Messy Politics Turn Miami Beach Commission Race Into Musical Chairs

City of Miami Beach
City of Miami Beach Photo by gregobagel / Getty Images
With a candidate field as crowded as the Miami Beach City Commission race and a flexible policy that allows challengers to change the seat they're running for at will (regardless of where they live in the city), things have a tendency to get, well, messy.

Fourteen candidates are vying for three open city commission seats on the November 2 ballot. Because the seats on the commission race are all at-large — referred to as "groups" (i.e. Groups 1 to 6) — and do not correspond with geographical districts, candidates can run in whatever group they desire and swap groups as many times as they'd like, too.

It's all fair game — that is, a game of musical chairs — as long as candidates have picked their seats by the time the music stops, which in this case is the qualifying deadline that passed on September 10. But some candidates tell New Times the chaotic system makes for hush-hush conversations and alleged under-the-table agreements about who can or should run for office, and against whom.

The 2021 cycle has been no exception, and in the days leading up to the September 10 deadline, one candidate was called a "fucking bitch" in an online candidate forum, another dropped out altogether, endorsement promises have been allegedly reneged on, and at least two candidates changed groups, one of them — Gregory Branch — did so for the second time this cycle, moving from Group 1 to Group 3 before returning to Group 1.

"I went back to Group 1 to avoid the cesspool of Group 3 and the gutter politics, and I just don't want to be a part of that," Gregory Branch tells New Times. "I had public officials lying to my face. So, shit, how can Group 1 be any worse?"

Part of his reason for the final switch, Branch says, can be traced to incumbent Group 3 commissioner Michael Góngora — who unsuccessfully argued in a lawsuit this summer that he should be eligible to seek a third term for an office that has a two-term limit — went back on a promise to endorse Branch if and when Góngora was deemed ineligible to run again. Instead, Branch says, Góngora filed to run for mayor in 2023 and endorsed an entirely new candidate: Alex Fernandez, who serves on the city planning board and previously served as chair of both the Police Citizens Relations Committee and the Miami Beach Hispanic Affairs Committee.

"While many new candidates have recently gotten involved in our city, Alex has been a part of our community for over 15 years," Góngora stated in a September 9 email announcing he'd no longer fight the term limitation. "He will not waste his time criticizing others in a desperate attempt for attention."

Text messages between Góngora and Branch, which were reviewed by New Times, appear to show the two agreeing to meet for breakfast on May 25 at Manolo restaurant in North Beach. The texts did not detail what was or would be discussed.

When reached by New Times, Góngora denied there was ever any such agreement with his former opponent.

"I was happy to bow out of the race," says Góngora, who sued the city in order to stay in the race, "and support someone I know is the most qualified to serve our community."

Also among those who switched groups at the tail end of the qualifying deadline was Fabián Basabe, best known as an affluent socialite who says he is largely self-funding his commission run.

Basabe originally filed to run in Group 1, which with four candidates is among the most crowded and hotly contested seats on the November slate. But prior to the September 10 deadline, he decided to run in Group 2 and attempt to unseat incumbent Mark Samuelian.

But a lawsuit filed earlier this week in Miami-Dade Circuit Court seeks to remove Basabe from the ballot, citing the candidate's recent voter-registration address in Bay Harbor Islands, and automatically hand four more years to Samuelian. The plaintiff is one of Samuelian's supporters (Miami Beach resident Jo Manning) who happens to be represented by Samuelian's campaign attorney, Juan-Carlos Planas.

Although Basabe concedes to New Times he did, indeed, vote in the 2020 general election under the Bay Harbor Islands address, he says he changed the address on his registration to reflect his Miami Beach residence, where he's lived with his wife and young son on and off since 2008, maintaining the property is their permanent address.

"It's our forever home," he says.

Basabe tells New Times the suit is a blatant attempt to prevent him from running because he switched groups.

"This is not just an attack on me," he declares, "but our democracy."
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Michael Majchrowicz is a staff writer at Miami New Times. He studied journalism at Indiana University and has reported for PolitiFact, The New York Times, Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times.