Wicked Game


 One campaign piece featured a 2013 mayoral candidate with brothers Raul and Fidel Castro and evocative language in Spanish somehow linking the candidate to two of the most reviled individuals among South Florida voters.

Previous campaign mailers in the past linked another candidate – now a member of the city commission – with a lengthy history of lawbreaking.

Still others, past and present and in both mailer/flyer format and digital form subtly and not so subtly are obviously intended to incite racial divide, reference orientation issues negatively and employ similar techniques.

Maybe it’s little wonder, then, that Emilio Gomez, 22, hates retrieving mail from his family’s Miami Beach mailbox.

“I remember when I was a teenager, we would get like four or five mailers about candidates every day for a month or so before an election,” said Gomez. “I was fascinated at first because if you read them, you’d think that all of the candidates for office in Miami Beach were junkies, perverts and thieves. Isn’t that a Cher song?”

Gomez said that in high school, his parents sat him down and explained politics and the nature of campaigns.

“Basically they said that most politicians will say anything to get elected and that we shouldn’t pay any attention to what’s said in campaigns – particularly when it comes to what they say about their opponents,” he added. “What politicians say about their opponents is even less reliable than any promises they make.”

Even though he’s been fascinated by the election process since youth, Gomez said he was surprised at a recent flyer apparently doctored to show mayoral candidate Philip Levine with the Castro brothers.

“I can’t believe anyone is still using something like that,” Gomez said.

The Castro flyer, in Spanish and apparently intended for Spanish-speaking Miami Beach voters had a return P.O Box address for an organization called “Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility,” however the copy acquired by SunPost was a scanned one and SunPost cannot entirely guarantee is represents the presumed bulk of others mailed to other Miami Beach voters.

Dirty politicking, whether between campaigns officially, or involving third parties either openly or secretly aligned with one candidate or another, has long been a hallmark of elections in Miami Beach. But is the 2013 election, particularly the mayoral race, uglier than previous contests?

“Honestly I didn’t pay attention the past few years because I am off at school most of the time, but the Castro thing…really? Really?” Gomez said. “That seems kind of sleazy considering its 2013.”

Prominent Beach community activist Frank Del Vecchio, however, sees a different variation in this year’s politicking.

“I see a difference this year,” Del Vecchio said. “Previously, negative ads were individually directed.  This year I see evidence of a concerted theme by the incumbents running for election to characterize the opposition as anti-Hispanic. I have a feeling that we will be seeing more of the anti-Hispanic smear which is a desperation tactic as the theme of accountability and change gains momentum.”

Del Vecchio specifically cited the Castro mailer and also accusations made in a public forum again Levine by an unnamed individual also labeling Levine as anti-Hispanic.

Last week, the Miami New Times’ “Riptide” column tied Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility to charismatic Miami Beach publicist/political consultant Randy Hilliard, who has been a key player in Commissioner Michael Gongora’s campaign for mayor against Levine and entertainer-activist Steve Berke. New Times also documented more than $17,000 in funding for Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility came from an organization tied directly to Gongora’s mother. Gongora indicated to New Times that his mother is isn’t involved in the Miami Beach election.

Levine isn’t having that, however.

“Independent political groups have the right to free speech as well and I sympathize with Miami Beach residents who have distaste for independent attack advertisements that residents are ambushed with every election cycle,” Levine said. “I only control what my campaign’s account pays for and sends (anything with this: Political advertisement paid for and approved by Philip Levine for Mayor of Miami Beach). Commissioner’s Gongora’s deceitful attack operation has been uncovered by the Miami New Times; his mother was the registered agent of a Nevada corporation that contributed nearly $18,000 to the Florida Electioneering Communication Organization (ECO), Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, that has been attacking me for several weeks. In one of the direct mail pieces, sent to Spanish-speaking voters, my photo appears with photos of Raul and Fidel Castro, and alleges that I have conducted business with a private firm that has ties to the communist regime – this could not be further from the truth and is an insult to the elderly Hispanic community. A second direct mailer alleges that I pocketed $8,000,000 from the Sunset Harbour. This mailer is a deceitful lie because the $8,000,000 was paid to Tremont Towing and the mailer fails to mention that Commissioner Gongora voted to fund the project that was paid for by Parking Impact Funds.

“The false attacks against me are exacerbated since the entity, Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility is willfully trying to hide its donors — see the Miami New Times article,” Levine continued. “It is my hope that Miami Beach residents consider and judge my campaign for mayor based on my record and platform, instead of misleading accusations and attacks being communicated by my opponents.  I will continue to spread my message of fixing what’s broken and making things work to enhance the quality of life for Miami Beach residents.”

Gongora, who endured particularly virulent attacks in his first campaign on Miami Beach to emerge victorious, said he has been the target of attacks as well.

