County Votes Down Campaign-Finance Measure, Blames D.C. Groups for "Targeting" Miami

More than 127,000 people signed petitions demanding that Miami-Dade reform its campaign-finance laws to keep Big Money out of local politics. So why did the county commission vote 9-4 last night to effectively kill the measure?

Mostly because the group that collected the petitions, Accountable Miami-Dade, used its own big money from out of state to start the initiative. Although the commissioners cited various technical problems with the initiative, it seemed clear they were more concerned with who was proposing the measure rather than what it actually said.

"Miami-Dade County is being targeted by this effort," Commissioner Dennis C. Moss said from the dais, echoing concerns expressed by Commissioners Juan Zapata, Audrey Edmonson, and others, who said "outsiders" were trying to influence Miami politics.

The vote ensures that voters will not get to cast ballots on the plan this November. The result also guarantees that a lawsuit that Accountable Miami-Dade filed against the county and Mayor Carlos Gimenez will live on. Lawyers for Accountable Miami-Dade plan to challenge today's ruling in court.

Yesterday's debate also showed how difficult it is to persuade sitting politicians to reform the very campaign-finance laws that helped them get elected.

The vote came after a summer of tension between the two groups: On August 2, Accountable Miami-Dade sent the county 127,000 signed petitions in two U-Haul trucks. Despite the fact that county law says the Board of Elections must begin authorizing any petitions it receives within 30 days, the county commission initially declined to tell the board to begin that process.

That decision sparked Accountable Miami-Dade's suit against the county and accusations that the deep-pocketed Gimenez campaign was making up excuses to protect his well-heeled pool of political backers. Then, when union activist and political operative Juan Cuba filed a public-records request for emails that the county commission had sent regarding the measure, the county claimed a simple email search would cost Cuba more than $21,000.

After a protest inside county hall, the county commission finally agreed to begin counting the petitions August 22. Yesterday, the county announced 55,835 of the signatures were valid — enough to theoretically spark a referendum.

But the group was hurt by revelations, first reported by Al Crespo, that the group had clandestinely funded its petition drive using hundreds of thousands of dollars from D.C. and New York City political operatives.

For all the brouhaha over the group backing the ordinance, though, the laws that Accountable Miami-Dade wants to pass aren't all that strange.

For one, the group wants to ban people who receive large checks from the government from donating to political campaigns. That ban would also extend to contractors' lobbyists and immediate family members. Because the law disproportionately affects them, local lobbyists say the new ordinance isn't fair since it only targets city contractors but not unions or real-estate developers.

But at the federal level, a similar ban on contractor donations has stood for the past 76 years, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt held office. In 2015, D.C. Circuit Court Judge Merrick Garland, one of the most respected centrist judges in America, upheld the government's contractor-donation ban after a group had sued to overturn it.

"The concerns that spurred the original bar remain as important today as when the statute was enacted," Garland wrote last year, adding that the threat of "quid-pro-quo corruption" compelled him to uphold the law. Garland's decision was so noncontroversial it barely even made waves in the press.

"The statute was itself the outgrowth of a decades-long congressional effort to prevent corruption and ensure the merit-based administration of the national government," Garland wrote.

And though the federal government also bans unions from contributing directly to campaigns, there is nothing stopping the county commission from enacting an additional law restricting union or developer donations in the future. As of right now, the government is just choosing not to. (If the county wants to amend Accountable Miami-Dade's specific ordinance, county law says it must wait at least one year before doing so.)

But county officials don't even have to look that far to see a contractor-donation ban in action: Miami Beach already bans that exact group from donating to political campaigns. (The city also bans real-estate developers from donating.)

Accountable Miami-Dade has also proposed chopping the city's campaign donation limit from $1,000 per person, per campaign, to just $250. Again, the county doesn't have to search to see a similar bill in action: Donations in Fort Lauderdale are capped at $250 per person.

Granted, there were real concerns over the way in which Accountable Miami-Dade gathered its signatures. Commissioner Edmonson said from the dais that some of her constituents were told the bill helped "gay rights." Likewise, Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said she was bombarded with tweets from D.C. operatives posing as "grassroots organizers" demanding she pass the bill. And it appears Accountable Miami-Dade's main backer, a group called the Every Voice Center, has a short history of misleading the public.

Likewise, Crespo reported that the ordinance illegally bars contractor donations to Miami-Dade County School Board members but ignores the county property appraiser, who is an elected official in Miami-Dade.

But the most disingenuous part of yesterday's debate was not the idea that "outsiders" were targeting Miami-Dade County. (In fact, "outsiders" target Miami-Dade all the time: Gimenez and the county commission have taken thousands of dollars from donors in Tallahassee, Orlando, New York, Washington, and Broward and Palm Beach Counties, all of which are "outside" Miami.)

Instead, it was clear that some commissioners still don't see why thousands of local people actually believe the county needs to reform its campaign-donation laws.

"What's the difference if someone donates $10 or $300,000?" Commissioner Barbara Jordan asked, adding she doesn't think campaign donations influence the way politicians vote.

Likewise, Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz said there were too many other important things going on right now — such as the Zika outbreak — to spend time on campaign-finance reform.

At least 55,835 Miamians disagree with them, but they won't get a chance to voice that feeling at the ballot box.
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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.