Rich, White Men Dominate Miami Political Campaigns, Study Says

Miami is in the midst of the most spirited campaign-finance debate it's had in years. Barring the results of legal appeals and a counter-suit filed this week, a group of activists has forced Miami-Dade County to let its citizens vote on a measure that would cut political donations to just $250 per person. If the bill passes, it will likely lessen the stranglehold the wealthy have over Miami's political climate.

But not everyone agrees: During a meeting last week, many county commissioners, including Jose "Pepe" Diaz, asked why Miami-Dade should bother reforming its campaign-donation laws right now.

A study the civil-rights think-tank Demos released yesterday answers that exact question: According to Demos' figures, the people who donate to Miami political campaigns are disproportionately non-Hispanic white, rich, and male, despite the fact that Miami is a Latino-dominated town.

The study's author, Sean McElwee, tells New Times the results suggest county politicians are far more responsive to the concerns of Miami's wealthy non-Hispanic whites than they are to the majority of the city's residents.

"Increasingly, there's strong literature in the political science world that politicians' voting records are more closely aligned with the preferences of their donors than that of non-donors," McElwee said via phone. "The argument is is that, when you have a donor class that is very white, very male, and ideologically more conservative, all of those sort of push policy toward being less representative of the whole."

McElwee says he began working on the study in February. Using state and county data, he analyzed the donors in both the current county mayoral race between incumbent Carlos Gimenez and challenger Raquel Regalado, as well as the 2013 City of Miami race that named Tomas Regalado city mayor. (Tomas is Raquel's dad.)

McElwee's research shows that, when it comes to large campaign donations in Miami-Dade, donors skew heavily toward non-Hispanic whites:
The donor pool for Miami-Dade’s upcoming election is whiter than the population of Miami-Dade, particularly at the highest levels. While 59 percent of Miami-Dade’s adult population and 83 percent of donors giving less than $100 to mayoral candidates are Latino, only 42 percent of those giving more than $1,000 are. The result is that while whites make up 42 percent of all donors to both mayoral and county commissioner races, they make up 52 percent of the money contributed. In total, 47 percent of county commissioner donors were white, more than double the white share of the adult population.
The study adds that, while only 20 percent of Miami-Dade residents make more than $100,000 per year, more than half of mayoral donors make more than that amount. It also says that 71 percent of county commission donations came from men.

Demos then broke things down further: In the current race for county mayor, which is headed for a November runoff, Gimenez's donors are both disproportionately rich, and disproportionately non Hispanic white. While 63 percent of the people funding Gimenez's campaign where white, 81 percent of Regalado's donors were Latino.

Broken down by earning power, a whopping 73 percent of Gimenez's donors make more than $100,000 per year:
Perhaps not surprisingly, small donations in Miami come from a far more diverse pool of people. Latinos make up 60 percent of Miami adults — among people giving $100 or less to political campaigns, 80 percent were Hispanic.

By McElwee's account, the results suggest that "amplifying the small donor pool" would help make Miami politics more responsive to the concerns of average people. He suggests that publicly financing elections using tax dollars — which campaign-finance proponents Accountable Miami Dade propose — would alleviate some of the disparity.

"What you see when you have public financing is that politicians spend a lot less time fundraising," he said. "There's a great quote in Obama’s book that says, 'Whenever I’m fundraising, I'm spending a lot of time with lawyers, bankers, et cetera.' They're all people with the same, 'white' experiences." If cities aren't going to publicly fund elections in their entirety, McElwee says, the next-best move is to force people to donate less money.

He added that Demos has conducted similar studies in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and that donors in those two cities also skewed white and rich.

During the county's current fight over campaign-finance reform, lobbyists, like Miami's Eric Zichella (who has filed a lawsuit against the county), have complained that the laws Accountable Miami-Dade is proposing will make Miami politics inequitable and unfair. But Demos's new study makes arguments against the new bill even harder to swallow.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.