Just five months after facing allegations of ballot tampering after a WhatsApp chat was leaked to New Times, Miami-Dade County Commission District 1 candidate Alex Diaz de la Portilla is now accused of further misconduct on the campaign trail.
A get-out-the-vote effort turned ugly last Thursday after Diaz de la Portilla and a handful of individuals campaigning for him showed up at an Allapattah public housing complex to gin up support. A disagreement about whether Diaz de la Portilla had permission to campaign on the premises — and whether his team illicitly coerced voter activity — ultimately led Miami police to respond.
The dispute began last Wednesday at Three Round Towers (2920 NW 18th Ave.), a trio of apartment buildings for the elderly. That evening, members of Diaz de la Portilla's entourage knocked on multiple doors inside the high-rise complex, according to the president of the building's association, 75-year-old Miriam Rodriguez.
Rodriguez says residents complained to her that the campaign workers were scaring them and "forcing [them] to vote for de la Portilla." Absentee ballots for the November 5 Miami municipal election had just arrived at the complex, and residents say Diaz de la Portilla campaign workers made the rounds through the building to help residents fill out ballots and place them in the mail.
When two women knocked on her door, 74-year-old Zolay Tamayo told them she planned to vote for Diaz de la Portilla's District 1 opponent, Frank Pichel. According to Tamayo, the women suddenly changed their tune, instructing her to put her unopened ballot back into the outgoing mail slot without casting a vote. She says she complied.
"They did it to take away my opportunity to vote," Tamayo tells New Times. "I was exasperated and just wanted them to leave me alone. I couldn't sleep that night because of my nerves."
Rodriguez says she eventually confronted three of the campaign workers in the lobby — a woman wearing a Diaz de la Portilla campaign shirt, a man wearing a custom-made off-duty Miami Department of Fire-Rescue T-shirt, and an armed man in a Miami Police Department uniform who identified himself as Diaz de la Portilla's bodyguard. Rodriguez says she made it clear they were not welcome.
Rodriguez also made a phone call to Pichel, a personal contact who soon arrived. The Diaz de la Portilla supporters eventually left.
It wasn't until the campaign workers returned to the building Thursday afternoon, this time with Diaz de la Portilla himself, that Rodriguez called the cops. She waited for Miami police to arrive before heading down to the lobby. Pichel showed up once again, arriving a few minutes before police.
A commotion between Rodriguez and Diaz de la Portilla ensued soon thereafter. Rodriguez says the candidate called her a liar, a thief, a nobody, and "trash" and accused her of being a drug addict and an ex-convict.
"I told him to show some respect. He said I didn't deserve it," Rodriguez says. "I don't understand how someone can treat their elders like that."
Tamayo was among the crowd of elderly residents that gathered in the lobby to look on, though she says she couldn't hear the exact words because of all the yelling. Reached by New Times via text, Diaz de la Portilla declined to discuss the incidents and added, "Not with a fiction rag like yours."
According to a police report, Diaz de la Portilla had permission to be inside the facility, but only in one of the buildings. Three Round Towers is publicly owned, but one building — Tower A — is privately managed. Police say Diaz de la Portilla had consent to be in the "blue building," also known as Tower A.
But the building where he confronted Rodriguez — Tower B — is owned by the county, meaning he would have needed special permission from county administrators to campaign there. A Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development spokesperson tells New Times no such request was filed by Diaz de la Portilla's campaign.
Police records corroborate what Tamayo and Rodriguez told New Times. In the report, Tamayo told officers that the women "told her to put back her ballot in the mailbox." Rodriguez, meanwhile, explained she told the campaign workers "they could not be here."
Pichel says he's filing a complaint of ballot tampering against Diaz de la Portilla with the FBI. He says he already filed a complaint with the Miami Police Department regarding Diaz de la Portilla's self-described bodyguard, who wore plainclothes for his visit to the property Thursday rather than the uniform he had worn Wednesday. (It's worth noting that Pichel, who was fired from the Miami Police Department on three occasions and reinstated twice, showed up at the housing complex Thursday wearing a custom-made pink MPD badge and tie lapel. Asked why he wore the insignia, Pichel told New Times he is proud of his 27 years of service.)
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The police report says Diaz de la Portilla and his crew returned to Tower A after being informed they weren't welcome in the other buildings. There were no further issues.
The scuffle at the public housing complex is only the latest in a series of accusations against Diaz de la Portilla's campaign. In May, a leaked WhatsApp group chat appeared to show members of his campaign discussing destroying or stealing absentee ballots from voters who selected one of Diaz de la Portilla's opponents. In one case, someone wrote "Byebye" below a photo of a ballot marked for Diaz de la Portilla's opponent. Another person in the chat responded, "Eliminada."
Early voting for the Miami municipal election is set to begin Saturday. Voters have until 5 p.m. that day to request an absentee ballot.