A fight among billionaires: Where candidates for Miami-Dade mayor raise their money

Douglas Hanks
·6 min read

Running in a wide-open race for Miami-Dade County mayor, four candidates have raised nearly $13 million for a contest that’s likely to last until November and require another stream of big checks from developers, vendors, unions, lobbyists, business owners and political rain-makers.

The top donors remain a pair of reported billionaires backing the two Democrats in the nonpartisan race. Fort Lauderdale hedge-fund titan Donald Sussman gave nearly $900,000 to County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava’s election effort, and Miami healthcare mogul Mike Fernandez gave about $300,000 to Alex Penelas, the former county mayor seeking his old post 16 years after leaving office.

The other two commissioners running, Esteban “Steve” Bovo Jr. and Xavier Suarez, received a fraction of those totals from their top donors. Bovo, a Republican running as the only “conservative” candidate in the race, took in $100,000 from the political committee run by outgoing Florida House Speaker José Oliva, and Suarez, an independent and father of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, received $80,000 from lawyer Mike Eidson, who wants the city and county to approve his revival plan for the Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Though Levine Cava has the top donor, Penelas raised more — about $4.8 million — with $1.6 million still in the bank, according to the most recent campaign-finance reports.

The balance reflects the Penelas camp’s confidence that the former two-term mayor has a lock on a slot in the expected November run-off between the top two finishers in the Aug. 18 primary. The three commissioners have less than $1 million left, and Suarez is almost out of money with only $64,000 reported in cash.

“We’re still getting some money,” Suarez said. “We’ll be able to fund all the ongoing operations until the end of the day Tuesday. We’re not going to add anything. We won’t have a lot left for the runoff.”

Stierhem endorses Levine Cava

Donations and fund-raising have been fodder for campaign attacks in this cycle. On Monday, Levine Cava released an endorsement from Merrett Stierheim, the former county manager who served under Penelas between 1998 and 2001 before he said the then-mayor asked him to leave. Penelas then hired Steve Shiver, then Homestead’s part-time mayor, to replace the veteran administrator. Shiver resigned under pressure after three years.

In his first endorsement in a mayoral race, Stierheim didn’t name Penelas but said that “unlike other leading candidates” Levine Cava “is not beholden to special interests.”

Penelas is running ads against Bovo under the heading “Who is funding his campaign?” and calling Levine Cava another “pay-to-play” politician for commission votes favoring donors. Bovo tried to brand Penelas the “godfather of corruption” in last month’s Univision debate.

Bovo hasn’t commented on the $17,000 that a Siemens lobbyist donated to Bovo’s A Better Miami-Dade committee in June and July, weeks after Bovo voted for a $160 million county traffic-light contract for the German company.

The $17,000 donation from Miguel Diaz de la Portilla’s Foundation for Human Values PAC came after the committee received $15,000 from Siemens executives in Texas and New Jersey.

A Siemens spokeswoman said the company doesn’t make direct contributions to candidates and that in this case “three Siemens employees made personal contributions in their individual capacity...Siemens is looking into the matter.”

Penelas’ connections

For Penelas, companies tied to his role as a real estate investor are spending big to get him elected. Executives and entities linked to Prestige Companies, a county builder, donated more than $200,000 to his campaign and political committee, Bold Vision.

“Alex has been a good friend for a long time. When he went into the private sector, we had done business with him,” said Alex Ruiz, a partner and chief operating officer of Prestige, which has offices in Miami Lakes. “We think he’d do a really good job for Miami-Dade County.”

Penelas also received $10,000 from a longtime concessionaire at Chicago’s Midway Airport, Timothy Rand. As mayor, Penelas would have final say on contract recommendations to the County Commission for Miami International Airport. The Penelas campaign did not respond to questions about the origin of the Rand contribution, and Rand could not be reached.

A Bold Vision website cites Levine Cava commission votes favoring donors, including legislation she sponsored in February to hire outside lawyers for a lawsuit against chemical makers accused of contaminating Miami-Dade water.

One of the law firms that lobbied for the action and wanted to be hired, Miami’s Ferraro Law Firm, donated $17,500 to Levine Cava’s campaign and Our Democracy committee in June 2019.

When the county awarded the case, Ferraro lost out to other firms that bid on the legal business. “I thought it was a very deceptive ad,” said Eric Zichella, the Ferraro lobbyist who helped prod the county in pursuing polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) litigation.

It’s not just donors that can spark attacks. Bovo’s former fundraiser, Esther Nuhfer, has been fodder for mailers against the candidate, too. Bovo fired Nuhfer in May after news she was paid out of a $50 million consulting arrangement former congressman David Rivera, a longtime Bovo friend, had with a Venezuelan oil company.

On Monday, a Bovo lawyer sent Penelas a letter demanding he “cease-and-desist” sending mailers that falsely imply Bovo is under investigation in the matter or that dollars from Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government are financing Bovo’s campaign. The letter from lawyer Robert Fernandez warned of a defamation suit for mailers designed to “smear” Bovo.

Late Monday, the Penelas campaign issued a statement that outlined the reported payments to Rivera and Nuhfer from the consulting arrangement, calling Rivera a “longtime confidante” of Bovo. “The connection between Bovo and Nicolás Maduro’s beneficiaries are well documented,” the statement read.

Looks like a runoff

The mayoral election could end Aug. 18 if one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, but no private polling suggests that’s a possibility. The Penelas camp circulated its poll Monday showing the former mayor with 27% of the vote, followed by Levine Cava at 22%, Bovo at 20% and Suarez at 11%, with 16% still undecided.

The Levine Cava camp on Monday circulated its own poll summary with a different leader board: she was atop with 25%, just ahead of Bovo’s 21% and Penelas’ 20%, with Suarez at 9%. The first-time candidates on the ballot, Monique Nicole Barley and Ludmilla Domond, polled less than 3% combined in both polls.

Those two first-time candidates raised less than $8,000 combined. The other four candidates have raised $12.7 million in the last three years, based on reports filed by campaigns and political committees they registered with the county’s Elections Department.

That doesn’t count the millions flowing through outside political committees and non-profits ahead of the Aug. 18 county primary, but it’s a measure of just how expensive the 2020 contest has become for an open seat being vacated by the term-limited incumbent, Carlos Gimenez. In 2016, Gimenez and challenger Raquel Regalado raised about $6 million ahead of the August primary that sent the two of them into a November runoff that Gimenez won by double digits.