting. The county-owned arena was empty at the time, with all NBA players competing in isolation in Orlando during the league’s COVID-altered season in the “bubble.”

The NBA was pushing its arenas as voting sites as part of an effort to address issues of social justice in the wake of the Floyd killing.

“Given the interest in Tuesday’s election and the public’s continued attention on the Presidential race, we are more confident that the Arena can be an early voting super-center that caters to the voter first,” Martinez wrote White on Aug. 26.

White and her staff were interested. They toured the arena. White told Martinez in an Aug. 21 email that day “we have the Frost Museum already confirmed as our site for that area,” she laid out requirements for keeping ensuring “impartiality” at the arena should the county use that site.

The “Heat may not have any advertisements in the early voting area marketing any product, supporting any political position, or seeking any act by the voters at the location,” White wrote. Five days later, on Aug. 26, Martinez wrote back with the Heat’s answer: The “conditions you outlined are acceptable to us.”

White forwarded the email to Moon that evening. Moon responded: “I will discuss with the Mayor ASAP.”

In the Elections Department, mid-level managers were making arrangements to bring early voting to the arena. On Aug. 28, the arena appeared on a draft list of 33 early voting sites an Elections staff member shared by email. The Frost site did not make the list.

That day, White sent Martinez an email outlining some more restrictions. That included a no-fee rental of the facility, and an agreement the polling place would not be “’hosted’ or ‘sponsored’ by the HEAT Group....” White said she’d send the agreement to Martinez “once approved on our end.”

“If acceptable, we can proceed with the final details,” White wrote.

The next day, Xavier Pichs, an early-voting supervisor working on a Saturday, sent a request to update the department’s computerized list of polling places. “Can you please add Site #57 as AmericanAirlines Arena located at 601 Biscayne Blvd, Miami FL 33132. Management will be providing the contact for this location,” Pichs wrote in the Aug. 29 email.

That was the same morning Gimenez sent his text message to White. After that, the Heat’s emails show no responses. The following Monday, Martinez sent his email to White asking about the outstanding agreement. There’s no record of a response.

Later that Monday, a secretary at the Elections Department emailed White about a call from Martinez: “He says he sent you an email and to please call him back.”