As the coronavirus pandemic hit Florida last March, Miami Beach Commissioner Ricky Arriola raised a radical topic of discussion with his fellow commissioners: What if the city deliberately infected its first responders with the virus so they could develop antibodies?
The suggestion — which Arriola told New Times was purely speculative — was widely panned on social media, most notably by many firefighters and police officers.
It also marked the beginning of a series of controversial statements by Arriola about COVID-19. In the past year, the city commissioner has called news coverage of the pandemic "panic porn," likened mask-wearing to virtue-signaling, and tweeted an article from the far-right conspiracy website Gateway Pundit calling to "jail Fauci," in reference to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the lead members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
In August, after the "jail Fauci" tweet caused a public outcry, Miami-Dade Democratic Party chair Steve Simeonidis threatened to initiate a recall effort to unseat Arriola.
Now, months later amid another social-media scandal, Simeonidis and other members of the local Democratic Party are once again calling for the removal of Arriola, a registered Democrat who serves in a nonpartisan seat on the Miami Beach City Commission.
"We're seriously considering moving forward with a recall effort," Simeonidis tells New Times. "On a number of different levels, he has just been absolutely disastrous for the people of Miami Beach, and those residents deserve far better representation than he can offer them."
On Tuesday night, Arriola got into a heated Twitter exchange with Miami documentary filmmaker Billy Corben. Corben called Arriola a "yutz" and a "full COVID denier." Arriola responded by calling Corben "Billy the bitch" and referring to Corben by his legal name, Billy Cohen.
Corben tells New Times that his former agent suggested he adopt the stage name "Billy Corben" when he was a child actor in the '90s. The intention was to give the aspiring actor an even playing field when he went out for auditions; Corben says he remembers casting directors calling him a "nice Jewish boy," which didn't always translate to landing parts.
The filmmaker says the stage name stuck, and he has used it professionally for years.
"It's not a secret or anything, and certainly not is it to deny my heritage," he says.
Corben says his critics often invoke his legal name in arguments, which he believes is an anti-Semitic dog whistle. "It's the equivalent of pointing and saying 'Jew.' That's what it is."
Entering the Twitter exchange, Simeonidis called Arriola "anti-Semitic trash." Another top member of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, William Byatt, said yesterday that he would introduce a resolution to censure Arriola "for his rampant racism, dangerous COVID lies, and behavior wildly unbecoming of an elected official."
A resolution is basically a statement of opinion by an elected body — in this case, leaders of the local Democratic Party. A vote to censure Arriola would be mostly symbolic, since the party has no grounds to punish or seek action against the commissioner. But Byatt, a member of the county party's executive committee, says it would serve as a warning to Arriola and act as a formal document showing that the party's leadership has serious reservations about his conduct.
Byatt intends to bring the resolution to a vote at the party's next virtual meeting on February 9. He says he would welcome Arriola's attendance at the meeting and would give him an opportunity to address the voting members if he chose to do so.
Arriola did not respond to two phone messages or an email from New Times. On Twitter, he responded to Byatt with a link accusing Byatt of anti-Semitic ideology for his viewpoints on Israel.
Although it's rare for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party to rebuke one of its own elected officials, it's not unprecedented. In 2017, party leaders voted on a statement asking Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, a Democrat, to resign after her office declined to prosecute prison guards in the death of Darren Rainey, an inmate with schizophrenia. And in 2018, the party sent a letter to Democratic state Sen. Daphne Campbell asking her to account for a political mailer that made it appear as if she was a Republican.
Byatt tells New Times that it's important for the Democratic Party to hold its own members accountable, even if doing so creates negative publicity.
"We welcome people not just of different backgrounds and histories and personal experiences, but also people of different ideological and policy viewpoints," he says. "However, we have a core set of values that we must remain loyal to in order to be an authentic representation of the people."
In Arriola's case, Byatt says he was spurred to action by a January 6 Facebook post in which the city commissioner compared looting during the Black Lives Matter protests to the riots at the U.S. Capitol.
"Commissioner Arriola has gone off the deep end of COVID conspiracies," Byatt says. "That has just escalated over the past several months to a statement comparing sedition to civil-rights protests. That was the breaking point for me."
Simeonidis shared Arriola's Facebook post on Twitter last week and called for him to resign.
Going a step further, Simeonidis now says a recall is warranted.
"I view the party as a mechanism to hold our folks to account, and Ricky Arriola has crossed the line so many times," he tells New Times. "We need to remove him from office. It's become untenable."
Arriola was first elected in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. His current term ends in 2023.
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