When Donald Trump signed his January executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim nations, Rafael A. Velasquez threw on a blazer, grabbed a megaphone, and stood in the rain outside Miami International Airport, screaming "Not my president!" and "Refugees are welcome here!" amid a tense standoff with airport security.
Days later, after County Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced the county would comply with Trump's crackdown on immigrant-protecting "sanctuary cities," the 44-year-old Velasquez picked up a megaphone yet again and shamed Gimenez for acquiescing to Trump's racism.
For Velasquez, stepping out into the spotlight again took guts: After a failed run for state senate in 2001, he began organizing anti-Iraq War protests two years later. But as a reward, he wound up arrested and convicted in a high-profile voter fraud case that made national headlines, after he admittedly voted twice illegally while holding a green card. Velasquez maintains the incident was an accident (and that Miami-Dade County owned up to mistakenly letting him register to vote), and that the FBI only pursued charges against him as retaliation for speaking out against the War on Terror. Velasquez's charges are still cited on anti-immigrant websites like Breitbart News as examples of illegal Democratic voting.
Now Velasquez has returned to the public spotlight, and is running for office once again.
"I see it as the ultimate community service," he tells New Times. "I feel that if I'm a real activist, driven to make a difference, I should run for public office."
Velasquez filed to run for the Miami Beach Commission's Group Two seat, which is currently occupied by Michael Grieco. After Mayor Philip Levine announced earlier this year that he would not run for reelection (and would instead embark on an already ill-fated tour to figure out whether he should run for governor), Grieco, already an outsize personality on the dais, announced his candidacy for mayor. Grieco's main challenger, Dan Gelber, is a former state senator who shares a consultant, Christian Ulvert, with Mayor Levine.
Velasquez hopes to fill the vacuum Grieco is leaving. He's a real-estate broker and a father of two, who grew up in Berlin, to a German father and Peruvian mother. He currently sits on the Florida Democratic Party's Board of Trustees. Previously, he was the Miami-Dade Democratic Party's Finance Chair, a position he held until February, when he resigned before running for office. (During the 2016 presidential campaign, he volunteered for Hillary Clinton.)
While Miami Beach's commission already tends to be one of the few consistently liberal city governments in GOP-dominated Dade County, Velasquez's election would push the dais further left than it's been in decades.
Since the 1990s, Velasquez has been a consistent progressive agitator. In 2001, he ran unsuccessfully to be South Beach's state representative on a platform based around forcing employers in Florida to provide health insurance to their workers. Reports at the time said the city's Cuban exilio community pretty much laughed him out of the room. That same year, one of his opponents found out that Velasquez had voted twice in the past, before he'd actually received his U.S. Citizenship.
He maintains this was the result of a clerical mistake on the part of the county elections board — in a series of YouTube videos Velasquez posted online when he announced his run for Miami Beach commission, he recounted what he says was a total accident that he didn't notice before he admittedly broke the law.
"I put on this voter registration that I am a permanent resident," he said. "But no matter what, the bureaucrats apparently didn't look at it. They send me this card. Let me tell you, as a new resident, looking at this card, I was excited! America, being a nation of immigrants, an immigrant country where a resident can vote. So I went and voted."
He said he voted twice before realizing what he was doing was illegal — and reached out to Miami-Dade County's Board of Elections, which he said admitted in writing that they mistakenly issued him a voter registration card. He then says he sent a copy of that letter to the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office, and the office promised it wouldn't prosecute him for the slip-up.
At the time, Velasquez held a law license, and was a practicing immigration attorney helping recent migrants earn their citizenship. In 2003, Velasquez organized a large anti-war protest in blood-red Little Havana. A New Times reporter accompanied him that day and documented insult after insult Miami's exilios tossed at him.
"Why don't you defend your country, especially after what happened in 9/11?" one man asked him, before calling him "Che Guevara." By then, Velasquez had become a naturalized citizen.
Later that year, however, he said he called then-President George W. Bush a "liar" and a "criminal" in an interview on local television — and a week later, he received a knock on his front door at roughly 6:30 in the morning.
"I open the door, and I looked at guns in front of my face," he said in his video statement. "Like five guns, pointing at me, and a badge that said 'FBI.' They came in, and they shackled me by my hands, and my feet, and they took me like a terrorist to the headquarters in North Miami Beach."
The feds alleged that during his naturalization process, authorities asked him if he'd ever voted illegally, and claimed that Velasquez lied to the government. He was charged with both "alien voting" — a charge that would have stripped him of his naturalized citizenship — and lying during his immigration proceedings, a felony.
In September of 2003, his case went to trial. He was found not guilty of voter fraud — but guilty of lying to authorities. He was sentenced to two months of house arrest, probation, and 250 hours of community service. He lost his law license, was forced to close his office, and took jobs as a construction worker, taxi driver, bouncer, and used-car salesman to satisfy the conditions of his probation. When that period ended, he left activism for a quiet life in real-estate.
"However, I always kept my motivation, that I always would come back, and make a difference," he said.
Now, with the rise of Trump, Velasquez's face has popped up in front of cameras once again. As Republicans debated whether to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a group of progressive protesters ambushed Florida Senator Marco Rubio at the lawmaker's Florida International University class — and Velasquez was there, sparring verbally with the senator. When the city of North Miami Beach voted to move forward with a plan to privatize its water utility, Velasquez stood in the commission chambers, demanding the city kill the deal.
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"We're living in an era that’s alarming," Velasquez told New Times when asked why he ran for office once again. "We live in a very strange, new era of rising hate, rising anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, all these things. Every awful human instinct has been brought out and legitimized. In these times, it’s important that we stand up and fight to retain the character of our community."
It's unclear, though, how Velasquez's worker-first, activists' spirit will mesh with the upper-crust concerns of Miami Beach, a city dominated by high-end hoteliers and real-estate tycoons. So far, he's midway through a "listening tour" with Beach residents who have mostly complained about traffic issues, overdevelopment, and sea-level rise. He says he's committed to fixing the city's persistent gridlock, finding solutions to help the city's homeless that don't include arresting them, and possibly closing Ocean Drive to vehicular traffic, á la Lincoln Road. He also says he's "evolving" on the issue of Airbnb and short-term rentals, and proposes letting independent homeowners rent out their properties on the app, but opposes letting professional Airbnb operators rent on the island.
But it's Velasquez's in-your-face activist style that sets him apart from the rest of the protest-averse current commission (save Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, who just announced she's running as a Democrat against incumbent U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.) Grieco, whose spot Velasquez would take, skipped January's Women's March to attend a dachshund race on Ocean Drive.
"In Miami Beach, there's a unique cultural wealth people seek when they come here," Velasquez says. "In these times, it’s important that we stand up and fight to retain the character of our community."