“As the only qualified candidate to be mayor, I anticipated one of my opponents might resort to sleazy negative attacks of my record as commissioner,” Gongora told SunPost. “Recently, that opponent tried to hoodwink the voters of Miami Beach with a direct mail attack that deliberately misrepresents my service to our community. Presumably, wealthy developer Philip Levine, who has already spent around $1,000,000 of his own money trying to buy himself the mayoral seat, paid for mailing this fiction.  All too often, negative campaigning goes hand in hand with candidates who have no record of community service.  Of course, this opponent has no experience or record of ever working with or toward improving our community. In the over 20 years he’s spent in this community, he has barely bothered to vote, only voting twice in a municipal election. He arrogantly says, ‘There was no one to vote for.’ I ask one thing: Since he had never been involved in our community, how would he know?”

  “My opponent is trying to distract our residents from the fact that he has never provided leadership on solving any of our community issues,” continued Gongora. “I worked on a comprehensive plan to alleviate flooding. Yet, he continually tears down the collective efforts of my colleagues and me in our largely successful quest to make Miami Beach a better place today and tomorrow.  My opponent’s hollow tactics are no kind of leadership, vision or commitment to the people of Miami Beach. How can one who has never participated or contributed endeavor to lead?  It simply does not work.”

“Miami Beach’s number one product is tourism,” concluded Gongora. “The convention center generates over $200 million in economic activity – jobs — for Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County. If the leaders of Miami Beach do not focus on strengthening tourism, how does my opponent think he will get all those people to his Sunset Harbour garage to park, shop and eat?  And speaking of the Sunset Harbour project… Philip Levine financed his project with Miami Beach tax dollars. He has reaped millions of dollars in profits on the taxpayers’ backs. In a classic case of bait and switch, he promised the city that one of the reasons to build the new garage would be to move 128 city-owned vehicles from the middle of Flamingo Park. However, with little fanfare and even less transparency, those vehicles have never been moved to their new home at my opponent’s garage/retail venture with the city.  I did not vote in favor of this garage project. Has my opponent compensated the City accordingly?  This is truly why he wants to be mayor — not to serve our residents, but, sadly, to make more money off of them. Thankfully, Miami Beach voters are smarter than to fall for a sham like that!”

Steve Berke, former athlete, comedian, YouTube sensation and another mayoral candidate takes the whole concept of negative campaigning in stride.

“Elections are a zero sum game,” said Berke. “The stakes are high and they can be brutal. Negative campaigning is a necessary part of politics. Do voters really only want to know what is good about a candidate? And, with that being said, what candidate is going to talk about his own faults? It is up to the opposition to do that in order to draw distinctions between candidates. I welcome any shots my opponents take against me – just as long as they are true.”

Berke, though, said he believes in standing by one’s own negative campaigning.

“I believe that if a campaign or candidate has something to say then they should say it openly,” he said. “I do not believe in hiding behind a PAC or an ECO to deliver negative information about an opponent. We have seen Levine attack Gongora this way, and Gongora has the ‘Prince of Darkness,’ Randy Hilliard, as his hitman. I think if someone has something negative to say about an opponent he should grow a pair, stand up like a man, and say it.”

Del Vecchio pointed out that there is such thing as fair negative campaigning – campaign rhetoric that draws fair distinction between candidates. He said he had received a contrast ad comparing commission candidate Joy Malakoff to Bower, characterizing Bower — the current mayor now running for a 2013 commission seat — as “an entrenched 14-year politician at city hall.” He said that is a fair contrast emphasizing the term limits loophole Bower is exploiting.

“A mailer with the same charge: Bower is an entrenched 14-year politician at city hall, focuses on the ‘spirit and intent of term limits in Miami Beach.’  That is a substantively fair assertion,” Del Vecchio wrote to SunPost in reply to an inquiry about 2013 negative campaigning.

As far as SunPost is concerned, the newspaper’s owner and publisher, Kim Stark, said her editorial board long ago made a decision about exploitative reporting on negative campaigning.

“It isn’t something we are interested in playing up, although we recognize that other media outlets, particularly online ‘media,’ enjoys exploiting things like this, playing it up and contributing to the ugliness of the election process,” said Stark, whose family has owned and operated the independent paper for decades. SunPost’s role in the Save Miami Beach referendum earned it praise from sources as disparate as the Miami New Times and the Columbia Journalism Review. “We’ve been here a long time and have been through so many elections, we simply choose to report on facts and issues and not on innuendo and skewed perspectives, no matter the source. If a candidate has documentation of outright criminal activity, an indictment or court documents demonstrating guilt of some crime… we would have a look at. But that’s not the kind of negative campaigning that has dominated Miami Beach elections and we can’t be bothered with nonsense, since unlike other newspapers, we are a Miami Beach-specific paper.

“Nor will such negativity impact on our upcoming endorsement process,” Stark added.

Meanwhile, Steve Berke is one candidate who says he’s ready for any negative attack on him.

“Attacks against me? Bring ‘em on. I’ll address them as they come,” Berke said.

About Michael W Sasser

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