Democratic congressional candidate Matt HaggmanEXPAND
Democratic congressional candidate Matt Haggman
Knight Foundation / Flickr

Top Democrat for Miami Seat Leans on Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Tech Investors

In an eight-candidate Democratic cluster brawling to nab retiring GOP Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat in Congress, Matt Haggman is running away with the fundraising game. Haggman, a former Miami Herald reporter and Knight Foundation program director, has already pulled in more than $500,000.

But the source of all that loot has progressives in his party doing a double-take. According to Federal Election Commission filings, Haggman has received more than $90,000 from Wall Street bank employees, venture-capital firm executives, asset managers, tech investors, and other money movers such as Goldman Sachs and Citigroup — accounting for nearly a fifth of his total haul.

"This race has me very stressed," Ernesto Medina, a veteran member of the Miami-Dade County Progressive Caucus, tells New Times. "In this age, we should have people running antitrust, antimonopoly campaigns. If people are taking money from these interests that destroyed our economy, we need to be skeptical and call it out."

Haggman says money would have no impact on his decision-making if he's elected to Congress.

"I have a record of standing up for people who were taken advantage of by the banking industry, and if elected to Congress, I will continue to fight for strong consumer protections like Dodd-Frank, which cracks down on Wall Street abuses," he said in a statement to New Times.

Haggman has taken far more from financiers than his opponents, but a look at campaign records in the fiery race to turn Ros-Lehtinen's seat blue shows that big-money donors in finance, real estate, law, and lobbying have flooded in cash.

Among the candidates trying to replace Ros-Lehtinen, the centrist Republican retiring after nearly 30 years, are Haggman, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, state Rep. David Richardson, Miami Beach Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez, Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, Judge Mary Barzee Flores, and long shots Michael A. Hepburn and Mark Anthony Person. Ros-Lehtinen's 27th Congressional District covers most of Southern Dade County and Miami Beach. (The Republican field is, at the moment, slim: Pro-Trump Miami-Dade Commissioner Bruno Barreiro, known for pushing the horrific Marlins Park boondoggle onto taxpayers, leads Raquel Regalado, the daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado. They are getting trounced when it comes to money.)

The district voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and many observers expect the congressional win to flip to the Dems for the first time in three decades come November 2018.

Through the third quarter of 2017, Richardson technically had a narrow fundraising lead, with $517,254 through the end of September. But that's largely thanks to a $250,000 loan. In terms of pure fundraising, Haggman is on top with $512,766. Russell has raised more than $355,000, Flores has eclipsed $300,000, and Rodriguez and Rosen Gonzalez have each surpassed $200,000.

But progressives say those fundraising hauls raise a number of concerns about who hopes to influence the election. Haggman's sources, in particular, worry liberals hoping to continue Bernie Sanders' hard stance on Wall Street.

Haggman's reports include donations from execs at Goldman Sachs, Iberia Bank, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, and other banks. Then there are the folks at venture-capital funders and investment firms, which make up the majority of the $95,000 chunk — both private investors and employees of major venture-capital firms such as Marvin Traub Associates and Richmond Global, as well as smaller firms in South Florida, including many in Brickell.

Haggman says he'll fight for the little guy even if big banking is helping to fund his run.

"I have always supported consumers and homeowners, and I have a record of creating opportunities for small businesses and for people across South Florida," he says. "I'm proud that nearly 90 percent of our campaign's contributions came from Florida and all our contributions came from individuals."

Haggman's campaign spokesperson, Helena Poleo (another former Herald reporter and part of a family of infamous conservative Venezuelan opposition activists), tells New Times the campaign is proud of its contributions from investors and venture capitalists because those groups help small-business owners grow their companies. She also notes that, as a reporter, Haggman worked on a team that wrote an award-winning investigation into Florida's failure to police mortgage fraudsters in the leadup to the 2008 housing crash and Great Recession.

She also says many of the contributions have come through contacts Haggman made as director of the Knight Foundation, the Miami-based nonprofit that funds journalism, arts, technology, and other projects in multiple U.S. cities. "When you meet Matt, you just learn he's the real deal," Poleo says.

Haggman's website doesn't seem to propose much in the way of issues: His campaign has rallied around "defeating Trump," protecting Obamacare from Republican meddling (no mention of improving the law or transitioning to single-payer care), and "creating jobs." On October 28, he attended a Hillary Clinton speech and noted on Facebook that he is "#StillWithHer." (His campaign slogan is "I'm With Matt," a clear nod to Clinton's slogan.)

In addition to accepting funds from banking and venture-capital firms, Haggman has also received bales of money from real-estate investors, including maximum $2,700 donations from Related Group leader and Miami megadeveloper Jorge Pérez (the namesake of Pérez Art Museum Miami and target of a federal probe for possible theft of affordable-housing funds) and Stuart Miller, the CEO of Lennar Corporation, one of the largest housing developers in the United States.

Those kinds of financial backers give progressives pause.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is that there are major red flags," says Chris Riker, a Miami-Dade County Democratic Party member, medical marijuana activist, and 2016 Bernie Sanders delegate. "You're looking at a guy whose donors are basically the sign-in sheet for the housing crisis. Those candidates come in and say, 'I think you and I have the same idea'; otherwise, they wouldn’t take that money. For that same reason, he doesn’t take that money from anti-LGBT groups, for example."

Riker adds that the large number of Democrats in the field should make it easy for voters to avoid candidates with an undesirable funding records.

But Haggman is far from the only candidate whose financial disclosures are giving progressives heartburn.

Miami Commissioner Ken Russell rose to prominence as a local activist fighting corporate money in politics. While running for commissioner, he returned contributions because he said he believed raising too much money might send the wrong message to voters. He also volunteered to work for a campaign that would have banned lobbyists and real-estate developers from donating to county political races. But in July, the Miami Herald's David Smiley noted that Russell's then-congressional "exploratory committee" had already raised $133,000 — and much of it came from lobbyists and real-estate salespeople. Russell even took a check from Eric Zichella, the local lobbyist who sued to stop the very campaign-finance-reform campaign on which Russell volunteered.

“I’m still the candidate who sent $77,000 back to contributors when I didn’t need it," Russell told the Herald. "I’m still absolutely dedicated to creating more transparency in the finance system. No, I haven’t changed my mind on anything.”

On October 18, Florida Politics reported that Russell had enlisted the help of Miami-area fundraising guru Brian Goldmeier, best known for helping raise cash for local Republicans such as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and City of Miami mayoral candidate Francis Suarez.

City of Miami Commissioner Ken RussellEXPAND
City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell
Photo by Stian Roenning

As for Richardson, Florida's first openly gay state rep who has made a name for himself by exhaustively investigating abuses in the Florida prison system, there are red flags in his filings too. Notably, he received $2,500 from a political action committee tied to U.S. Sugar, one of the pollution-heaviest companies in Florida. A lobbyist for the company also kicked Richardson $500, and another U.S. Sugar executive threw in $1,000.

Virtually all of the major candidates — including the four mentioned plus Rodriguez and Rosen Gonzalez — have taken the usual donations from attorneys at major law firms who typically fund most local races, including lawyers at Akerman LP, Becker & Poliakoff, and Bilzin Sumberg.

Of course, the race's lack of farther-left candidates can also be chalked up to the simple fact that nobody from the South Florida progressive wing chose to run this year. Medina, the activist, acknowledges this fact and says he often struggles with answering why it never seems Miami can find compelling, viable candidates who believe in issues such as socialized medicine or police demilitarization. But he says that doesn't mean voters should let existing candidates get off without criticism.

"As voters, active members of the Democratic Party, we need to look into who is behind the campaigns and ask, 'Who are these people?'" he says. "Unfortunately, we need to be skeptical. If someone is taking money from these interests, who destroyed our economy in 2008, we need to be skeptical and call it out. We have to make them work hard for their money and come up with a message that inspires people."

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